Purpose Magazine
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Purpose Magazine

Q&A: David Done, Chief Executive, RHP

How RHP has built an innovative culture that leads the social housing sector

David Done, Chief Executive, RHP. Image credit: RHP

Providing safe and sustainable housing for all is one of the world’s biggest challenges. To achieve this goal, housing providers of all kinds need to tap into innovation and fresh thinking.

This is especially true in the social housing sector, made up of companies with social missions who are under increasing pressure to do more with less. By embracing new technologies and rethinking old ways of working, future-focused social landlords are transforming their commercial capabilities and thus enhancing their ability to deliver social good.

RHP is one such organisation. Whether it’s prototyping modular homes or pioneering an all-digital service, RHP’s 256 employees are leading the way in creating innovative solutions to housing challenges. That’s why the social landlord, which manages over 10,000 homes in London, regularly tops innovation rankings within the housing association sector.

Purpose spoke to chief executive David Done about how RHP has managed to build and maintain a culture of innovation, and how the housing association is tackling the 21st century’s most critical housing challenges.

Q. Why is innovation so important to the future of the social housing sector?

The challenge for housing, and indeed for any business, is to deliver higher and higher quality services while reducing costs. That requires innovation. Innovation allows us to deliver a more efficient, value-for-money service for customers, and it allows us to release savings and resources to build more homes.

There is a huge shortage of housing for people in this country, including young people who now have no chance to get on the housing ladder. As a sector, we have to stay super-innovative to respond. That includes changing our mindset about what people want and need from a home.

Q. What stops some housing associations from thinking innovatively?

Bear in mind that many housing associations have been around for a long time. The more history there is, the harder change can be. I think that’s true of any organisation.

The other thing to understand about housing is that people are just really busy running housing services and building homes, so creating the space and environment for innovation can be very difficult.

Q. What steps have you taken to build a culture of innovation at RHP?

We see innovation as the most critical factor for our future success. That’s reflected in how we lead, and in the environment we create.

It’s vitally important that people at all levels of the organisation can speak openly about the challenges we face and what we’re trying to achieve. So we create lots of opportunities for people to talk, and great ideas come out of that.

Q. How exactly how you create these opportunities?

Some of the opportunities come from natural processes within the business. We are great believers in team huddles and briefings, where we talk about the issues of the week.

But we also host more structured forums for people across the business to come together. For example, we run our “4x4” sessions, a Dragon’s Den-style event where colleagues pitch new ideas to each other — four ideas for four minutes each — which we then vote on. We also have a debating society where people discuss the issues of the day, which also tends to spark some great ideas.

We look outside for inspiration as well. We’ve had a bomb disposal expert come in to talk about risk management, Gerald Ratner talking about resilience and bouncing back, and a professional poker player talking about taking risks. People come out of those sessions buzzing, and we talk about the ideas for days afterwards.

Q. How do you then translate these ideas into action?

Crucially, we back up promising new ideas with real resources. We put real budgets behind them, give our people a proper amount of time to invest in developing them, as well as providing them with coaching and support to take the ideas forward.

Q. What kind of failure rate is acceptable for new ideas?

We take a balanced and sensible approach. While we are involved in a lot of amazing creativity and innovation, our starting point is always to make sure that we do the simple things really well. We are very careful about risk — we’re not gung-ho about doing things and not worrying about the consequences. We’re constantly trying things out, taking measured risks.

That said, we’ve fostered a culture where it’s OK to fail. It’s understood that not every innovation will work.

One of RHP’s “LaunchPod” homes. Image credit: RHP

Q. In your view, should housing associations be seeking more inspiration from outside of the sector?

Definitely. We are constantly coming across all kinds of interesting companies doing work around reimagining housing, and we want to position ourselves to partner with them. Tech companies are doing extraordinary things to make homes better places to live and easier places to manage. Take modular housing: you can build components in a factory, deliver them by lorry and kit them out with digital service systems so that people can pay rent and order repairs online. All of those ideas are coming from the service and technology sectors.

We are tapping into this by deliberately recruiting people from a range of different sectors outside of housing, including tech. This has really impacted our culture and our way of thinking, to the point where it’s become a defining feature. People from these sectors are used to working creatively — in fact, they expect it.

We’ve also taken part in a housing startup incubator, which gave startups a chance to work closely with us, get access to our data, and develop projects. We worked with seven different startups, all of which were based in our office for several months. This meant that our employees got to mix with people who have a totally different way of thinking.

Q. What’s the biggest challenge in building and maintaining an innovative culture in the social housing sector?

Perhaps our main challenge is attract and retain the best people. We are trying to find people who want to change the world in big and small ways, but those are the same people that all leading companies want! So we have to position ourselves as one of the best employers in the UK, even though housing has not always been seen as the most attractive place to work, despite the increasing creativity in the sector.

It’s hard to teach people to be creative or innovative, to some extent you either get it or you don’t. To remain innovative, we have to attract people who are naturally equipped to enjoy and relish challenges. Without them, you can’t create an environment where other people feel they can be creative and innovative. It’s a self-perpetuating circle — if you bring them in, they create the environment you need, as long as you encourage and support that way of working.

Q. Which changes and trends require the most innovation on the part of social landlords?

The way people live is changing, and their housing needs are changing along with that. This means that the range of houses we need to provide is becoming more diverse all of the time. That’s what’s great about modular tech: it allows us to build more cheaply and quickly, but also more flexibly.

We are experimenting with much smaller homes for single young people, many of whom are currently living in shared houses or bedsits. Take our LaunchPod house, designed for single young people in West London. That’s a really good example of how we are rethinking what a home looks like, in order to serve an emerging market’s needs. This is already a massive trend all over the world, not just in the UK.

From a service perspective, we’ve seen that people now want to have instant access to businesses — they are used to superfast, easy access to day-to-day normal things. We’ve learnt from this and responded. For example, we realised that many people don’t want to phone us: they want to go online to pay rent or book a repair, and they want to be able to do it from any device.

That’s why we became the first housing association to deliver a fully digital housing service. 75% of our customer service business is now done online, compared to a standing start 7 years ago. It’s a massive shift, and people were unsure if this was a right way to go, including some customers. But we realised that if we didn’t invest in it now, it will likely create challenges in the future. We are now also looking at applications for Alexa-type voice control.

Q. Are you investing in smart city technology?

Absolutely. Technology is changing everything, and can change the way we deliver housing services in ways we never would have thought of five or ten years ago.

We basically innovate in two main ways: we deliver the traditional housing model digitally, and then we try to imagine and design ahead of the future. That means both thinking about how you build the house in the first place, i.e. modular housing, and then thinking about what you put in those homes to make them brilliant places to live. You want them to be a real joy to live in, as well as being easy to manage, because that frees up more resources to build more houses.

For example, we are speaking to companies about new battery tech that allows residents to store energy for use at peak times and drive down fuel bills. There are also devices that can help to monitor the activity of vulnerable people, and let loved ones know that they are OK. And finally, there is now tech that allows us to predict when appliances and things in homes break down, which both saves us money by reducing service costs and improves life for the customer.

To find out more about how to build a culture of innovation, get in touch with The House about Future Housing Lab, a new partnership that brings together experts in housing, innovation and people-centred tech strategy. Call us on 01225 780000 or email steve@thehouse.co.uk.

[Disclaimer: we are sharing RHP’s story here for inspiration and to spread exciting ideas throughout the sector. No endorsement of The House or Future Housing Lab by RHP is implied.]

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