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10th May 2020|News|

How Centrick handled the outbreak – a people perspective

Centrick’s HR Director, Gemma Powell, discusses how the Covid-19 pandemic affected the people behind Centrick and how the business pulled together to combat it…

On Tuesday 17th March 2020 I was leaving the office to work from home; I called my husband mid-commute and remember him saying “savour your last day of normality.” There was an element of humour in his tone. I don’t think either of us really had any idea of what lay ahead. That was the last time I was in the office and the last time I walked along a busy street in a heavily populated Birmingham city centre.

Following the initial outbreak of Covid-19 in the UK, there was of course a feeling of shock as we began our journey along the change curve. Centrick is a fast-paced business with a history of growth through the recession of 2007/8; so our leadership team has the experience to adapt and take a pro-active approach to keeping the business on track. With prior investment into our infrastructure we were able to change our business model in a matter of days to around 90% of staff working remotely. We were also able to deploy our sales & lettings colleagues, before lockdown, to record video footage of most of our stock so that we could continue to service customer needs remotely. As a result, we’ve been able to help those in desperate need to move during the lockdown; mainly key workers moving to protect their families and be closer to their place of work.

Employee Experience

What we do now matters. As soon as this crisis began, we, like most other businesses, put a recruitment freeze in place. So, for the foreseeable we have an audience of staff witnessing first-hand how well we handle all this. The responsibility is enormous. When life next resembles any sense of normality and the recruitment market reopens, we of course hope to remain their employer of choice.

Now, more than ever, internal communication is paramount. We send out a daily updates and regular videos using our internal social media channel, Yammer. We keep people informed of the changes set out by the government, we promote healthy work / life management and encourage participation in company-wide competitions such as “The Great Centrick Bake Off” and “Home DIY: Before and After”. We continue to spend our reward budget running these initiatives, our benefits platform and Employee Assistance Programme as well as the Centrick Legends Awards; our take on Employee of the Month, because we believe our people deserve it.

In some respects, we are feeling closer to our colleagues than we may have been before. We’ve seen our colleague’s pets, children, homes and we are gaining an insight into their world which we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. And we’re trying to have some fun with this too; encouraging fancy dress and bringing a bit of the usual office banter into a weekly Zoom session on a Friday afternoon with “The Centrick Arms” complete with a pub quiz (bring your own beverage of course).

Investing in our People

After the Government announced the extension to lockdown “where there’s turmoil, there’s opportunity” was the consensus of one of our Operations Board catch up calls.

In a people context, the opportunity lies in using this time for us to become mentally, physically and professionally stronger. Our resident Mental Health First Aider and Associate Director of Tenancy Services, Chris Whiley provides support and tips for keeping healthy, with regular internal communication features. We understand that people will be struggling in very different ways with challenges around routine, isolation and dealing with change, so Chris’s support really helps boost morale. We’ve changed the usual “how are you?” to “what’s your number?”, on a scale of 1-10, so we can better gauge and spot where people may be needing some extra help.

Prior to the outbreak, in response to staff feedback, we were working on a project to introduce a new learning management system to support us in upskilling our staff. We questioned whether we should hold off from this project but decided to take the opportunity to encourage all staff to develop their skills and grow their potential. It’s our hope that by building our resilience, our technical knowhow and our emotional intelligence, we’ll be able to come back to the new normal in a stronger position.

A big challenge for us is around our current productivity and how we manage our employees remotely. In recent weeks our sickness rates have declined dramatically. Why is this? Are less staff ill or are they less likely to call in sick because they’re working from home? So, we are focusing on evaluating how we manage success and ensure we are confident as line managers that our teams are still achieving their goals – which could mean we’re more productive with less absence – it’s a lesson learned from a crisis that has forced us to change the way in which we work.

The People Function

The HR profession has evolved greatly over time. Following on from the days of staff welfare we found ourselves in a role criticised as the “fun police”, best known for whipping out a policy and holding everyone to account. For many years now we’ve been doing our best to demonstrate our value within organisations, vying for a seat at the table. And it’s now we’re needed more than ever; to communicate, to coach, to support, to navigate through change and ultimately step up and show our talent.

For me there’s a real conscious effort required to keep checking in with my stakeholders to make sure I understand what our teams are facing so that I can continuously adapt our people strategy and internal communication to suit. I think the challenge is trying to speak to a wide and dispersed audience including everyone and being mindful of the different circumstances they may be in. That’s no mean feat and it’s tough sometimes but thankfully I have a good support system in place.

A Changing Landscape

Prior to this, the narrative was constantly supporting less screen time, more physical social interaction with people and encouragement to take a break from social media. Now, we are thankful we can rely on the technology we have (well most of the time!). I am also both proud and grateful for the culture we’ve created within Centrick. We are forgiving and understanding toward one another; we know there are parents within our business juggling full time work and suddenly, full time home-schooling on top – but right now, there’s nothing any of us can do but make the most out of this challenging time.

There is still so much uncertainty on a global scale. Will we be able to salvage a slice of what was set to be a successful summer season? Will our staff get to go on those booked and paid for summer holiday’s this year? Or will this be our new reality for a long time to come? One thing’s for sure, the world will never be the same again as social distancing creates a cultural shift on how we interact with each other in the future. And, how we turn the term “social distancing” as actually we should be distancing physically whilst increasing our emotional and social connections.

We may soon be catapulted into a world of offering flexibility in our approach to work whilst technology has proven we can maintain a level of ‘business as usual’ during this time. We will be alongside those businesses who were previously dancing around the idea of agile working; too nervous to make the leap, worried about what that might mean for the customer. Without the previous train journey to a client meeting or usual commute to a workplace each day, our ability to do our bit to support the greater carbon footprint issue will be possible.

Our exceptional Centrick family have continued to operate and support our customers throughout this crisis and we’ve tried to do our bit to help those key workers on the frontline. Whether it’s for NHS staff or other key workers requiring a short term let due to otherwise living with a vulnerable person or urgent accommodation required for a variety of reasons, we’ve been able to jump online to conduct a virtual viewing and provide support to those who are supporting us all. Further information about our virtual viewings and our instant online valuation tool can be found on our website: www.centrick.co.uk.