HR Director of the Year Fiona Deal: coping with coronavirus through culture change

Fiona Deal collects her HR Director of the Year award in 2019.

A three-year cultural transformation programme at Network Homes has made the housing association resilient and able to cope with the challenges of Covid-19. Personnel Today talked to 2019 HR director of the year Fiona Deal about how this was achieved. 

Personnel Today Awards 2020

Entries for the Personnel Today Awards 2020, which includes the HR Director of the Year category, are now open. The awards take place at the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane in November 2020.

Fiona Deal, executive director of people and technology at housing association Network Homes, has written a blog every working day since 26 February.

Sometimes it has just been a few lines to share sickness data during the coronavirus pandemic, others have been longer communications on the actions the organisation is taking to support employees, or acknowledging the tough situations faced by front-line staff who are working in care schemes where elderly residents have died from the virus. 

Deal, who was voted HR director of the year in the 2019 Personnel Today Awards, feels that Network Homes has been well-placed to cope with the challenges posed by Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown. “We send out regular surveys to ask how people are coping – whether they can manage at home, how their work-life balance is, whether they feel anxious. We’re in daily contact with employee forums and the feedback is we’re handling this well,” she says.

Bringing harmony

However, when she joined the organisation in 2015 initially as a consultant, the culture needed attention. A failed merger had become a distraction for employees and customer satisfaction was falling. Deal gave the CEO her verdict on what needed to happen: “I told them ‘The good news is, you’re good. The bad news is, you’re good. The truth is, you’re nowhere near as good as you could be’.” 

At the time, the organisation was made up of a parent company and six subsidiaries, so work tended to happen in silos. Deal had already worked with another London housing association to deliver culture change and within weeks had been taken on as head of HR permanently. She created a three-year people and culture agenda with the central principle that happy staff mean  happy customers and so drive business benefit. 

On top of the culture change, she also needed to harmonise seven sets of pay and conditions, despite the fact that three previous attempts at doing so had failed. She rebranded the HR department as the People and Culture team and they rewrote job descriptions, salary benchmarked every role, updated policies and created new ones. They delivered harmonisation in six months at a cost of £350,000, and every employee signed up to the new terms and conditions in March 2016. 

Behaviours and values

Fiona and her team then developed ROCKSTAR, a set of behaviours and leadership values that would provide a framework for leadership and management development. The acronym stands for role model, open and honest, coach, knowledgeable, staff-focused, team-builder, achievement focused and recognises contribution. There was 360-degree feedback for all managers and the learning was backed up by coaching and mentoring. 

ROCKSTAR was coupled with a cultural engagement plan, aiming to embed Network Homes’ HART values (hungry, accountable, respectful, together). HR set up roadshows to showcase “what great looks like” in terms of mindset, language and actions needed to achieve it. On a policy level, the HR team also introduced a new pay and benefits system to complement the newly harmonised workforce, new approaches to talent management and more flexibility for workers. 

Establishing a strong employer brand was a core part of the strategy. “What do we want to be known for? Why do people come to work here and why do they stay? How do we unlock discretionary effort? We focused for three years on getting this right, through communications, L&D, succession planning,” she adds. The work paid off, and the company met Deal’s ambition of entering the Sunday Times Top 100 companies to work for in 2018. 

Network Homes’ turnaround is also clear through business measures such as absence and customer satisfaction. In 2015, absence sat at 11 days per person, and is now around 4.5 days a year. Staff turnover was 24.6%, and is now around half, saving thousands in recruitment and training costs. Customer satisfaction has risen by 15% to 89.2%. 

With the culture and values now embedded, the shift to the majority of the workforce operating from home has been fairly smooth. Those who are unable to work due to government restrictions have been redeployed – for example phoning vulnerable residents to check in on them or revising standard forms and templates to meet temporary requirements. This has meant the organisation has not had to place anyone on furlough, says Deal. 

Looking forward

The priority now is to look at a phased return to work. Last week HR sent out a survey asking employees how they feel about working from home, whether they’d like more flexibility to do so once lockdown ends. She plans to share the results through one of her daily updates.

“Most things are openly discussed – that’s how you know whether your culture is real,” she says. “It’s important that they hear from me as someone on the executive team. There’s a weekly emergency meeting with the board and I share what we’ve talked about.” 

Deal is looking forward to acting as judge for this year’s HR director of the year award, and is “looking for someone who puts their money where their mouth is”. “My role is in leading an organisation’s culture and values – as HRD you must embody that brand and those values.” 

There has arguably never been a better time than this challenging period to demonstrate just how solid a culture Deal and the Network Homes team have built. 

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