Covid-19 & the new "normal"

15th June 2020

The coronavirus crisis has had, and continues to have, a devastating impact around the world. Despite the challenges, many companies have adapted what they do to meet these. As a new start-up company without entrenched working arrangements it has been a real learning opportunity, causing us to question some of our assumptions about the most effective way to provide our services and enabling us to live up to our commitment to be agile. We are not alone in this; many organisations are thinking about what working in the “new normal” looks like and how we can #GoBackBetter.

To quote a well-worn phrase “necessity is the mother of invention”, and that is certainly the impact that COVID-19 is having on most businesses as they reframe what they do and how they do it.

At Capital Letters, we work to prevent and relieve homelessness across London by procuring accommodation from private landlords and managing agents on behalf of our 17 member boroughs enabling them to meet their responsibilities and find homes for homeless households.

As a new not-for-profit company, we are still finding our feet and the current pandemic has required us to change the way we work very early in our lifecycle; however, it’s also taught us a few things.



Collaboration is the key to the future

Capital Letters is built on collaborative working. Our mission is working in partnership to solve the homelessness crisis across London – creatively, innovatively, collaboratively and relentlessly. This is what we do every day but during this pandemic collaboration has become even more important. There needs to be a consistent, joined up and holistic approach to solving homelessness generally otherwise nothing will change. In response we have extended our collaborative partnership working beyond our usual partners and activities and continue to explore new opportunities for collaboration.

We’ve extended our service, with the support of MHCLG, working as part of the pan-London Rough Sleeping Task Force by specifically procuring safe, self-contained accommodation for our member boroughs enabling them to move rough sleepers from hotels into homes. It’s a small but vital part in achieving the overarching ambition of keeping #EveryoneInForGood. This is a phenomenal achievement and has taken a lot of work to get all the organisations involved working together in a concerted and consistent way, without tripping over each other or competing for scarce resources.

The key takeaway from this is that such collaboration and partnership working can’t and shouldn’t be a one-off in response to a particular issue or crisis. We can’t go backwards; this has to be part of BAU in the “new normal” as only in this way can we harness the skills and experience of our respective organisations to maximise opportunities to achieve an impact and a greater good that is beyond what individual organisations can achieve on their own. And the added value is better use and targeting of resources, joined up working and ultimately efficiency savings.


Trust is reliant on social interaction – usually!

In the normal world, pre-CV-19, our procurement team (some 60% or our workforce) work remotely (away from the office) and are constantly in contact with landlords and managing agents arranging meetings with them or viewing and inspecting properties. This has been traditionally a key element of the way in which we provide our services: building relationships and rapport based on social interaction and trust so the team can procure enough properties to meet the demands of our member boroughs.

Even as a new organisation it’s easy to fall back on the “we’ve always done it this way” mantra. And in terms of procurement of homes in London this is certainly true; there is a way that it is “usually” done.

However, in response to CV-19 we have had to rethink how we continue to meet this fundamental service requirement. Our member boroughs still need good quality properties for homeless households over and above those we’re procuring to support the rough sleeping initiative; people becoming homelessness hasn’t stopped because of the pandemic. Therefore, our team has had to adapt, finding properties using new and different tactics, which are interestingly proving to be more effective and efficient.

Working remotely and from home does require higher levels of trust from organisational leaders – you can’t “see” what your team are doing, you have to trust that the results and outcomes will be achieved. And our team have to trust what our landlords tell them – the team now “inspect” properties using photos and videos, and whilst it hasn’t all been plain sailing, it is working well and is proving to be a more cost effective and efficient use of our time and resources. Pre-CV-19, the team spent a good proportion of their days travelling around London, time which they can now spend finding more properties from the comfort of their homes which is far more efficient and cost effective. Our productivity is on the up despite relying on these digital resources and this increase in trust has helped us build key relationships both

internally and externally. We are consciously coming back better as a result of this experience. We will be adapting what we have learnt as a result of this experiment to change permanently how we work in the future, with some tweaks to introduce some inspections and quality auditing of our properties to ensure standards are maintained.


The benefits of agile working

From the day we started operating, we have consciously set out to have an agile, inclusive working environment. However, we’re seeing agile working in a whole new light. None of our staff have been furloughed and we are actively using all the tools available to us to continue to grow and develop. We, like many other companies, use technologies such as Teams and Zoom for all of our meetings – including Board meetings – and for regular social events to keep connected with each other. We have developed our virtual induction programme so that we are still able to recruit which is our life-blood and are actively using Yammer as our team communications tool. However, we’re still only learning about the capabilities of these tools – particularly Teams and the way it links to SharePoint – and therefore the way we construct our internal operating model. Throughout lockdown and beyond, we will continue to explore, proactively develop and improve how we use these tools for the benefit of our business, our team, members and other stakeholders.


And what of the future?

So, bringing this together, whilst the lockdown has been very difficult in some ways, the silver lining has been the opportunity to rethink, recalibrate and improve.

It has also caused us to consider whether we need an office in the future, and if we do, what type of space we really need. We still need to get over the barrier of public transport, as many of our team are reliant on this to travel to work which will remain a challenge. However, the other reflection is that the social connection and interaction between our colleagues is also a vital part of our make-up; we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and lose the intrinsic elements of what makes us a great company. And so some of the money we’ll be saving on our office costs could be reinvested in staff engagement activities, whilst continuing to drive and achieve greater value for money. These are all things we are thinking more about as part of our lockdown-easing post-CV-19 future planning.

By Sue Coulson


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