"I might be professionally biased as Executive Director of People & Culture, but the success of any merger hinges on how well you bring colleagues together. Get that right and everything else should fall into place. It’s a hugely complex and time-consuming process that inevitably throws up a few unexpected challenges along the way. But it’s essential to get right if you’re to deliver the reliable and consistent service your customers – in our case our residents – deserve.
So, with a year now passed since our merger, I thought I’d share a few reflections on how we’ve gone about integrating teams at Southern Housing. I’m not claiming to have all the answers. We’ve a huge amount still to do. But hopefully others might be able to learn from our experience.
Merging our two legacy organisations presented us with a huge people-related jigsaw puzzle. We had to integrate nearly 2,500 colleagues across dozens of directorates. And we needed to do so to a timetable that worked for our new organisation and recognised the sometimes competing dependencies between teams.
Our first challenge was to get our consultation right. We needed to get input from our senior leaders and Board. We needed to involve our Colleague Forum representatives from both legacy organisations. And we needed to consult with Unison on everything from new employment policies for day one to new terms and conditions of employment and a revised pay and grading framework. Our solution was to come up with a comprehensive plan and detailed timeline. And establish a commitment from all involved that we’d communicate in as much detail as possible what would be happening and when.
Partnerships were key. We worked in real partnership with both Unison and our Colleague Forum representatives on getting the detail in place for day one. We had regular meetings; took on board their input, suggestions and feedback; and worked towards a joint solution adopting a “best of both legacy organisations” approach. This helped establish good working relationships for the new organisation and build trust and confidence. It allowed open challenge and debate and honest answers to be given and understood.
We co-created our new Southern Housing HEART values by bringing together colleagues from both legacy organisations through a series of executive team roadshows. Everyone agreed being Honest, Efficient, Accountable, Respectful and Trustworthy should be at the core of how we should behave. We’ve aimed to live up to those values across everything we’ve done on our people and culture remit.
Alongside all the positives, merger also brings efficiencies – and for colleagues the spectre of uncertainty due to restructuring. Our Board was keen to complete any restructuring within months to reduce this uncertainty. But, to do this properly, we agreed we’d schedule our people change reviews throughout the 2023 calendar year.
We implemented our people change programme in three phases, sharing the timeline with all colleagues so they were aware of when the review of their team was likely to take place. By the end of 2023, we were 83% through our programme of 52 separate business case reviews. We’ve fully completed 69% of these and recruited to new roles. Some reviews have led to very little change – it was simply a case of bringing both legacy organisations together. But others have involved more substantial restructuring, involving formal collective consultation with Unison. We’ll complete our remaining reviews in early 2024.
We’ve appointed colleagues on our new contract of employment with the best of both legacy organisations’ terms and conditions. Our retention of colleagues has remained stable over the past year, reducing slightly month-on-month as we’ve completed our people change reviews. We’ve only lost just over one percent of our staffing to redundancy. And we’ve agreed additional resource in some areas to improve the service we deliver to our residents.
So, what’s to come on the next phase of our journey? We’ve still got lots of work to do on our culture to truly bring the legacy organisations together as one. Over time, there will be fewer colleagues who think of themselves as a former Optivo or Southern Housing Group person, and more as a Southern Housing colleague. That will accelerate as we integrate our various IT systems.
Our monthly ‘pulse’ survey results tell us we’re making good progress. But they also highlight key areas for improvement, particularly around removing silos and the need for teams to work better together. We have a strong commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion. But we know we still have much to do on our representation across the equality spectrum and we’re working hard on this. We’re also aware we’ll need to review structures again in the future when everything is bedded in and fully integrated in terms of systems and processes.
Bringing two organisations together takes time. A name can change overnight. But real change will only happen over time as the two organisations become a single entity and focus on looking forwards to future challenges rather than looking wistfully back to the legacy they left behind. It’s our people who will make that difference and who’ll be the catalyst for that change. We’ve made a promising start. But our journey’s certainly not over yet."