During 2015, Durham County councillors voted to turn the council’s social housing operation into a not-for-profit independent organisation. Believe Housing was christened with the aim of becoming a leaner, more responsive, innovative and effective provider of housing services.
The organisation now employs around 560 staff from building maintenance and repair specialists to accounts staff and administrators. In 2020-2021, it posted a turnover of £67 million ($77 million) and had 18,000 properties under its management. During 2020, it pushed ahead with growth plans, with 136 new homes under construction and more than 1,200 in the planning phase.
Graeme Clark, IT service delivery manager at Believe Housing, says the recent wholesale pivot to Microsoft Teams with Gamma Teams telephony has been “a necessary technical underpinning” for its social housing operation and without the move, it would not have been as successful.
The transition to Microsoft Teams came about because the organisation’s executive and board members decided to change the way staff worked, downsizing from five buildings to two, while at the same time enabling and encouraging staff to work from home.
“Previously we’d see pretty much all staff coming into the office, and so the goal was to have around 40 per cent working from home most of the time,” says Clark, who highlighted the importance of hot-desking and collaboration spaces for office working. “Of course, we needed a new form of telephony to enable that different way of working and that’s how we ended up with the Teams project. We needed to break the link between staff and ‘their’ desk phone so that they could work from anywhere in the new building, or just pick up their laptop and work from home.”
Adaptability and a willingness to embrace change was needed among the 560 workers based in northeast England. “We liked the look of Direct Routing for Microsoft Teams with Gamma as the technical platform for voice and so we used the IT department as a guinea pig, putting together a pilot trial of around 10 users,” says Clark. “That proved to be successful, so we pulled together a group of around 25 staff members – one from each department – briefed them on what we planned and asked for their feedback. They in turn briefed their departments so everyone felt involved and consulted.”
Clark has praised Gamma’s approach to the deployment, which took place over a two-month period without any problems. “I had a very good technical officer who got all the necessary telephony lines set up, but he was well supported by Gamma’s team, who are very experienced in such migrations because they do them all the time,” he says.
By January 2020 the new system was fully deployed across the organisation. “Then the pandemic and lockdowns happened,” says Clark. “While other organisations and companies were suddenly reeling, struggling to work out how to respond, we already had the structure in place. There’s no doubt this smoothed the impact of Covid-19 for our staff and enabled us to continue to support our clients with minimal disruption to our service.”
Cost control is an inevitable focus for Clark and the Believe Housing operation. “Our previous telephone service, provided by Durham County Council, was very cheap,” he says. “But the reduction from running five buildings down to two made savings elsewhere in the business. Was it worth the investment? Most definitely.
“A big theme for us is agile working, encouraging people to think for themselves, come up with their own solutions, and get things sorted. The ease with which Teams allows people to move around, get together in breakout spaces in the office and collaborate over telephony wherever they are, has underpinned that theme and that’s where we can see the value.”
Clark meets with Gamma every few months to discuss the status of the project, and thus far, everything has been running smoothly. “From a personal perspective I appreciate the work-life balance enabled by Gamma’s Direct Routing for Microsoft Teams,” he says. “It removes the need to travel to and from the office. These days I might go into the office one or two days a week and the rest of the time I work from home.”
Read more about digital transformation journeys on the Gamma website.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2022 issue of Technology Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.