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Working life after Covid

A survey by Tyfu Tai Cymru reveals how the pandemic changed working life for staff in housing departments. Catherine May reports.

In January 2020 when Tyfu Tai Cymru (TTC) first surveyed staff from housing departments in local government we could not have anticipated the extent to which all our lives were about to change. Respondents to our survey told us they were proud to work in housing, that they felt their local authority had a strong commitment to ending homelessness but also that they felt under pressure to find enough homes for everyone who needs one.

We could not then have foreseen the monumental shift that the COVID-19 pandemic and following lockdowns would bring to lives across the globe. Housing professionals across Wales have been at the frontline of delivering Welsh Government pledges to keep everyone safe at home and undoubtably their work prevented many more people becoming ill and further lives being lost.

We knew it would be important to check back in with the staff from housing departments to gain insight into how staff were feeling, what had changed and what they see as opportunities for the future.

In revisiting this work asking staff to provide fresh insight, the most obvious change has been to staff taking on new and additional responsibilities, for some becoming overnight leaders. The move to work from home for some staff was delivered at incredible pace. Respondents to our survey told us they thought the lesson from changes to working practises was one that should be carried forward.

Over and above people told us they thought their local authority had done well at providing temporary accommodation to people experiencing or at risk of homelessness – that the urgency of the pandemic combined with a joint willingness to deliver support when needed while overlooking some bureaucratic hurdles was a huge achievement that might have been unimaginable a few months previously.

One area that stood out from the two surveys was the topic of finance and budgets. When we first asked staff about their concerns, the second highest issues (after workload) was around limited budgets. On our return to the survey, respondents did not highlight budget in the same way. Instead people told us their concerns about the pressure to hit Welsh Government deadlines, the need for better ICT and technology.

A consistent theme in both surveys is the urgent need for more affordable housing, and as the new Welsh Government has set the new ambitions goal of 20,000 new low-carbon social homes, this is a message being heard by decision-makers. We need to be sure that there is understanding of how these targets will be reached. Some 80 per cent of respondents to our survey highlighted the need for more land and resources. The urgency of this is underlined by the need to find permanent housing for people currently in temporary accommodation, including single person accommodation.

At the heart of our report is the topic of staff wellbeing. When we asked people what motivates them to work in housing 49 per cent cite their main reason as wanting to help others, 29 per cent about being part of a team and 19 per cent being part of the housing sector. This commitment to supporting communities is no doubt key to how staff have got through the last year. However, when we asked further questions, one-third of respondents felt they needed support with their mental health, of those 41 per cent related to work pressures, 26 per cent change of working environment.

It was really heartening to hear that 87 per cent felt supported by their local authority and their manager, however individuals told us of the pressure they felt under and the sense of isolation for staff working from home.

Our two reports have told us that local government housing professionals were already experiencing significant pressures in carrying out their roles before the pandemic took hold, despite some optimism amongst staff, these pressures have intensified. Pre-existing challenges such as the lack of social housing has made matters worse, whilst the pandemic has created an environment where deadline pressures for government support, the challenge of moving services to a virtual form of delivery and some staff having to become overnight leaders have presented fresh issues for teams to overcome.

Despite these challenges, local authorities have acted with flexibility and resilience in supporting staff to work from home, and to remove some of the bureaucracy that can sometimes lengthen the time it takes to achieve positive outcomes for people. Local authority housing professionals, who clearly face significant challenges in their day-to-day jobs, particularly during the pandemic, are driven by a strong desire to help people and work as part of a wider team.

Their commitment and determination should be commended. But reflecting on these survey findings there is a clear risk that without further government support to meet current and future demand, the pressure on local authority housing professionals will only intensify further, limiting their ability to have the kind of impact we know they can achieve for every person who approaches them for help.

Catherine May is Tyfu Tai Cymru manager

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