We have a one-to-one with Rachel Credidio, group people and transformation director at Aster Group, about how she finds and nurtures the right people to the wide range of roles the housebuilding arm of her organisation offers.
Hi Rachel, please tell us a little about yourself, Aster and your role.
I’m the director of people and transformation at housing association Aster Group. Our 30,000 homes are spread across the South of England and we provide services to 90,000 people. Our mission is to operate as a successful business so that we can channel our profits into fulfilling our vision – that everyone has a home.
My role means I lead on developing the way we as a business engage with our employees and help drive the agile, innovative and collaborative culture we’re striving for. A huge part of that is ensuring we bring in passionate, talented people to support our growth.
Sitting on our Executive Board means I’m also part of the team that sets our strategy and direction. I see more and more forward-thinking companies such as Apple, Unilever and Virgin demonstrating that strong business performance and growth go hand in hand with a forward-thinking workplace culture.
How many apprentices/graduates does the company take on, and for what sort of roles?
We have been offering apprenticeships since 2011, and in the last academic year we employed a total of eight apprentices. This year we have increased our apprenticeship offer to approximately 20 and are planning to recruit at a similar rate over the next five years. These apprentices cover a number of different roles including trade, business administration and customer service.
Bringing in a new generation of skills is an important part of nurturing and retaining talent in the sector and is something we will continue to do as part of the commitment we’ve made through our community outreach programme, the Aster Foundation.
Our social purpose as a housing association is fundamentally to improve our local communities. The Aster Foundation is where we go above and beyond our core function of building more affordable homes to do this.
Through the Foundation we offer opportunities for customers to gain vocational experience through work placements and apprenticeships with us or businesses in our supply chain. The Foundation also runs a busy calendar of fundraising events throughout the year that support local initiatives and regeneration projects.
Are you experiencing a shortfall in the kind of candidates you’re looking for?
Like other housing associations, we’ve found the market a challenge in the past few years – certainly finding people with the right skills is part of that.
The housing sector needs to take some ownership of filling this gap and apprenticeships play a vital role in equipping the next generation with the necessary skills. But another focus for us is looking beyond our own sector. It doesn’t make sense to limit our recruitment to just the housing sector when so many skills are transferable.
Doing everything we can to attract talent is vital so a real focus for me is making Aster a great place to work. Across the business, we have a structured training and development programme to make sure that everyone is given the opportunity to grow. This includes job shadowing where people get to experience other areas of the business – particularly useful for supporting job roles like marketing or finance. They get first-hand experience of the work we’re doing on the front line.
We’ve also introduced local social committees at each of our offices to ensure that the calendar is filled with interesting and engaging activities. We’ve found this a really powerful way of helping our colleagues to immerse themselves in our culture without it just being ‘all about work’.
Our approach is to make it as easy possible for our team members to be great at their jobs. That could be through giving them enough time for rest and recuperation through our unlimited holiday trial or by providing them with the tools they need to develop through training, mentoring and secondments.
Are there advantages to training people from the start and keeping them on board?
Apprenticeships are one part of our recruitment process and the focus for us is ensuring as much diversity as possible. Getting people in on the ground floor who we can help shape is incredibly valuable. But we’re mindful that bringing in experience from elsewhere is also vital to us continuing to grow and evolve as well.
We’re also reviewing all the job roles in our business to see whether it’s necessary for candidates to have a degree. Meeting the government’s delivery target of 300,000 homes a year demands a healthy supply of talented people, so we need to draw on different backgrounds, experiences and education so we don’t overlook anyone who could be an ideal fit for our business.
Do you think the housebuilding industry will succeed in attracting a more diverse workforce?
Yes, and it’s already doing so. We share a desire with most of the sector to be ethical and fair in everything we do. I believe it’s part of a housing association’s social purpose to take the lead on this.
But there are also major business benefits to a more diverse workforce. There was a study recently from management consultancy McKinsey that showed more diversity improves decision-making and produces strong role models that help to nurture talent.
This is part of the reason why we’re doing so much to improve gender equality in our business. We’re also an official partner of the History of Parliament Trust’s Vote 100 campaign. This was set up to commemorate the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK and promote better gender representation in society.
Like many in the sector, we’ve struggled in the past with female representation at the top but we’re working hard to change that. Now, three out of seven members of our executive board are women. We also have two female non-executive directors and are doing everything we can to ensure a more proportional split on our various committees. Of course, there’s still work to be done and our focus is on keeping up the momentum.
This is also about making a role at Aster accessible to all, regardless of their circumstances. We are reviewing how we appeal to those with disabilities to ensure we are as inclusive as possible through all of our working. We have recently signed up to the Disability Confident Scheme as a further commitment to recruiting those with disabilities, as we know their experience can be invaluable to us as a workforce. These actions are just some of the ways in which we are striving to support those disabled colleagues and customers where we can.
There are many different types of diversity and it’s not just about those mentioned above. Proportionality should acknowledge different backgrounds, types of education and professional experience as well. Ultimately, the more perspectives we can incorporate into our business, the better we’ll represent the people we serve and be a more successful organisation as a result.
Is there something about working for Aster Group that might distinguish it from the opposition?
For me, it has to be our culture – it’s all about a flexible approach. But when we talk about flexibility, we don’t just mean flexible working in the traditional sense. We’re challenging the norms of the normal workplace culture and focusing instead on our people achieving agreed outcomes in support of our wider corporate strategy. Being recognised recently by Mumsnet as a ‘Family Friendly’ company reaffirms that our step changes in the way we work can make a real difference to the way our people work.
This is all about achieving balance for our team and that’s one reason why we also make a big effort to talk candidly about mental health. We’re using our Time to Change initiative and other schemes to help create a more mentally healthy workplace. We already have 38 mental health first-aiders and we’re training a further 24 on top of this. We want to encourage colleagues to talk more openly about mental health and be able to access help if they need it.
We’re doing things like rethinking traditional team structures to bring together people who have a mix of skills and adopting technology that can help us to work seamlessly across different locations. The geographic area we cover is very large so that’s crucial.
We’ve partnered with workplace consultancy Corporate Rebels, who have worked with some of the most pioneering organisations around the world, to help our managers understand their role in facilitating where our culture needs to be. Already, managers across all areas of the business are making commitments on what they can do to support their teams reach their potential across some key trends including freedom and trust and talents and mastery.
A year ago we also launched our Transformation Network – a group of 100 employees from across the business who have volunteered their time to help everyone have a great day at work. These people are the beating heart of the business and they’re having a real impact – channelling feedback up and down across the business and helping people have a say on the decisions that affect them. Our plan is to continuously grow the network until eventually every team member is a transformation networker.
An example of the network in action is our ‘This is Aster’ event. We took every single one of our 1,300 people out of ‘work’ for a day, and held seminars, Q&As and forums for everyone to understand what we do, how we do it and, most importantly, why we do it. The event was a big investment but one that we feel was vital. Getting people interactively involved in developing a common understanding of what we do, how we do it and why is crucial to our future success.