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Your Own Place – navigating through COVID-19

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Supporting people moving to independence 

Your Own Place CIC is a social enterprise that helps people towards living independently. CEO Rebecca White is passionate about helping young people and those facing barriers not of their own making.  She set about finding innovative and creative solutions to preventing homelessness and founded Your Own Place as a Community Interest Company (CIC) in 2013.  

In conventional times the team delivers face-to face tenancy training, mentoring and employment support to prevent homelessness. But they don’t just leave it there – it’s also about personal budgeting, understanding debt and savings, and building resilience, knowledge, and skills. They deliver financial education in schools too. Appropriately enough, the organisation is based in a real flat leased from Norwich City Council - although, as a social enterprise, Your Own Place operates beyond Norfolk, travelling to where the business takes them; next year for instance they have a contract lined up in Brighton. 

“By the roll of a dice, a person’s life chances are dramatically altered. Homelessness is just one manifestation of this, and until people have equality of opportunity, we work tirelessly to champion people facing disadvantage, not of their own making.” says Rebecca. 

Your Own Place doesn’t just work with young people. They’ve delivered tenancy training to people aged between 17 and 62.  100% of profit goes right back into the mission to prevent homelessness. They have no core funding and don’t rely on donations – they prefer to sell their services on a business basis. And their work has earned them a place as one of the top 100 social enterprises in the UK (link).  

Pandemic response 

“Covid19 hit us all like a meteorite in March” says Rebecca. “As with so many CEOs I was faced with the big questions of team wellbeing alongside ‘can we pay people?’ and as a social business, ‘can we afford not to?’.   

The skills needed by the team increased and changed overnight. Not only were there the relationships with our own community to maintain; there was our own wellbeing, staying a team and figuring out a sustainable way forward. Zoom became a way of life. We upgraded immediately and from then on it was in use all day and every day from our spare rooms. The strain and stress of introducing new cloud-based systems, just when you think you know what they are and how they work, is not to be underestimated in a small team without a designated tech lead. The biggest challenge was not the tools, but the pace we had to move at. Not everyone can move that quickly. We had to have time out and to allow people to vent and cry.  No-one gets thrown under a bus if it doesn’t work out.” 

Team resilience  

“Thanks to this workplace culture and the driving force of the mission, team resilience has held up” explains Rebecca.  “If culture is that important to team resilience, it’s worth investing in from the start. You can neither implement a values-led culture overnight in a pandemic, nor overnight outside a pandemic. A culture that's digital and values-led has to have roots outside the crisis, making you better equipped to navigate it when it comes.”   

What about the skills mix in the team?  Their different approaches, skills, mates they could call on, and differing degrees of flexibility and working styles meant that the internal collaboration was all the stronger.  At times, team members gave up whole days just to sit with fragile colleagues and show them the ropes of a new system.  In turn, team delivery became the norm, allowing one person to operate the tech of Zoom interactive presentations and another to do the ‘people’ bit.   

Collaboration 

Rebecca is hugely enthusiastic about the need for collaboration across and beyond the VCSE sector and is a big fan of Daniel Coyle’s ‘Culture Code’ which emphasises the principle of successful groups working together. 

“Solutions are universal” she says. “It doesn’t matter who we are or what sector we’re in. ’Humble vulnerability’ is a concept where people – professionals – need to acknowledge that they need each other others’ skills and experience to add dynamics to what they’re trying to achieve. We should play to people’s strengths, communicate with our teams to make things clear with them, and involve them in decision-making as far as is appropriate. There should be no place for the damage that can be caused by personal egos and pointless competitiveness.”  

Rebecca feels the sector doesn't do collaboration well, however.  

“Admittedly resource in our sector has always been tight, but do we really think the high street, restaurants, phone shops or solicitors don’t have competition?  I’m really excited when I find a competitor. I can learn so much, reflect on what we do, and this is so much more effective than bouncing of a blank piece of paper. If you’re bridging sectors as social enterprise does, have high standards and values, but find that those in your sector really aren’t interested in going for a no-strings coffee, trust me, it makes collaboration hard.” 

Digital innovation 

Many organisations have found that digital has come into its own both as an internal communications tool and as a way of keeping in touch with service users. Rebecca is also very keen on digital innovation and application and, even before COVID-19 hit, Your Own Place was embracing online platforms and digital technology.  

“Do we want to be known as a digital organisation or one that just does digital really well?  In a world that is truly ‘digital by default’ it’s probably going to be the latter for now.  Moreover, as CEO founder of a mission-led business funded in large part via the taxpayer, I truly believe it’s remiss of us not to equip the people we support with the digital knowledge, skills and resilience to navigate the modern world safely and effectively.”  

And for the people we support, let’s dispel the myth about young people being digital savvy. It’s known that, even prior to the pandemic, as many as 300,000 young people lacked digital skills and as many as 750,000 may be digitally excluded.  Just because you can upload a photo to Instagram doesn’t mean you can complete a Universal Credit application online. 

Even before Covid19, a lot of our lives, passions and pastimes were online. But in teams of people with differing skills and motivations, moving business online can pose a significant person-shaped challenge. Small enterprises like ours, existing on a limited budget, have a huge amount to gain by automation, using cloud technologies and systematising routine tasks. That the whole team are on the same page is not a given. There is a potential for huge risks and harms to a team when things move too quickly.  There’s no such thing as a digital native and as such any new system poses a threat to our short-term efficacy as well as a person’s motivation, satisfaction, self-esteem and ability to do their job.  This will probably always be the case.  Because it’s likely that new technology will stay ahead of even the most switched-on user. Some people struggle – and that’s understandable and OK.  Patience, appropriate challenge, accountability and a lack of blame are vital. Where there is struggle, there’s time devoted to communicating its purpose and a shared understanding of the value of the systems.   

Going digital isn’t just about the people you support and being able to reach them (even if it was in the very first days and weeks of the pandemic).  First and foremost it’s about the team and their digital capability, it’s about your policies and platforms, about GDPR as well as having the right tech.  It’s about the tools you will use, narrowing the scope and how you will listen to and empathise with people who are not in the room.  And about whether you’ll remain the same organisation if the outcomes you measure and the outcomes themselves start to shift.  This can all seem utterly overwhelming and paralysing at any time let alone this time.” 

Read more about Your Own Place's work here.

Recovery  

Rebecca has been invited to speak at a Norfolk & Norwich Chamber of Commerce webinar on recovery strategies. Find out more here.  Rebecca’s first podcast may be of interest here.  And you can listen to Rebecca in conversation with Future Radio’s Mike Stonard here.  

Guidance on becoming a CIC 

A CIC is a special type of limited company which exists to benefit the community rather than private shareholders.  CAN’s community development officers have a wealth of experience in advising on how to go about transitioning to a CIC.  Call us on 01362 698216 or email [email protected]  

Norfolk VCSE sector COVID-19 response

This is part of a series of examples of the huge contribution made by local VCSE organisations in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. To understand more about the pivotal role played by Voluntary Community and Social Enterprise organisations in Norfolk’s Covid-19 response effort please read our Norfolk VCSE Covid-19 Story page.