Hayley Mintern from MRG asks Jessica Gallop Director of People and Organisation Effectiveness five questions about their operational strategy and life after coronavirus lockdown
"How have you adapted the business during the pandemic in order to support the students?"
It’s only ever with hindsight you can be glad of the decisions you take. We decided early on that we’d rather risk a wasted energy at overreacting, than take the risk of doing not enough. It’s been with this in mind, that our adaptions have always considered the medium to long term. Our first notable decision, was to create a dedicated Steering Committee, that sees key persons taken off their usual day job and placed full-time into this area of focus. It was never going to be good enough for us, for it to be something we all dipped in and out of. We’ve committed to keeping this in place for as long as it’s needed.
It’s certainly true of course, we’ve had no greater insight than anyone else, but we’ve tried to ensure that anything we’ve implemented would work for more than the short haul.
Our most significant change has been our decision to release residents from their contracts, in the event they had chosen to return to family homes during this time. Whilst it was significant, it was also an easy decision. As easy as the decision to ensure our people don’t ever need to put their health before their finances, and vice versa.
This of course has to be balanced operationally, with our need to continue to be here; to be present, and continue to provide the very best levels of service we can during these bewildering times.
We moved our HQ Team Members into remote working just prior to the government request, and this meant we had a little time to ensure good planning around technology and ways of working. We’ve been bowled over by the work ethic and output of our teams, who themselves are battling through this new normal. Crucially, this meant we created a stabilised central support function, ready and able to continue to underpin the work of our operators on the ground.
We’ve worked quickly to adapt our communication vehicles, ensuring we recognised the front desk wouldn’t be our primary mechanism at the moment. In a matter of days, we established a centralised Contact Centre, that afforded us the ability to quickly scale up our Live Chat and broader resident interaction capacity; spreading the load with our HQ and operational teams. It’s also provided a new job pool for those shielding or self-isolating (without symptoms or illness), but whose roles can’t usually be done from home. We’ve been able to set them up as part of the Contact Centre and keep them connected to work.
At a time when it would have been perhaps simpler to stop a great many of our practices, it felt more important than ever, to find safe ways to continue. A great example is the receipt of post, parcels and importantly, grocery deliveries. Aside from our H&S, fire safety and moral requirements to provide a round the clock service, this was one key service that really motivated us to ensure our staffing levels were maintained, and that important deliveries can be collected or delivered to the flat, safely for all involved.
"When do you anticipate the road to recovery will begin? Do you have a proposed moving in dates for the new academic year?"
We’ve taken our lead from our residents and future residents to some extent; buoyed by their desire to maintain a faith in the future they’d planned for themselves.
We’ve been overwhelmed with the strength of continued bookings during this period, for our 20/21 season, commencing in September. I think thats testament to the service provided locally at a time when perhaps the expectation was that shutters would be pulled down and a notice on the doors with an emergency phone number. We’re still here and we’ll continue to be here.
We’re not naive however, and we know uncertain times lay ahead and that’s why we’ve committed ourselves to a covid-19 booking promise.
Should our residents find themselves unable to travel to the UK owing to restrictions, or unable to obtain a visa, we’ll cancel their booking on their request. Similarly, with the uncertainty around university start dates, should their course be delayed, we’ll move the start of their booking with us to the month coinciding with the revised course date.
All of this is out of residents’ control, we’ve wanted to make sure of all the anxieties surrounding them, we’re not one of them.
"Do you believe that the current situation has raised the profile of student accommodation?"
We certainly believe that PBSA has risen in the public’s attention, during the pandemic, beyond the real estate voices. At times, this hasn’t always been for the good of the wider sector, but that’s where the strength and integrity of an individual brand has to stand up and stand out.
We do believe that Student Accommodation has finally had some recognition, not as a sector necessarily, but recognition that it’s someone’s home. It’s been helpful to have the voice of Michelle Donelan, talking about and directly to residents of PBSA properties; typically referred to as one homogeneous group of ‘students’.
When the Universities began closing, we saw this sudden realisation that for many students, this is their only home, be that because of travel limitations or those estranged; I’d like to believe the important role the likes of Student Roost can play in someone’s university life, could be better understood on the back of this time.
"Do you think the pandemic will affect the UK’s reputation as a ‘go to’ destination for overseas students?"
Simply put; no, we don’t. Our HE institutions remain some of the most sought after, the world over, and we’re not of the belief that the desire to have graduated from a UK University will diminish.
University is so much more than the certificate at the end of your studies; it’s a life for many, and we believe it will still be viewed as a complete package that has to be experienced.
"What is the key lesson you have learned from this pandemic?"
If a business doesn’t exit this time with a thousand lessons, I’d wonder what they’d been doing! It’s hard to pick just one, although the most notable for us has been the reckoning of ways of working.
9-5 is this odd construct, that this sector, among many others, has become so wedded to, in spite of our customer base being in university and less likely to need us during that time.
We’ve been pretty good at flexible working in contrast to many other businesses, but this has taught us how much we relied upon and stuck to these curious constraints, simply because we’re used to them.
We’ve been introducing roles here over the last 18-months that break with that tradition, and open up our talent pool and the opportunity to those with caring responsibilities. Roles that can start at 10am and/or finish at 2pm, so there’s time to do school runs or pop in on someone you have a carer responsibility for. It’s meant more part time roles and a greater diversity across our team.
I don’t ever underestimate the difficulty of raising children and developing your career; it’s a continued blocker to seeing more women in senior roles. However progressive our thinking becomes, it’s a burden I know parents naturally place upon themselves; “can I really do both of these things?” I’d sincerely hope this time has taught us, that yes, you absolutely can.
We’ve got Team Members managing home-schooling alongside their roles; others are chairing video calls with a toddler on their lap; check-ins with colleagues are happening on a walk and we’ve seen more of our Team Member’s cats and dogs than I could count. And do you know what? It hasn’t affected a single thing. Our productivity is sky high, our outputs are tremendous and above all, our Team are happy.