Improving equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in housing association workforces helps us drive progress and represent the diverse communities we serve. This applies to all housing associations across the sector no matter your size or regional location.
Orwell Housing is a housing association based in the largely rural counties of Suffolk and Norfolk. For many years we had bought into the myth that it was either too difficult or almost impossible to increase the diversity of our board and workforce. The rural area and communities we serve were perceived as not being diverse.
So, we decided to take a step back from this assumption and it’s become clear it was based on a judgement that diversity is always visible. We know this isn’t the case, and we now know that the rural communities we serve are diverse in many ways we weren’t considering.
If you think about dispersed and remote rural communities, it’s easy to understand how marginalised someone could feel from their community if they are not surrounded by people who look like them. If you do not feel represented in your community, you are more likely to be concerned about judgement and less likely to be yourself.
At Orwell, we saw this played out in EDI survey responses, where a high number of respondents replied with “prefer not to say”. This indicated staff felt uncomfortable sharing their reality and consequently felt they could not bring their true authentic selves at work.
This was also highlighted in the NHF’s EDI report where the main findings show there are issues around representation amongst the housing association workforce. There are also big gaps in our knowledge due to unknown data for many characteristics; particularly for socio-economic background, caring responsibilities and gender identity.
This made us reflect, and we decided as a rural housing association that it was no longer acceptable not to prioritise EDI and drive change throughout our organisation.
Recognising the need to change, we launched an awareness campaign called #Flourish which focused on demonstrating what it means to be an inclusive workplace, alongside our colleagues in Independent East (a consortium of housing associations operating in Norfolk and Suffolk). The aim of this campaign was to empower our workforce and allow them to feel like they could bring their authentic selves to work free of judgement.
We have also invested in enhanced EDI training and learning, using the innovative Human Library webinars and face-to-face training to increase understanding and awareness. We have been particularly active on our social media channels to showcase what we are doing, what we believe culturally and to discuss EDI subjects including the #Flourish campaign.
By bringing inclusivity to the forefront of our culture, both internally and externally and raising conversations across all our platforms, we have seen a greater level of engagement and more diversity in applications for our vacant roles and board positions.
This has helped to prove our rural corner of East Anglia is diverse and demonstrated Orwell’s commitment to working harder to make our organisation more diverse and inclusive. A place where our workforce can be welcomed and valued, it’s only the start of our journey but I’m happy we are heading in the right direction.
I’m proud that Orwell is now a place where the opinions and contributions of all people are taken seriously and valued regardless of anything other than their commitment to our values and their skills in their role as we celebrate each person as the individuals they are.
Bringing diversity of thought to our business ensures we have a sustainable and thriving organisation which is much better placed to understand and respond to the needs of our community. We now have honest conversations with a range of our workforce from different backgrounds to better understand how we can improve EDI helping to drive our business. Whilst there is always more to do, we are committed to making sure our people feel they can #Flourish at Orwell.
We have shown that diversity and inclusion is not only rooted in the urban areas it matters just as much in rural communities.
It’s important rural housing associations prioritise driving change through EDI and recognise the value it brings to workforces and communities we serve. Housing associations no matter their size or regional location will #Flourish as a result and help us to become a truly equal, diverse, and inclusive sector.