Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Articles Living Values: A Company Imbued with Spirit

Living Values: A Company Imbued with Spirit

Places for People, the winner of the Gaia Spark Award.

Helen Walton interviews Places for People, this year’s winner of the Spark Award, sponsored by Gaia leadership. By putting people at the heart of how the company operates, Places for People creates a highly innovative culture with an inspirational purpose that delivers outstanding business results.

Quietly building a better world 

Some sectors are just hard.

Anyone who has ever attended any meet-up or conference on how to organise or manage people differently will have come across the heartfelt complaint “yes, but that wouldn’t work in my sector because…”– we are heavily regulated; we run at absolute break-even margins; we have lots of minimum wage staff who don’t want more responsibility; our systems are too complex ...

The implication is that freedom, happiness and innovation in the workplace belong only to trendy tech companies, or perhaps to specialist services in the creative industry. For those stacking shelves in supermarkets, for those selling insurance or trading shares, for bankers or teachers or healthcare professionals – for MOST people, in other words – it is impossible for staff to be empowered, creative or filled with purpose. Those types of industry or service sector are just too hard to change.

Social housing faces many challenges and pressures. Margins tend to be relatively tight and the sector has been subject to heavy cost-cutting initiatives imposed by government. For some social housing providers this has led to a high turnover of staff, low morale and an occasionally hostile scrutiny from the press or regulatory bodies. It is unsurprising that the tenants themselves can be unhappy with the service they receive.

Yet since 1965 in the UK, one company in the sector has measured exceptional business results, with a dedicated staff who record high morale and satisfaction in both the job itself and the organisation as a whole – something reflected in high customer satisfaction as well. Places for People is no boutique or small-scale provider. Far from it, with over 11,000 employees, 144,000 homes, 113 leisure centres and assets of more than £3 billion – quite apart from its other extensive interests from building to energy – it is something of a behemoth. And yet, this Places for People has garnered numerous awards, including Landlord of the Year twice in three years, Housebuilder of the Year, Leisure Operator of the Year, Best Tenant Care Programme, Best Business…

It’s a lengthy list of accolades, and this year, they added the Spark Award, sponsored by Gaia leadership – an award that recognises innovative and happy workplaces.

People with Purpose

For the Group Chief Executive, David Cowans, the awards are a nice recognition, but peripheral to the company’s purpose – ensuring successful places and enabling people to reach their potential.

This purpose underpins everything the company does – Places for People puts the community and the individual at the centre and then finds out ways to supply the products and services they need. Since people and communities have a multiplicity of needs, Places for People runs an eclectic mix of projects ranging from job advice, apprenticeship schemes and financing small businesses to green technology, leisure centres, community areas and increasing the kerb appeal of a place.

A classic example of this holistic thinking is the company’s recent expansion into financial services. Staff were concerned by the number of residents who couldn’t pay their rent because they’d taken out ‘doorstep loans’ and were struggling with spiralling debt. Places for People already provided financial advice on budgeting through their neighbourhood teams, but many residents simply weren’t eligible for better loans via standard finance options and were easily tempted by a promise of quick cash. They decided that the best way to tackle the problem was to start a financial services company themselves, one which would offer safe financing with a more affordable interest rate and with the aim of helping people who might have either no bank account, no credit rating, or a poor one.

Similar stories lie behind the company’s forays into childcare and energy. Told again and again by customers that they wanted to go back to work but were unable to find high quality, affordable childcare, Places for People established and later sold on a series of nurseries. Aware of the increasing cost of energy for customers, they decided to attack the problem in two ways – become a supplier offering discounted rates and invest heavily in innovative technologies to reduce energy consumption and waste radically in the company’s homes.

It’s the kind of innovative and essentially practical thinking the company is famous for. The senior executive seem pleasingly undaunted by the challenges of overcoming any necessary regulatory or funding issues and once convinced of the customer need, push through obstacles at a commendable speed. As a result of Places for People’s growth into such a multiplicity of areas, they have become one of the few companies that can offer a genuine ‘one-stop-shop’ – a group that can build a true community with houses, shops, leisure centres, school and transport links and then run it for the long-term as well. Unsurprisingly the company has won increasingly large contracts – including for the Olympic site in East London.

Cowans frankly stares when asked about the business rationale for the varied initiatives the company supports. “Everything we do is about the commercial return,” he insists. “Things work financially or they don’t happen. When we build communities that are happier, better, more vibrant places, then our assets increase in value, our properties are never empty and our costs – especially the poor rent return or high maintenance and clear-up costs seen by other companies – are low.

“Fundamentally, we believe that we have to build places where we would want to live ourselves – and that’s about much more than a nice kitchen or a shared garden; it’s about knowing your kids will be safe, that you can find work, that you’re not afraid of crime, that you can enjoy being there, that you believe in the area’s future prosperity… Making that happen has good social outcomes and our staff feel hugely proud of being a part of that. We do good because it makes sense, not for it’s own sake.”

David Cowans who has steered the company through the macro trends of the last two decades (the decline of social housing and the rise of private renting) sees new macro needs arising around retirement and healthcare – and thus new areas for Places for People to expand into.

The key to such innovations, however, does not lie with Cowans or the executive team, but with a fundamental principle of the business – listening to what real customers actually need and building products and services around them. And the only way to do that effectively is to listen to staff – the people who will come up with the ideas, implement them and continuously improve them. It is this understanding which means Places for People places such emphasis on staff engagement, welfare and freedom.

Acting with Spirit: Avoiding the Mission Statement Trap

One of the risks of high-minded but vague ideals around employee engagement or happiness is that they can remain nice-sounding words that no one actually lives up to or acts upon. Places for People has skilfully avoided the mission statement trap. As part of the Spark Award, I interviewed a range of employees, from plumbers and housing officers to senior managers, and all of them referred un-self-consciously and without prompting to the ‘SPIRIT’ values that they judged themselves by and for which Places for People explicitly recruits.

Support - always there to help customers and colleagues
Positive - a 'can do' attitude; encourages others to achieve
Integrity - always delivers on promises; is open and honest
Respect - treats people fairly and with understanding
Innovative - open to new ideas; not afraid of failure
Together - believes more can be achieved by working well with others.

Most importantly, each individual had numerous examples to share of ways in which they carried out these values. The idea that initially caught the Spark judges attention came from one manager’s focus on making these values more real for his team. Scott Cusick is the Regional Maintenance Manager for several maintenance teams including plumbers, joiners and gas engineers. The distributed teams only met twice a month and as a result could often feel rather disconnected from each other, their supervisors or managers and the organisation as a whole.


Scott was determined to find away of stressing that they were a single team and building on their natural pride in the job. He began by soliciting ideas from the team and then worked through any blocks to implement the idea – one of the simplest but most successful was for the type of ‘birthday club’ so common in offices, but almost impossible for distributed teams. Another was to change how information was delivered. Any issues, new processes or common faults were now presented as a youtube video from one of the operatives themselves, showing what the problem was and the recommended fix. Even accidents were talked about via a you-tube video to ensure messages about health and safety hit home.

Scott also changed the way he communicated personally, making an effort to pick up the phone and call every operative individually rather than simply emailing the group. The reduction in efficiency was more than made up for, he believes, by the improved quality of the communication. When he did send emails, he took extra care over his language. Someone had mentioned that the phrase ‘with immediate effect’ sounded threatening and so Scott dumped the jargon and tried to read all his emails aloud to imagine how they would sound.

The most eye-catching initiative however, was a playful reward for the individual who received the most compliments from customers. This operative could nominate any of the managers to wash their van. It became an appreciated and hotly contested award – with much good-natured banter about how mud should be accumulated just before getting a particular gaffer to wash the van. The idea encapsulates several core values. A clean van presents a professional appearance that reassures customers and shows pride in both the individual and the organisation. Nominating a senior manager to wash it makes it clear that no one is considered too important to undertake work that contributes towards the company’s goals – whether it’s washing a van or designing a new website.


Operational silos are damaging but so common it’s easy to believe it’s part of human nature to divide into ‘us and them’. Organisations can spend a great deal of money and effort on networking events and internal communication systems that are designed to help improve collaboration but which often fail to deliver meaningful improvements.

Places for People certainly invests heavily in away days and training for all staff across the organisation, but they also have one particularly powerful tool that they employ to break down barriers. It’s job shadowing, but with a twist.

Any individual can ask to spend a day job shadowing any other – and it’s expected practice for operatives to spend time with scheduling and customer service teams to gain an appreciation of common problems and an understanding of how their behaviour impacts on colleagues. But an individual can also ask for someone to job shadow him or her. It’s a surprising, but very effective method.

There’s no limit to the number of days or times job shadowing can happen. The company simply trusts that people will use it as a tool and gain from it. There’s also no limit to who can use it. A customer service advisor once asked the Group Chief Executive exactly what he did all day; he responded by asking her to job shadow him for a day.


As a company that focuses heavily on people (and where 95% say they feel proud to work there and 98% feel they share the same values), Places for People has an unsurprisingly healthy staff retention number.

It believes strongly in a ‘grow our own’ policy for talent at every level in the organisation, from the large number of apprenticeships and work experience placements, to a succession plan that looks for internal contenders before external for senior positions.

Emma Harrison, a young Assistant Neighbourhood Officer had joined Places for People as a temp before winning a place on a 3-year apprenticeship scheme. She had taken advantage of the job shadowing programme to learn as much as she could about related departments, not only to perform her job better, but to decide whether she was in the right role – resulting in changing from a Business Admin NVQ to one in Housing. Reflecting on the debt and difficulties her friends who had chosen a more traditional university route were facing, Emma exuded a sense of confidence in her future career. Chris Roberts, a joiner and handyman with the maintenance team enthusiastically discussed the five-day locksmith course he’d been offered a grant for, comparing his opportunities to those at a previous job.

Even charity projects are viewed as an opportunity for staff to develop and connect. When renovating a community centre, the managers turned up to paint and decorate, while frontline staff took on the co-ordination and event management role, including contacting local suppliers to organise donations.

People noticed that the move from frontline maintenance operative to manager was proving tricky and that external candidates were often gaining the jobs since they could show direct management experience. To combat this, the company instituted a formal job-shadowing programme called Passport to Practice to allow operatives to spend more time gaining management experience – either on a part-time or full-time basis. The practical experience was supplemented with formal qualifications in relevant vocational courses and attendance at the Group’s accredited management development programmes.

For Lee Newton, a plumber who’d been with the company 6 years, this was what allowed him to make the jump to a supervisor role. Having missed out on the promotion previously, he and his manager had sat down together to plan what experience he would need to gain to ensure he’d get the role on the next occasion. Steve Cusick, the Regional Manager mentioned above, was covering for the Head of Operations occasionally as part of preparing for his next career move.

In fact, each staff member I spoke to had an ambition for their next role and a plan on how to get there. That alone is unusual, but even more refreshing was how staff talked unselfconsciously about roles they had not got – clearly seeing the experience as a positive one which would lead to further training and development. In most organisations I know, staff keep quiet about failed applications and rarely feel empowered by the process.


Places for People has a series of formal programmes dedicated to staff welfare, career development, collaboration and innovation. Individuals are given the tools and freedom to make decisions and implement changes. Liz Sharrocks, Engagement and Wellbeing Advisor, spoke feelingly of the importance of rejecting a parent-child relationship (even a benign and paternalistic one) in favour of a true adult-to-adult approach.

Customer service teams, manning phones 24 hours, 7 days a week, have one of the toughest jobs going. Anyone who has ever worked in or with such a team knows how hard it can be to keep a sense of purpose, connection and collaboration. When the teams were asked to brainstorm ideas on the topic, they came up with a list of 60 things to change and were told they had the power to implement all of them. Some were simple and small: having a TV in the break area; making sure milk was available at weekends; better communication of objectives.

Yet the most-requested change was more difficult. The group wanted an all day away day like those other departments or groups enjoyed. They knew the benefits of mingling the evening and day shifts and feeling that they were a single team – and yet, they also knew that the phones needed to be manned. The business simply asked the team to come up with a way of making it happen – a full away day but with no interruption of service. By running the day in a series of sessions and mixing up shifts, the group achieved their aims, running treasure hunts and outdoor activities on a piece of parkland near the office.

It was crucial that solving the problems for the event stayed with the team. It made it clear that the responsibility for improving work lay with them – as did the capability and the power to do so. As Liz pointed out, “most things on the list were quickly resolved. A few weren’t. And so when it became clear that no one wanted to take responsibility to change them, they were simply crossed off – because they obviously didn’t matter that much.”


The attitude of personal responsibility for change is deeply embedded. The company certainly supports and encourages suggestions for improvement – their “Star Awards” involves a big annual ceremony where nominees for innovation, exceptional customer service and going the extra mile are celebrated. Places for People also supports a smaller scale programme which sees staff who make a good suggestion given a £25 voucher or half day extra holiday. While staff enjoy the appreciation, it is very clear that they are motivated by their personal commitment to improvement.

Changing processes to ensure that several checks could all be accomplished in a single visit to a tenant made absolute sense to Erin Kilheeney, a Neighbourhood Officer. She could implement some changes herself, but she wanted to ensure all the answers could be inputted onto the iPad and then auto-updated – rather than returning to the office to type up notes. She spoke to the business director who went to the central IT team to get the change implemented. Soon she’d implemented further changes to share an app which simplified the creation of new forms. It might seem a small shift, even an obvious one, but those who have experience of coordinating business and IT process and system changes will know that the ability to implement such an innovation quickly and painlessly is rare.

“When I went to a National Housing Conference” Erin said in a surprised tone, “all these people were saying that it was impossible for our kind of work to go paperless. Or they were saying it took years to make any change. I was amazed. We’re a totally paperless office. And when I want to change something, I just speak to the Regional Manager or even the MD. It wouldn’t occur to me that he’d be hard to get hold of.”

Living Values

And that, I suspected was at the core of what makes Places for People so special. Most of those I spoke to had spent many years with the organisation. They had little idea of how rare its culture was. They found it natural that the Group’s Chief Executive should run company training sessions in person and that he should hold regular open sessions where anyone could ask a question or put forward a suggestion. It made obvious business sense that innovation and change should be put forward and implemented by anyone – at speed. Collaboration between differing teams is taken as a given: every single staff member spoke casually of asking for help from other teams, managers or departments and their trust that it would be forthcoming. And while appreciative, staff took it for granted that the organisation would help them develop both personally and professionally with advice, support and intensive training.

The result was obvious in the commitment that they also took for granted. Claire Parkinson, a professional Organisation Effectiveness Specialist, spoke movingly of how recent flooding in Norwich had meant teams had voluntarily manned the phones until 1am to ensure cover and support to those affected, as well as raising money themselves. Yet few other staff mentioned such efforts. Helping out on a police summer camp, running a football team on an estate – these activities were dropped casually into conversation as an aside, rather than as examples of staff going the extra mile to build communities.

One tiny gesture seemed to me to encapsulate the attitude. Emma Harrison had set up a Facebook page for residents on the estates where she was Housing Officer. As she walked around as part of her day-to-day activities, she would upload photos – sometimes of facilities, or of something that needed fixing, but sometimes just of a flower in the sunshine. The idea had spread – other officers and residents took and posted photos as well. No-one told Emma to do this or suggested it as a policy of ‘engagement’; the idea flowed naturally from what she knew about customers – that they needed to know officers were present and that they too took pride in the area. Nor was it an idea that she was especially excited by. She seemed surprised that I was struck by it. For her, as for the rest of the Places for People staff I spoke with, living their values and mission was simply the norm.

“Leadership,” David Cowans had stressed, “is what the team does when you’re not there.” It seemed to me a maxim that entirely suited Places for People, a company that was living its values whether anyone was watching and with very little interest in the awards that will surely continue to arrive as a result.

For those who wish to hear more about the Places for People, pre-book a ticket to Spark 2016 which will feature a talk on their unique culture and focus on employee engagement.

About the Author

Helen Walton is co-founder of Gamevy, an employee-owned tech start-up with no bosses. They also run Spark the Change - a conference designed to help other companies consider management innovation and radical methods of working. Spark the Change runs in London and Toronto - follow @SparkConf. Helen is a marketer who has worked on brands in make-up, skincare, fine art publishing and financial services. She is also a professional writer with eclectic interests, meaning she has authored several books on Agile Software Management, as well as puppet and radio plays... She's always happy to debate these topics or anything else on twitter @helenislovely.

Rate this Article