United Welsh is an award-winning housing association with a strong sense of social purpose that thrives on doing things differently.

‘Doing things differently’ is a theme that clearly came through when speaking with Emily Mills, People Partner.

We were lucky to grab some time with Emily to discuss building an authentic workplace culture, revisiting values, and elevating the stories of their people.

Oh, and why working at United Welsh is like ‘drinking a tall glass of lemonade on a hot summer's day!’ (Sorry, Emily, but we had to keep that in!)

Investing in building and maintaining a great workplace culture.


Hey, Emily. Tell us, why is investing in building and maintaining a great workplace culture so important to United Welsh?

“We want our people to be happy and to enjoy working with us. Because if they are, they are more likely to be engaged and they’ll do the right thing at the right time. We know we offer good benefit packages, but that’s not the foundation on which to build a good workplace culture.

Having conversations that matter, asking our people whether they feel like they can be their authentic selves, and ensuring they’ve got everything they need to drive change - these are the topics you need to address when looking at culture.

A great culture energises people; it creates an environment where people look forward to going to work.

United Welsh is all about community and really doing our best. Doing right by our people. If they feel happy, empowered and trusted, they’ll go on to make a positive impact in their careers and to the community.

We refer to these emotional connections as ‘The United Welsh way’ - we are known for being welcoming and inclusive. It’s something we are proud of, but we can’t sit still.

We recognise that creating the right culture is not just a one-off project, it’s a continuous process that always needs working on because ultimately, it impacts our people, our tenants and the communities we support. It’s not a hierarchical organisation and our Chief Executive, Lynda Sagona, has been brilliant in helping to create this culture”.

Great employer brands are aligned with workplace culture. You sometimes see organisations list values in a handbook or on the wall and think their job is done. How do you ensure you’re different and ‘walk the walk’ not ‘talk the talk’?

“We recruit to fit with our culture, engaging people who wish to contribute positively - it’s as simple as that. We celebrate our differences and work hard to attract people with the right motivations based on respect and trust.

Employer brand and workplace culture go hand in hand. The best brands create an emotional connection because they have a story to tell.

Let’s say you are a potential candidate researching whether to apply for a role with us. We want to ensure everything we put out aligns with our values and helps people to identify if they also share the same passions and what we are trying to achieve.

Our people are our greatest brand assets, so we ensure they are represented regularly through the stories we tell. It’s something we have really been focused on; looking at better ways to connect with potential new hires and sharing the stories celebrating the positive differences our teams make to our tenants. Our Communications team has been so great in driving this”.

Can you talk us through your process of identifying your values and how that can lead to creating authenticity in your culture?

Our values have always underpinned everything we do but a little while ago, we realised that they needed a sense-check to ensure they accurately reflected who we are.

An all-staff away day was arranged to discuss a number of initiatives, and the topic of Values was high on the list. Our role in this was to facilitate, and not drive it or have an agenda. There was so much support, it really was an organisation-wide project where everyone got involved.

We asked everyone: ‘Do our current values fit who we really are? If you had to describe United Welsh in one word, what would it be?’ We then were all given the space to reflect and see if they aligned with what we wanted to achieve personally and professionally.

The result was the formation of a word cloud, a culmination of the values everybody felt United Welsh stands for.

The words that are larger are those that multiple people presented and shared. It was such a proud moment for us all, to see in particular words such as ‘trust’, ‘integrity', ‘supportive’ and ‘honesty’ coming through.

I can’t quite explain it, but working with United Welsh is like this warm feeling. I am so proud of our people and the way we are happy to try new things.

I was asked to describe this feeling and the experience of working at United Welsh, and the only way I could was to liken it to drinking a tall glass of lemonade on a hot summer's day. This may sound a bit of a cliché but I feel it sums it up perfectly for me. It’s refreshing.”

A cloud representing United Welsh's values
United Welsh's Values

And can you give us some examples of how you’ve taken your values and built them into your process?

“On the themes of trust, integrity and empowerment: 1-2-1 reviews are employee-led. It’s not a case of running through a to-do list with your manager, they are regular check-ins to ensure employees have the tools and the environment they need to thrive.

Development is also a very important part of what we offer. We have an internal learning system ‘Learning Hub’ that boasts a suite of courses and we offer various training opportunities, along with the chance to join in with different aspects of other roles.

One initiative that really stands out for me is the Personal Leadership and Development Programme which our Executive team really champions.

It’s open to everyone, it gives you the time and space away from your day to day role to truly focus on the long-term impact of your role and future goals, whilst discovering what is unique about what we bring to United Welsh as individuals.

For me, this opportunity was a lovely experience. I felt so valued as a result. The investment that was put into me, and to everyone, could only have a positive impact. We can be our own worst critics sometimes, and this helped to reframe this mindset".

United Welsh's team in a series of settings
Photos of United Welsh's team

What are some of the challenges that lay ahead when attracting talent for housing, and how does culture help play a part to attract the right applicants?

You can develop skills, but behaviours are inherent in us. When we are hiring we look for people who can positively contribute to the culture; it doesn’t necessarily matter what their background is.

Culture doesn’t just kick in when a candidate hits apply. It’s how you build rapport beforehand, it’s how you ensure you’re accessible. It’s giving people the context and insight into what it’s actually like to join the team.

That’s why we love asking our teams to use review sites, such as GlassDoor and LinkedIn, to share their authentic experiences of working with us.

I recently likened using these review sites to when you go out for a nice meal, more often than not, you’ll likely first research the restaurant and check the reviews or ask your friends if they’ve been and what they think. It’s no different when you’re considering joining a company.

Sometimes people can be a bit wary of asking their teams to use these review sites but we openly encourage it. We trust our people. We know that sometimes you’re not going to get a glowing recommendation - but it’s all-important in achieving authenticity.

Another challenge is finding new ways to reach people with different backgrounds and skill-sets. That means going further than the usual methods. Our Communications team recently created a TikTok campaign to advertise a comms role we were recruiting for. The engagement was amazing.

Since then, Claire, who ran the campaign and Lauren, the lovely person who landed the role have been invited to speak on podcasts about thinking differently. This approach won’t work for every role, but it’s the learnings you take from it in how we can think differently to attract people in a candidate-driven market. That’s the great part.

Is it possible to measure the impact your employer brand and wider recruitment project work is having on your culture?

We measure it by what we are physically seeing in the workplace.

Engagement will always be the baseline. We’ve noticed there’s been a progressive shift in individual autonomy. We’ve seen a change in the levels of confidence people have when making decisions. We are able to have big conversations at United Welsh and that’s because we’ve created this environment where people feel safe to share.

Another way is to collect feedback outside of the usual places. For example, we proactively ask for feedback during the onboarding process by means of our new starter insights.

It’s about authenticity and doing things differently after all.

Summary

In a recent workshop we ran on employer branding, we learned that culture comes from the ground up, from talking to employees and creating genuine stories.

The examples provided in this conversation from Emily only prove this point. Culture doesn’t begin when a candidate applies, it has to be presented in many facets of the recruitment process to give potential candidates the real, authentic version of what it’s like to work in an organisation.

A big thank you to Emily for her time and for helping us to dig into showcasing great examples of values-led authentic workplace culture.

From a housing recruitment agency perspective, this helps us at Moxie to showcase and provide examples of why an organisation is different. It helps us to sell our clients' roles by sharing authentic stories. Something that's really important in a current candidate-driven market in a sector that sometimes finds it difficult to differentiate itself.

If you'd like to learn more, check out our article about employer branding in the housing sector.