We led a merger during the first lockdown and this is what we learned

Hattie Llewelyn-Davies, 11 November 2020

While other associations' merger plans were delayed, we took the decision to go ahead with the creation of Eastlight Community Homes, despite the Covid-19 crisis.

March’s lockdown happened just four months before the merger between 8,000-home Greenfields Community Housing and 4,000-home Colne Housing was due to go live; and as we dealt with the initial impact of the pandemic, we wondered how we could possibly continue with the launch of our new organisation.

We tried to weigh up whether it would be fair to our people to carry on with our plans. Would it be possible to bring our two talented workforces together if we could not meet in person?

Would calling a halt to the process be the right thing to do by our residents? Could we ensure they would be able to effectively scrutinise the merger if they were only able to do so virtually?

Could the advisors and other professionals involved in the merger process continue to provide the services we needed?

With lots of support from a great team of advisors, residents, staff, friends and family, we managed to answer our many questions, and deliver a successful merger – and we are now proud members of the Eastlight team; a team that is working well, despite many of us still not having met one another face-to-face.

Ultimately, Covid-19 and its social and economic implications made us even more determined to deliver our plans. As the crisis continues, we need to push ahead and make positive things happen, no matter how hard they are to deliver.

These are some of the lessons we have learned through being forced to do things differently:

Stay focused on your end goal

For us, this was to create the country's largest community gateway organisation on 1 July 2020. Our vision was for Eastlight to be a trailblazing housing association, which would deliver substantial benefits to customers and communities in the East of England.

We were fortunate in that, by the time the first lockdown happened, our two organisations had already agreed the outline business case for the merger, so we knew exactly what we wanted to achieve and why.

Keep up the engagement

Greenfields, where Emma was Chief Executive, was already a community gateway organisation, which meant we were committed to go through a more in-depth resident scrutiny process than is usually the case when housing associations merge.

For those at Colne, where Hattie was Chair, being part of an organisation where the future was shaped by residents was an important reason for choosing Greenfields as its partner. We could not let lockdown affect residents' ability to input into our decisions.

Our residents’ six-strong merger scrutiny group reviewed our progress and operating model as our launch date edged closer. These residents had already overseen the outline business case for the merger, and they went on to provide input that led to some significant changes to our plans.

All customers also had the opportunity to shape the branding strategy for the new organisation, with Greenfields' shareholding residents needing to endorse our name change via a vote. More than 500 votes were cast, with 80% supporting the change. All 5,000 shareholders were invited to take part in a virtual Special General Meeting.

Utilize the tools you have

We made an extra effort to reach out to residents via conversations and polls using our existing social media channels and vlogs on our website filmed by residents, in which they shared the ways they were shaping Eastlight's approach to service areas, such as repairs and development.

Our formal resident consultation started before lockdown, with tenants and leaseholders invited to a series of face-to-face meetings, and we continued to reach out to individuals virtually. We found this type of contact suited many residents better than traditional methods; for example, more than 1,000 residents found the time to take part in a survey we ran in August, which asked them for input and feedback.

Work with equally dedicated partners

As is the case with all mergers, we needed to rely on third parties – including our lenders and lawyers – when finalising formal processes. Although we were initially concerned about their capacity to deliver everything we needed virtually, they pulled out all of the stops to ensure Eastlight officially launched on 1 July.

Focus on the positives

We had planned a huge celebration for our people, customers and stakeholders to mark the launch of Eastlight – but as things turned out, we had to revert to Zoom and hold a virtual event.

We worked very hard to create that 'day one' energy, which makes everyone excited about being part of something new.

Our connection with 300 staff members during the event was, on reflection, more personal than the celebration we originally had in mind. It effectively took place in individuals' homes, with everyone having received a 'We are Eastlight' welcome pack, which included their new Eastlight ID badges, cakes and sweets.

Embrace change for the long-term

If we wanted the creation of Eastlight to be a success, we had no choice but to adapt and find new ways of getting things done. To our great advantage, there was no rulebook for achieving a merger during a lockdown, so we could try totally new approaches and find new solutions.

We don't believe we'll ever go back to the old ways of working and have completely redesigned and refurbished our offices so they will be more suitable for how we want to operate in future (as shut during second lockdown).

Meanwhile, we are maintaining high levels of engagement with our residents, who will continue to shape our organization, with many taking part in our Future of Eastlight festival this month.

Our commitment to Eastlight's purpose saw us through what could have been a very difficult pre-merger period. We now know for certain that Eastlight Community Homes has the focus and agility we will need to work our way through the Covid-19 crisis and into the future.

Eastlight have been early adopters since we started our Together with Tenants programme of work. Find out more about Together with Tenants and read the report which launched this Autumn to see how you can use it within your own organisations.