How to be a responsible business in challenging times

"Social responsibility has never been an after-thought or ‘add-on’ at Orbit. It is who we are. It is what we do. It is our core business," John Wrighthouse, Group People Director at Orbit shares his reflections on being a responsible business as part of Orbit's involvement in Business in the Community's' Making Work Work Campaign.

John Wrighthouse, Group People Director at Orbit

As a social landlord and housebuilder, we are here to ensure that people have safe places to call home and can lead better lives as part of thriving communities. Our social purpose means that we reinvest our profits to improve the quality of our homes, our services and our communities, and in the provision of much needed affordable housing.

Being a responsible business with strong social values is not only critical to helping our customers and colleagues navigate the current issues facing society, but also in tackling long-term global issues too.

But how does a business know what issues they are best placed to have positive impact on, and where they can start to make a difference?

We had a view on what these issues were for Orbit, but we wanted to ensure our efforts contribute to the bigger picture and are aligned to the global United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. We used research and data to explore local and national needs and used this insight to identify a number of short and long-term environment and social commitments, which would have an impact on our stakeholders and on national and global indicators.

In 2019 we became one of the early adopters in completing Business in The Communities’ (BITC) Responsible Business Tracker, which benchmarks our performance against others beyond our sector. We use this to ensure we are making progress and to drive change and become a more responsible and ethical business.

Demonstrating our commitment to driving equality, diversity, and inclusion, we signed up to the BITC’s Race at Work Charter. We are also a supporter of the BITC’s Mental Health at Work commitment and launched Mental Health First Aiders across the business who provide support to colleagues and raise awareness of the importance of wellbeing and mental health within the workplace.

Making certain that responsible decisions are part of a ‘business-as-usual approach’ at every level throughout our organisation has helped us gain buy-in across the business and make some important progress on our journey to minimise our impact on the environment, deliver social value and support society.

Earlier this year, we announced key progress against our Environmental Social Governance commitments as part of our latest ESG report including launching our Net Zero Carbon Roadmap, announcing a reduction in the carbon footprint of our operations by 33%, and setting a new Thriving Communities strategy to deliver social value to customers.

But it’s also been necessary to ensure our approach allowed for flexibility to adapt and respond to situations which impact our society and environment, or in response to global or national emergencies, such as the rising cost of living crisis, the war in Ukraine, and the continuing effects of COVID-19. 

In recent months, this flexible approach has allowed us to galvanise our resources behind a new raft of measures introduced as part of our ‘Better Days’ programme to help customers manage their finances, maximise their income and reduce the pressure of cost-of-living increases - including the launch of a Welfare Benefits Advice Service and a new Winter Wellbeing initiative with National Energy Action.

In the new year, we’ll be conducting a cost-of-living study with our customers to understand how they are currently feeling and how they are managing financially.  The study will give us insight into the extent with which the cost-of-living crisis is impacting our customers and will help us shape the additional support or services that they may need from us.

We are acutely aware that it is not just our customers who are struggling with the financial pressures of the of the cost-of-living crisis. Earlier this year we took the decision via the annual pay review to enhance the percentage increase by over 6% for colleagues in lower salary bands. This means that 57% of our colleagues received a higher increase. It also means that, whilst we continue to be a voluntary Real Living Wage employer, in many cases we are now paying above this level.

In addition to enhancing the percentage pay increase for those who need it most, we are running a cost-of-living campaign to support colleagues. The campaign includes a Cost-of-Living advice hub providing access to financial webinars run with our partner, Aviva; tips and advice from a range of experts; and links to Government support schemes. We are also encouraging colleagues to take advantage of the benefits available through their employment with Orbit, including the employee assistance programme and access to discounts from a wide variety of retailers, supermarkets, and utilities’ providers, which are available through Orbit’s reward gateway, Starts in Orbit. In the last 12 months alone colleagues have saved over £30,000 by using these discounts.

As a sector we are facing numerous competing and costly demands but by listening to customers and working in collaboration with communities, partners, the wider sector and beyond, we can continue to maximise the positive impact that we have as a responsible business.