As much as the HI Future team anticipated that addressing business barriers to homelessness employment would be a herculean task, the reality is that at the start of 2019, we had no idea of the real scale of the challenges we were facing.
We understood that the cultural and systemic challenges – of negative perception and meritocratic recruitment – within businesses were as an important part of the solutions as supporting those impacted with their personal challenges. What we hadn’t accounted for was the scale of the challenges we’d be working with, or how deeply we’d have to dig to find opportunities that would enable people experiencing homelessness to earn an income, afford a home and reconnect with new communities of people.
Hence, why a three-month user research sprint turned into a nine-month exploration beyond just the mindsets and attitudes businesses collectively hold when it comes to the experience of homelessness. We chose to dig deeper and look at the processes and expectations businesses are wedded to when it comes to employment, and the support systems internal and external to organisations when it comes to enabling vulnerable people to thrive in the workplace.
We were exceptionally fortunate that we had so much support early doors. As little as we understood about the why in January 2019, early-stage sponsorship from Balfour Beatty and MAG-O – the dedicated digital arm at Manchester Airport Group (MAG) – assured us that there was a business need to enable homeless employment. Enough to participate in user research and commit to helping us co-create the solution with other cross-sector parties.
Partnerships with the DWP, Business in the Community, Groundwork in Greater Manchester and Mustard Tree all meant that we were able to bring the public and social sector perspective in to inform our understanding. Most important, however, was the involvement of people impacted by homelessness. Alongside our personal insight consultant, Mooch Ashley, we worked with fifteen people either in or looking for work who to better understand the challenges.
We learned so much. Culturally, that fears around skills and experiences within businesses – plus assumptions surrounding health and professionalism – are the core biases preventing businesses from opening their doors to those impacted. That and the gap between empathy and expectations for those looking to reintegrate into society and the workplace is wide, and requires bridging before organisations will even consider people experiencing homelessness as potentially valuable employees, and address the recruitment and onboarding process to make it feasible
At this stage, we took a step back. The insights allowed us to design an education workshop, where we helped HR teams, line managers, directors and colleagues alike understand the context of the homeless experience. Shedding light on the scale, root causes, personal impact and societal response to homelessness helped shift mindsets from placing responsibility from people to society. That, and think beyond rough sleeping and wake up to the latent potential held in the people who have exhibited significant strength and resilience to work their way out of their situation.
It was during this process that the motivations behind our sponsors’ investment and supporters like KMPG and Lloyds Bank were revealed. Demonstrating social value and exploring the true potential of diversity and inclusion through investing in social mobility were just two of the drivers we witnessed as we prototyped the education workshop with Balfour Beatty and MAG-O. The immediate impact started to reveal itself too, as the workshop was rolled out during MAG’s diversity and inclusion week, and Balfour Beatty began a more involved conversation around in-work homelessness and supporting existing employees to thrive.
Whilst significant learning and progress had been made, we still had huge gaps in our knowledge. While funding had long since run outcome June 2019, understanding the recruitment process and potential for in-work support was key, so more user research was required. Workshops with MAG-O and Balfour Beatty’s HR functions followed, allowing us to map, contextualise and consider where the greatest barriers and opportunities might lie. Exceptions made in the graduate recruitment process and surfacing strengths that the recruitment processes overlooks all offered potential.
This led to an interim design sprint with our partner design agency, Paper. Keen to kick start the design process, build our own team and learn ahead of the major design and development sprints we were searching for funding for, we took the kinks observed in the recruitment process and redesigned the recruitment scoring system for social mobility. The tools created to improve inclusive interview technique, better surface hidden potential and enable longer-term support that will empower all employees to thrive is testament to Paper’s contextual thinking, sensitivity in working with vulnerable people and passion to improve society. We’re just starting with recruitment.
Also essential was exploring what good in work support looks like. Interviewing our public and social sector partners helped us understand the need for emphasis on ready for work – stability, skills and esteem all being key to getting people with personal insight to the starting line of work. However, the understanding of the challenges that can crop up in work and systems in place to mitigate and manage are disparate, and the need for a connected approach to enabling health and wealth is essential. Combined with a dearth of understanding around each individual’s strengths and aspirations, the potential for innovation in this space is ripe.
Which brings us to next steps. The need for insight and investment necessitated the shifting of our schedule, but the intention was always to move into the design and development of a solution that helps businesses find the right people, then support them to thrive in once back in the workplace. Awarded a development grant from the National Lottery Community Fund will allow us to do just that, and having received funding in late December 2019, means the first quarter of 2020 will be a hive of activity.
Our initial focus will be on matchmaking and bringing together our sponsor businesses and long-standing partners with new supporters in the shape of Bolton at Home and Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, alongside people impacted by homelessness to co-create the solution. With the aim of designing in January, developing in February and testing in March, Spring will see the launch and piloting of the HI Future solution across Greater Manchester. With a vision of creating secure and stable futures, it will take a collective effort to create more supportive and inclusive workplaces.
With funding still needed to design and develop the support ecosystem, businesses needed to test the matchmaking platform and social and public sector organisations keen to empower people to live independently again, we need all the help we can get. Get in touch here to find out more about how you can help.