FCHO and the pandemic – a blog by Chief Executive Donna Cezair


Our CEO Donna Cezair looks back over the past year and thechallenges that it presented, in an exclusive blog with HQN.

FCHO and the pandemic - one year on

When I think of the words ‘coronavirus pandemic’, a range of emotions stir as I reflect over the past year.

The mental health of our colleagues and customers has been at the forefront of everyone’s focus as we have done our best to ‘get through’. I’ve heard the statement: “we’re all facing the same storm, but not everyone is in the same boat” and as I join First Choice Homes Oldham (FCHO) as its new Chief Executive, I’m reminded of how true this quote is.

The northern town of Oldham has some of the highest levels of deprivation in the UK. The wrap-around support some of our tenants rely on has been vital, which is why I beam with pride when I speak to colleagues and digest everything they have achieved over the past 12 months to make sure no one gets left behind.

One of our biggest achievements has been the continuation of our affordable food service, The Bread and Butter Thing (TBBT) so that our most in-need customers still have access to food they rely on to feed their families. The hubs and community centres where we host the services from were quickly made safe by our staff and volunteers who worked tirelessly to put appropriate precautions in place. We have even managed to launch our fifth service last month, as well as a food delivery provision for tenants who are self-isolating or shielding.

During the height of lockdown, we called over 5,000 of our most vulnerable customers, many aged 70 and above, who we knew to be isolated and struggling. We made sure they had enough to eat, were coping financially, checked on their wellbeing and were just there for them, on the end of a phone showing that someone cared. We also supported Age UK Oldham with many colleagues volunteering to go shopping for older people or taking on the role of a ‘befriender’, enjoying phone and Skype calls with older residents.

We also conducted our ‘Lockdown Porch-traits’ project; a wonderful initiative where we worked with a local professional photographer to create 27 doorstep images of some of our fantastic customers and their families. We captured a significant moment in history and in doing so gave our customers memories and something to treasure forever. One of the photos captured won a regional competition.

We are in the fortunate position where we have not had to make redundancies or furlough employees. Despite that, staff faced other challenges and we knew that looking after our colleague’s wellbeing from the start was an absolute priority.

Our approach to wellbeing during the pandemic included: full flexibility to help colleagues balance new ways of working, a partnership with Manchester Stress Institute (MSI), care packages delivered to colleagues’ homes, virtual support groups and social events, weekly check-ins by our People Team and an extra day of annual leave to thank our colleagues for all their hard work. Our Communications and Leadership Teams produced daily internal communications including vlogs to keep everyone up-to-date with organisational and coronavirus-related news as well as feeling still part of Team FCHO.

A healthy and engaged workforce is absolutely crucial which is why I’m keen to carry on many of the initiatives after the pandemic. After all, what’s an organisation without its people?