Dot Dot Dot…10 years and counting

June 23, 2021

Dot Dot Dot chief executive, Peter Brown, reflects on what he’s learnt after moving from a housing association to work for a social enterprise.

So Dot Dot Dot is 10 years old…and I’ve been part of it for seven of those years. The first time I heard about Dot Dot Dot was in about 2012 when someone in my network mentioned that someone he knew had started a property guardianship social enterprise. That turned out to be Katharine, who had recently started her social enterprise and was looking for properties to house people who did great volunteering. The concept has been proven with some early successes, but more properties were needed. 

At that time, I was working for the local authority housing organisation, Tower Hamlets Homes. Like most housing providers of that size, we had a small number of properties that couldn’t be used for longterm local authority tenants. I was looking for a solution that was better than just leaving the properties empty and hoping for the best, which had been the strategy up to that point. Having people who also volunteered whilst looking after the properties met a business need, because it cut risk and costs, and gave long-term tenants great neighbours. It made my housing management colleagues feel good that properties were being put to a good use by working with an organisation that was innovative as well as trustworthy. 

Because I worked for a client before I came to work at Dot Dot Dot, I got to experience the full value of what happens when you partner with an organisation that is purposeful, exists for all the right reasons and has a clear, socially responsible approach to doing business. Perhaps it’s unusual to switch from a housing provider to supplier, but many of the values that housing organisations hold true are shared by Dot Dot Dot, The way that work is carried out has changed over the years, but the Dot Dot Dot business model, our desire for impact and the commitment we have to good results for everyone hasn’t altered.

I have always been a fan of the social enterprise model. To my mind, they occupy that space somewhere between purely commercial organisations and fully mission-driven charities, and try to take the best bits of each, aiming to create something powerful, purposeful and, crucially, sustainable. It’s been a pleasure to be part of Dot Dot Dot’s journey this far and to get to work with so many great clients, colleagues and guardians over the years.

Most of my career before I joined Dot Dot Dot was in the public sector, and for organisations much larger than Dot Dot Dot. When I contrast what it’s like to lead Dot Dot Dot with those earlier professional experiences, there’s something quite freeing about organisations like ours that are smaller and able to be nimble. At Dot Dot Dot, we are very focused on doing the right things for our clients and those we house, and increasingly we will be focusing our efforts partnering with clients who we think will enable us to do our best work. At Dot Dot Dot we are trying to do one thing – provide housing that makes it easier for people to do good – and everyone in the team wants to do this and to find ways to do it well. 

It’s also good to be able to stay connected with people working in all kinds of housing organisations – the big, the small, the specialised, as well as the more general. Through our careful choice of guardians who want to volunteer, and our diligent management approach, we have always made sure that we can add value to our clients’ work and projects. We know that we get our strongest feedback when we are working in situations where choices about what guardians are on site and how they are managed matter the most. These situations commonly are the more complicated regeneration and development programmes, and bigger buildings in the areas where property owners have a long term stake and ongoing interest. They are often settings where clients have sensitive projects and often with longer-term residents closeby.

Another reflection is that I’m more certain than ever about how vital a brilliant team is. Dot Dot Dot has a great team of people working for it – with its Board supporting the exec – and the collective value of the team’s commitment, energy and skills is immense. We couldn’t achieve what we have over the last 10 years without our people.

Over the years, the way we have done our work has of course changed – we have more staff, we have evolved and improved how we work and, as we have become bigger, we have become more professionalised and created more specialised roles. When I began at Dot Dot Dot, we could travel to all of the properties in our portfolio by bike (or bus if it was raining!), since they were all in East London. We aren’t so local anymore – we have properties throughout London and the south east, as well as the south coast, Oxford and Cambridge and Manchester – but the commitment we have to our work, our desire to create a positive impact and our sense of values has not changed at all…and hopefully won’t do in the next 10 years.

Spotlight on: Ailsa, looking back at eight years of Dot Dot Dot guardianship

June 17, 2021

From our longest standing guardian of eight years, Ailsa

Back in 2012 I’d just started volunteering with Bow Arts after not being in London for long. At the same time, I got made redundant from my job and had to leave the digs I was in at the time. I was on the brink of having to leave London altogether until one day when I was leaving an arts exhibition, I was feeling flat and started chatting to the receptionist about my situation. She told me that her friend had just started up an organisation called Dot Dot Dot, and as I was already volunteering I’d be a great fit. 

I wasn’t sure at first, but I went on the website, got in touch and met with Dot Dot Dot’s founder, Katharine. We had a really honest and open conversation about property guardianship – and I was hooked on the idea. 

I decided to press on with becoming a Dot Dot Dot guardian and met Katharine at Blackwall Tunnel DLR stop from where we walked through a housing estate to a little fifties flat at the top of a tower block in east London. She showed me the flat and I immediately thought, yes, I’m having it! It was so exciting to bump into other guardians on the stairs – it was all so new to all of us, it felt like such a novelty. We used to do ‘come dine with me’ evenings and visit each other’s flats for drinks. For me, they became my London community;  my best friends. Ten years later, I’m still close with several of them after bonding so much in those early days. 

I ended up staying in my fifties flat for six months where I paid £260 a month before we were asked to vacate the building. Luckily a 1-bed flat came up in an area nearby. Katharine was also living here at the time so we ended up living close by to each other. I ended up living in five different properties over the eight years that I was a guardian – I knew I wanted to stay living in east London and there were times that I moved out and privately rented somewhere else. It’s expensive, I had to share with other people in a small place and put my stuff into storage. And so I always came back to Dot Dot Dot. 

As a Dot Dot Dot guardian, you know that you’re going to live alongside good people who care about others. There was safety in it for me as well – I know what being a guardian involves and so I was keen to roll with moving to new places when we got given notice. Sticking with it, saving money and feeling secure allowed me to pursue my art career and volunteer with a big range of organisations. I’m not a guardian at the moment but there’s a good chance that I’d look to be a Dot Dot Dot guardian again in the future. 

Read more stories from our guardians on their volunteering and how living with Dot Dot Dot has given them the freedom and flexibility to pursue their goals.

Guardian of the month: Laura Chaitow

March 26, 2021

From our Oxford guardian, Laura Chaitow

As a critical care nurse I have experienced, first hand, the stress and trauma of working in the Coronavirus pandemic. I originally set up a role to support my colleagues well-being 2 years ago. However, due to social distancing it has become difficult to support my colleagues in the way I would have liked. I have, this month, set up debriefing sessions over Zoom. These run 6 times a week for at least an hour but generally as long as people need them to be. This is a free service I have set up to support colleagues who are struggling to come to terms with the unprecedented stress we have been experiencing at work.

I’m a lead for staff mental health and wellbeing in my department and was originally working on a project to build a mindfulness room for staff to use. Then the pandemic happened and we lost our funding. I kept thinking I needed to do something to help my colleagues and then when I became a guardian it made sense to use my volunteering to help NHS workers. It all comes down to the need and whoever wants to come – most of them are girls who I work with but my aunt works as a psychologist and my mum is a nurse too so I’ve spoken to some of their colleagues.

I try to structure the month’s sessions around a theme, and this month is ‘compassionate inner voice’. They’re generally very loose themes as I like not having a huge amount of structure to what we have to talk about. Everyone brings a cup of tea or a glass of wine and it’s just a no pressure chat – sometimes it’s a Covid-free zone! A lot of the people who join either live alone or have lost relatives to Covid. A couple of the women I work with have had really intense struggles with their mental health and it’s made worse by the fact that many are single and can’t see their parents. They’re all such a wonderful bunch and I’m glad I can offer them support. I’m quite ambitious and would be keen to turn the sessions into a way to give back to others and create new projects from this one. Watch this space!

I used to live alone in Oxford and it was so expensive. In January last year I decided that I could no longer afford it and moved back in with my parents. It was a struggle at first having to move back home at 29 after having my own independence. I started thinking that I wanted to move out but at the same time I wanted to save and hopefully own my own place one day. It was then that I got chatting to a friend of mine who is a guardian in Oxford. I thought I’d just have a look but there was nothing available and I thought there never would be. But my friend encouraged me to apply with Dot Dot Dot in case – when I did something came up immediately which felt really fortuitous and was perfect for the stage I was at in my life.

Being a Dot Dot Dot guardian has given me the space to think more creatively and be more self reliant. I love my own space and never thought it would be an option. It’s in such a lovely area, in this beautiful forgotten crescent by the river, a few minutes stroll into town. Having the ability to live alone in Oxford, is such a privilege. I was always so envious of friends who had their own houses for pennies and I was really craving that level of independence but didn’t want to have to worry about finances and not be able to save. I have these moments where I look around and it’s so empowering to be a woman in my own space in my own flat in central Oxford. You’re able to make it a home and paint the walls – I’m such an intuitive person and if my space doesn’t feel comfortable then I struggle.

I’ve got a pink living room now and my boyfriend is a carpenter. And so he put a new wooden floor in my bathroom and made me some kitchen units. I recently bought home two chairs from the hospital that they were throwing away and I’m going to upcycle them. I learnt how to upholster on YouTube and I’ve bought some tweed offcuts on Ebay that I’m going to use for the covers. I’ve got some other really fun pieces that I’ve made or found in charity shops, and my flat is filled with macrame! Lockdown has given me the time to decorate my flat, and probably none of this would have happened otherwise. Having the time to follow those ideas through and complete projects has really boosted my self-esteem and been really wholesome.

Read more stories from our guardians on their volunteering and how living with Dot Dot Dot has given them the freedom and flexibility to pursue their goals.

Spotlight on: Aoise and Zoe, International Women’s Day

March 19, 2021

For International Women’s Day, we highlighted two of our guardians who are supporting women through their work and volunteering, helping to build a more equal future for all. Read more from our former guardian Aoise who’s paving the way for women leaders in social enterprise through her work with Supply Change. And our east London guardian, Zoe, who has been supporting vulnerable women and children in temporary housing through her volunteering with the Magpie Project.

 

Aoise, Supply Change

From our former guardian, Aoise

I was trying to find a place to live in London, and to do that in an affordable way was really difficult because London is so expensive…My weekend jobs were mainly waitressing which wasn’t that well paid, so I really wanted to be able to find a place that would allow me to continue with Year Here (a programme for entrepreneurs driven to create meaningful social change). That’s where Dot Dot Dot came in.

Living with Dot Dot Dot and not having to pay huge amounts of money for housing was a huge aspect of being able to carry on with Year Here. It gave me that breathing space to explore options with Supply Change, the social enterprise I set up with two of my fellow alumni, and really build on the learning I had gained from Year Here. It gave me a great launching pad and foundation.

The whole ethos and mission of Supply Change is to help social enterprises win and deliver more contracts. Our supplier base is over 50% women-led, which I think is quite common across the sector, and from the outset we try to support them to get them in front of buyers. We believe that redirecting some of that buyer spend to social businesses and social entrepreneurs can be really meaningful, especially when they’ve got past the stage of relying on grant funding. Directing revenue and regular contracts to these businesses is a really really great way of supporting social enterprises and the women who lead them.

Another way I support women entrepreneurs is through Supply Change itself. We are completely women-founded and we are a 75% women team. There are a lot of amazing women leaders in the social enterprise sector. Three female leaders in procurement is definitely a change in the way things have been done previously. We are paving the way for a lot more women to be leaders within the social enterprise sector and social procurement.

Zoe, The Magpie Project

From our east London guardian, Zoe

For a long time I had been looking to be involved with an organisation focused on supporting women, but hadn’t found myself with enough time to do so. Then after becoming a guardian with Dot Dot Dot, I found myself with more time to dedicate to issues I cared about. After learning about the incredible work that the Magpie Project does to support women and their children, I knew their cause was the one I wanted to be involved with.

The Magpie Project is an amazing charity that supports vulnerable women and their small children that are living in temporary accommodation. They work incredibly hard to get these families on their feet, and they stand up for them in ways that others haven’t. Since I started volunteering for them my role as a volunteer has involved a bit of everything. On a regular shift my role involves helping during a day session at their centre in various ways, as well as creating illustrations that they could use.

Since the pandemic started the Magpie Project has been working very hard to find ways to continue supporting its families in a safe and socially distanced way, and they’ve been very successful in finding ways to deliver help such as food and essentials to their homes. Even when the Magpie Project centre had to close its doors because of the pandemic, it found ways to continue delivering help to families that would otherwise be destitute

I volunteered for them remotely by creating some videos for the children and families to do illustration and creative activities at home. Volunteering for the Magpie Project allowed me to support women not only by helping with the work that they do every week at their centre, but also using my own skills, such as creating illustrations they could use to raise awareness about their cause, or to sell and to raise funds for the women and their families.

Becoming a Dot Dot Dot guardian enabled me to dedicate more of my time to causes I care about, which otherwise wouldn’t have been possible given the high cost of living and rent in London.

Dot Dot Dot not only gave me the opportunity to pursue my own path, as I was then able to afford enough space to have my own studio at home to develop my work, but also gave me the opportunity to give some of my time to others and help causes I feel are meaningful and worth supporting.

Read more stories from our guardians on how living with Dot Dot Dot has given them the freedom and flexibility to pursue their goals.

On the ground: inspections and monitoring

March 18, 2021

In our ‘on the ground’ series, our Director of Services, Mark Ackroyd, explores some of the details of how our service works. In our last instalment, we looked at how Dot Dot Dot mobilises in large or complex properties. This month, we look at how we use inspections to monitor properties over the life of a contract.

 

Why inspections matter

When managing voids, an ‘inspection’ is often focused on condition. An ‘inspection’ might be completed in minutes by an operative who is covering a large patch. If you manage residential properties, you might use more intensive inspections that support your compliance regime. In some cases, they might also be part of your system for resident and community liaison.

That last model is more similar to the approach taken by Dot Dot Dot. Although we are managing our clients’ ‘voids’, those properties are also the housing stock that we provide to guardians, and we monitor properties with both of those things in mind.

For Dot Dot Dot, inspections achieve several goals:

  • Regular direct contact with our guardians in their own homes
  • Confirmation of guardian occupation and compliance
  • Actively using our right to enter properties
  • Monitoring property condition or changes
  • Ensuring safety and compliance.

Because inspections are so key to our operation, we rely on our in-house field team for this work. This team works with our properties and guardians at every step, from initial mobilisation to final vacant possession. We use customised software that allows our team to log inspections directly in the field, providing immediate and auditable inspection information back to head office.

 

How we inspect

Our normal approach is to use three types of inspections to monitor our properties:

Monthly space inspections

We use the word ‘space’ to refer to the part of a property that is allocated to one guardian, whether a room or a larger part of a property. Our unannounced monthly inspections involve checking each space for basic condition and safety, including checks of fire and CO alarms. The main focus is to check that each space is being properly and safely occupied by the correct guardian. 

In most cases, inspections are a chance for a positive interaction with our guardians. Our in-house field team means that guardians can have a conversation with a direct and informed member of our team. Inspections also allow us to identify any issues arising from occupation, and we can quickly escalate any concerns:

  • Is there evidence of additional occupants or unaccompanied guests?
  • Has the property been left unoccupied without our knowledge and permission?
  • Are children staying at the property?
  • Might smoking or drug use be happening at the property?
  • Is the guardian keeping the property secure?

 

Monthly property checks

Alongside our space inspections, Dot Dot Dot also carries out a larger monthly set of checks at every property. These checks will be familiar to most residential property managers, and include critical condition and safety checks:

  • Are exit routes clear and safe?
  • Are communal facilities (kitchens, bathrooms, refuse areas) sanitary and in good condition?
  • Are doorways and perimeters secure?
  • Are communal safety systems functioning correctly?
  • Are there evidence of disrepair, vandalism or ASB?

Depending on the property, checks of safety systems could vary from a simple check that shared stairwells are clear, to a full battery of on-site checks covering fire systems, water monitoring, CCTV or other systems. 

In some properties, trained guardians will have specific duties to provide additional monitoring. This could include tasks such as carrying out call-point tests or flushing unused plumbing outlets. Our monthly checks will include checking the guardian logs and escalating any gaps or discrepancies.

These checks are standard across all of our projects, regardless of the formal division of duties between Dot Dot Dot and our clients. This gives us peace of mind that our guardians are in safe homes, and gives our clients the assurance that their properties are being monitored with the diligence required in a residential setting, even if their own records say ‘void’.

 

Quarterly in-depth checks

Every three months, each property is subject to a deep-dive inspection.  This lengthy and detailed inspection includes a rigorous check of compliance, condition, occupation and upkeep.

Taking several hours for our larger properties, these inspections take our staff into every space of a property so that no part of a building is ‘unseen’. We check for changes in property condition, and examine the overall upkeep and hygiene of the property in detail, looking both at guardian activity (such as upkeep of communal areas) and at broader issues such as maintenance needs in gardens or other external areas. We also carry out much more detailed checks of compliance issues, with particular attention to doors, exits, stairways and other structural and safety elements that can deteriorate over time without being easily identified by guardians who live there every day.

Our field software means that our team is guided through each check in detail, and can capture notes and photographs of defects directly into their reports.

These quarterly checks include customised elements where needed, so that we pay special attention to the things that need particular attention for each property. Examples could include accessing client-managed outbuildings, checking ducts or roof spaces, assessing the impact of local ASB, or confirming that contained/managed asbestos remains undisturbed and safe.  

 

Taking a complete view

The three types of inspection described above apply to every area where Dot Dot Dot works. In more complex buildings, they might also be accompanied with other forms of monitoring that the property requires. These can vary from weekly flushing regimes to daily site inspections.

This range of inspections allow us to have a detailed view of each property and of how it is being occupied by our guardians.  It allows us to keep our guardians safe, but also to ensure that our guardians are observing our guidelines. Our team’s visits allow us to develop a good understanding of each project, which can be important in old or unusual properties that might not be a priority for our clients.

As well as monitoring our own performance, our inspections allow us to inform clients of emerging defects or risks, and even to offer insight into issues affecting other local residents that have been hidden from view. The combination of committed guardians, dedicated staff and structured inspections allows us to have a complete view of even the most obscure property.

If you want to find out more about how we work, you can sign up to Meanwhile Thoughts, our monthly newsletter for property owners.

Creating social impact with London Borough of Newham and Civic in east London

March 16, 2021

Since 2016, Dot Dot Dot has worked alongside London Borough of Newham to house a total of 159 property guardians in 46 properties awaiting regeneration across east London. Beyond the invaluable work we do to manage and secure empty properties in the area, our mission to create social impact in the communities in which we work has given us the opportunity to partner with London Borough of Newham and Civic to repurpose empty spaces for community use.

Aligned values

Like Dot Dot Dot, Newham are also committed to creating social impact through their Community Wealth Building initiative. Community wealth building, according to CLES (the national organisation for local communities), is ‘a new people-centred approach to local economic development, which redirects wealth back into the local economy, and places control and benefits into the hands of local people’. Championed by Newham mayor Rokhsana Fiaz, Newham’s commitment to community wealth building aims to address poverty levels in the borough by economically empowering local communities. 

Almost half of Newham’s homes are in the private rented sector, where rents rose 56% between 2012 and 2019, and a huge 75% of salaries in Newham are put towards rent. At Dot Dot Dot, our commitment to affordable housing in areas where local people are priced out by high rents has provided a strong foundation for our partnership with the borough council.

Supporting relationships with stakeholders

Aside from delivering residential meanwhile projects for empty properties, there are many other ways we can support our clients. In 2017, Newham council reached out to Dot Dot Dot for some guidance on a potential meanwhile project on a piece of land earmarked for regeneration.

In the short term, they were sensitive to the possible disruption for residents, and wanted to utilise empty spaces in Custom House to bring the community together. Beyond our work to secure empty properties for Newham, we have also been able to support relationships with stakeholders, be it current residents or fostering new partnerships with other meanwhile organisations. In 2017, we used our expertise in the field to set out two proposed organisations that Newham could work with to repurpose the land, with Dot Dot Dot as the junior partner. By 2018, Newham had cemented their partnership with Civic, who are ‘supporting the new development of civic infrastructure’ in east London. 

Social impact in Newham

Civic’s work to reutilise disused spaces as community hubs mirrors our mission to repurpose empty buildings as housing and give back to the community through volunteering. As part of their transformation of the empty space at 3-9 Freemasons Road, Civic have encouraged community involvement in the project through volunteering. 

Dot Dot Dot has been able to assist Civic through our partnership with Newham council, by connecting local guardians in Canning Town and Custom House to Civic’s volunteering opportunities. Guardians have assisted in the transformation of the Custom House Civic Community Hub in a variety of ways, including painting a mural, building outdoor furniture out of pallets, helping out in the community garden and painting ahead of the building’s transformation into community spaces.

Civic has been delighted to welcome our guardians into their voluntary effort, and the project is a great example of how guardians can contribute to their communities: “Dot Dot Dot volunteers have been an invaluable resource in our journey to reopen the high street. They have given back to the community in more ways than one. Together we’ve launched a fruit and veg pop up shop, a podcast and rehearsal room, a hanging garden, a Covid-19 response and so much more. It’s been incredibly fun and they feel like part of the team. We can’t wait to continue to work with Dot Dot Dot across our Newham project”. 

Adapting to new challenges

In March 2020, the arrival of Covid-19 put plans for the community spaces on hold. Civic had to adapt to their changing environment and turned their hands to assisting their community in what was, and continues to be, a difficult time. Dot Dot Dot guardians did not hesitate to help the crucial effort, providing support by distributing food and PPE, assembling activity packs for homeschooling, creating “thank you” packs for key workers and sourcing clothes for those in housing need with Amy’s space.  As each guardian commits to contributing 16 hours of volunteering each month, Dot Dot Dot can provide an invaluable resource and direct volunteers to causes that matter most to our clients and the communities that they serve. Once plans for the community hub remobilise, guardians will be key contributors to Civic’s vital work for the Newham community. 

Not only does our crucial work with Newham continue to provide affordable housing to residents, but it has provided the support and voluntary hours to enable them to invest in meanwhile projects with the community at their heart.

If you’d like to hear more about how we work with our clients and their partners, you can sign up to our newsletter, Meanwhile Thoughts, here or contact us at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com.

When is a social enterprise like a submarine?

March 12, 2021

From our founder, Katharine Hibbert

You might think that Dot Dot Dot – a social enterprise which gets empty buildings into use, and which never gets closer to the sea than our projects in Southend and Shoreham – has very little in common with the Royal Navy’s submarine service.  In fact, our process for decision-making was inspired by that used by submariners – and it serves us in our day-to-day work for the same reason it is useful to sailors operating 500m under water. 

When a Royal Navy submarine is at sea, the crew make decisions based on three priorities, only moving to the second once the first is satisfied, and only moving on to the third once the second is achieved.  For submariners, these rules are: 

          1. Be safe 

          2. Remain undetected

          3. Achieve your mission 

This means that submariners don’t start trying to carry out the orders they have been given unless they are sure that they won’t be spotted while doing so, and preserving lives normally trumps staying hidden. 

Dot Dot Dot’s decision-making process is different in content but similar in structure.  When making decisions at all scales, we work through the following hierarchy, only moving on to the next step once the current one is satisfied.  In our case, the rules are: 

          1. Act ethically and with integrity 

          2. Be a sustainable business 

          3. Create positive social impact 

          4. Go above and beyond for our stakeholders 

          5. Grow 

This means that all forms of dishonesty and cruelty are ruled out, even if the behaviour is legal but morally dubious, and even if it helped the business and we would never get caught.   

After that, it’s important that we stay in business.  We cover our costs through the fees paid by our guardians not through grants, so we need to earn money to continue to do our work.  We make no apology for aiming to make a profit – being in the black opens up opportunities, makes us independent and gives us a margin for error.  We also have a responsibility to our team, the people we house and the property owners we work with to create a stable environment.  People rely on us for jobs and homes, and we play a key role in some huge regeneration projects, so we shouldn’t take big risks or make high-stakes gambles that could put this in jeopardy.   

But being a sustainable business isn’t enough on its own.  We’re proud of doing well, but we come to work to make a difference.  Once we’re confident that our risks are managed, we lean into the social impact aspects of our business model.  Fortunately for Dot Dot Dot, support for volunteering and communities iintegral to what we do.  Simply by staying in business we prevent empty buildings from blighting neighbourhoods and we enable people to get involved in causes they care about.  But there is always more that can be done – and when we have the resources available, we look for ways that we can make volunteering and neighbourliness even easier and more appealing for guardians.  We also seek ways to improve standards in the property guardian sector and share what we have learned with other housing organisations and social enterprises. 

On top of that, once we’re happy that we’re working towards our vision of a society where people have the time and energy to give back to communities and causes they care about, we look to do a great job for the individuals and the specific organisations who work with us, and for the Dot Dot Dot team.  For example, we invest extra money in making the communal areas of our larger shared buildings welcoming, clean and comfortable so that guardians can enjoy them.  We tailor our service to the needs of each property owner we work with – this blog outlines how we’ve done this in Henley for South Oxford Housing Association.  And we try to provide a good working environment – for example, by encouraging team-members to make use of our flexitime scheme to ensure that they can get out and about during lockdown.   

Finally, we look to take on new work and grow – but only if we’re confident that all the other priorities are satisfied.  Growth is important to us – scale can support stability, and the more work we win, the more people we can house and the more volunteering we can support.  But growth which doesn’t support impact, which harms the service we offer to existing clients, or which puts our business sustainability at risk, is ruled out by these decision-making principles.  So all the proposals we provide to property owners are priced and specified in such a way that we can do a great job of the work from beginning to end, while creating significant impact, providing good homes, and avoiding putting staff under undue pressure.  If this means we lose out on some contracts, that’s a consequence we’re prepared to accept – we’re not here to get as big as possible at any cost. 

Why does this approach to decision-making work for Dot Dot Dot? 

This decision-making process works for Dot Dot Dot for four key reasons: 

          1. It’s fast and frugal 

Making decisions in a business with many moving parts and many different priorities can be challenging.  This is particularly the case for Dot Dot Dot, which – as a social enterprise – exists to create meaningful positive impact as well as to make a profit, so we have to navigate the trade-offs this creates.  These decisions are always difficult, but simple tools help.      

For example, we have always maintained high health and safety standards in the buildings we manage – even when this has caused us to lose money on projects because we underestimated the costs of doing so.  This is because we believe that asking people to live in buildings that aren’t up to appropriate standards is unethical, so when we have faced this situation we have preferred to harm the business rather than break rule one.   

On the other hand, during a period of financial pressure we deprioritised some bespoke social impact projects and didn’t hire to vacant positions which would have made life easier for the team as a whole – meaning we prioritised the sustainability of the business over creating extra social impact and going above and beyond for staff.  But we also shifted our priorities back once the period of pressure was over.   

Our decision-making process doesn’t spit out exact answers to what we should do – in the same way that the submariners’ rules of thumb doesn’t tell them how to remain undetected, just tells them to prioritise doing so.  But it does ensure that we’re thinking about the right things in the right order.  

          2. Simple rules help in the face of uncertainty 

Academic work on optimal decision-making emphasises the importance of simple rules of thumb in situations of high uncertainty.  This is why submariners need clarity – once they’re in enemy waters and out of communication with home, they can’t know exactly what they’ll face or get instructions on how to react, so they need guidelines which will remain reliable whatever happens.   

Fortunately, the complexity we face at Dot Dot Dot is less threatening than this but we are operating in competitive and shifting market affected by forces outside our control.  We could spend months trying to work out a fiveyear strategy which sets out exactly what we’re going to do in what order, but then a change in market conditions, a change of mind by a key client, or a global health crisis, could disrupt the whole thing. 

Under these circumstances, work by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer and others suggest that the best bet is to keep things simple.  Our decision-making hierarchy does that for us, alongside more detailed year-to-year planning.  If we have spare resources, we put them into enhancing our social impact, then improving life for our stakeholders, and then trying to get into new markets.  And if we don’t have spare resources, we double down on the basics until we are in a stronger position. 

          3. It allows delegated decision-making  

One of the great strengths of social enterprises is that people choose to work in them because they believe in the mission and support the values and culture.  This doesn’t mean that social enterprises shouldn’t try hard to pay decent salaries and provide pleasant offices, but it does mean that people are more likely to be aligned around shared goals and priorities, and less likely to be secretly pursuing their own agenda. 

In these circumstances, putting the tools in people’s hands so that they can autonomously prioritise their work means you can get more done, more quickly.  A simple approach makes this easier – if managers can be confident that colleagues are making decisions in line with an agreed process, they can be allowed to crack on with more independence, which makes work more satisfying as well as more efficient.  It also means that when team-members encounter new challenges at short notice, they are more likely to make the right call.   

          4. The worst-case scenario is not a catastrophe 

Following these rules mean that our worst-case scenario is that if the business fails, at least but we’ve made every effort we could to avoid harming people or leaving them excessively out of pocket.  In our view, this is part of acting with integrity.   

In other words, our rules – like the submariners’  support the ‘minimax’ decision-making approach described by Gigerenzer, where one aims to minimise the potential harm in a situation of maximum loss It’s the right approach for a business like ours, and it also makes for better sleep at night. 

Find out more about our core values, our commitment to providing good-quality housing to property guardians and raising standards in our industry.

Life as a Dot Dot Dot guardian: Mahmoud, Oxford

February 26, 2021

From Dot Dot Dot guardian, Mahmoud, Oxford

I first heard of Dot Dot Dot through a friend who was a property guardian in Oxford. At the time I was living in a flat near my restaurant, Za’atar Bake which was expensive for the area. When the lockdown started last year, I realised I needed to save money in order to be able to sustain my business – otherwise I’d lose it. I saw that there was a Dot Dot Dot flat available so took my chance and applied. Now I’m saving hundreds of pounds each month which gives me peace of mind that my restaurant will be OK.

Last May, we started offering free home-cooked meals every day during lockdown to the homeless and others who couldn’t afford to buy their own food in our community. We thought maybe 10-15 people would show up. We ended up regularly giving away 60 meals a day. A lot of the money I’m saving through living with Dot Dot Dot is redirected to the restaurant and goes towards providing the free meals. I’m grateful to know that I can do this with comfort and continue to do so once we can reopen which I’m hoping will be in March for our community.

We also did a meal for 90 people on Christmas Day for people who didn’t have anyone to spend it with – we were really supported by the community who gave us a Christmas tree, decorations, lighting and we were even gifted 300kg of rice! Oxford Hub (a social action charity committed to bringing people and organisations together) invited us all to have a free buffet to say thank you and I even spoke to the Oxford Lord Mayor about more ways to give back to the community. It’s great to see people paying attention and thinking about other ways they can help.

Since we started offering free meals we have also seen our sales increase through people coming in to support us and our bond with the community has gotten stronger. We didn’t want donations or to make money off the back of offering free meals, so the best way that we can be supported is through people coming and enjoying the food at Za’atar Bake. Giving is about giving to everybody and doing charitable work is an amazing feeling. I want to spread good vibes and hope to the Oxford community and I’m proud to do it. It keeps us all going to see people being positively affected by what we’re doing.

I love sports and staying active, and last June I set a challenge for the community called ‘Running for 30k’ (or ‘Walk for 30k’!). People had one month to either run or walk everyday until they reached their goal of 30k – the aim was to get people outdoors in the fresh air and enjoying sport. Once they’d reached their goal of 30k they were able to come to my restaurant and claim their free lunch or dinner. So many people got involved and one woman told me it was the first time in her life that she felt fitter and lost weight. It shows what happens when you give people a challenge and spread hope.

A lot of people don’t think about giving time to charity when they’re busy with their lives and working hard. It’s all too easy to not think about giving back. Since living with Dot Dot Dot, I’ve not only saved money but gained flexibility in my life in order to give what I can to my community. I enjoy living in a society where we do what we can to help others.

You can find out more about the work that Mahmoud and his team are doing for the Oxford community here. You can also read more stories here from our guardians on how living with Dot Dot Dot has given them the freedom and flexibility to pursue their goals.

Tailoring a management plan with A2 Dominion in Oxford

February 11, 2021

Gibbs Crescent is an estate made up of studios and 1-bed flats, located by Osney Marina in west Oxford. Since July 2019, we have worked with A2 Dominion, a housing association with a social purpose, to house property guardians whilst the estate prepares for a period of regeneration. We currently house 19 guardians across 17 flats in the estate. Since our occupation in 2019, Oxford guardians like Beth have contributed 3,691 hours to good causes. 

 

A set-up plan to meet individual needs

When a client comes to us with an empty asset, their list of priorities will rarely exactly match that of the clients that have come before them. We manage a varied portfolio of properties and the clients we work with are just as varied. With that in mind, we know that taking a ‘one size fits all’ approach will not deliver the best results. We can call upon our previous experience of what has worked well in the past in a variety of projects to propose a tailored management plan that suits a new client’s specific needs.

 

What A2 Dominion needed at Gibbs Crescent

At Gibbs Crescent, it was important to A2 Dominion that we be sensitive to existing residents on the estate. In any project where there are existing residents to consider, it is vital to hand properties over to Dot Dot Dot in an appropriate way that will not disturb the residents or attract any negative attention. We initially took on 12 flats so as not to over-occupy, expanding to 17 in 2020. In this way, the introduction of guardians to Gibbs Crescent was manageable for both Dot Dot Dot and A2 Dominion, as well as not inconveniencing residents. 

A2 Dominion are particularly happy with their experience of using Dot Dot Dot guardians to secure their empty buildings, and said about their work with us: “Our experience with the guardians has been very positive. Once the void properties have been accepted there is very little involvement from our side. Having the guardians in the void properties has given us the peace of mind we needed whilst preparing to redevelop the estate. The guardians have been invaluable as they have enabled us to identify leaks, which we would have been otherwise unaware of and would have potentially caused structural damage if left undetected. They have also made us aware of some anti-social behaviour on the estate and have helped to maintain a number of the small private gardens in the empty properties, even working alongside some of the remaining residents to grow their own vegetables.”

A central part of our model for property guardianship is to only house well-vetted, responsible guardians who are interested in volunteering in their local community; this ensures that they will be sensitive to their surroundings and the other people that live there. It is also important for us to house a diverse range of guardians, and we are particularly happy to be able to house people that are local to the area. Our Oxford guardians vary greatly in age, from 21 to 62, and 14 were living locally in Oxford and two in Oxfordshire before their guardianship. 

As we offer a flexible and open-minded approach, we are able to better collaborate with our clients to allow them to spend their valuable time and resources on the things that matter to them most. In the case of Gibbs Crescent, we worked together to develop a triage process, in which responsibility was clearly divided between Dot Dot Dot and A2 Dominion. In many cases, projects are time sensitive because empty properties can pose a security risk. We are committed to fast service delivery in Oxford, aiming to turnaround the triage process within two weeks. You can see the flow of the triage process below. 

 

 

A flexible approach to property management

As our Head of Services, Mark Ackroyd, explores in his ‘On the ground’ blog, understanding at the outset how property management will operate across the lifetime of a guardian contract is critical to delivering maximum benefits for property owners. That’s why we offer a flexible approach, which can be modified and calibrated to our clients’ changing needs.

As the property industry was hit by the emergence of Covid-19 in 2020, many in the sector had to adjust to a new normal and in some instances redevelopment plans were put on hold. It is at times like these that meanwhile residential use is so vital – to avoid the plight of empty buildings which can so often be empty for longer than intended due to factors out of the client’s control. As was the case with many of our clients’ plans, redevelopment timelines at Gibbs Crescent were pushed back to keep everyone working as safely as possible. We were able to offer a solution by taking on another phase of flats on the estate, growing from the 12 properties we managed in 2019 to 17 properties in 2020. 

Because we build flexibility into our approach, we can modify our practices instead of having to overhaul them completely, and we are resilient when met with obstacles such as the Covid-19 crisis. Our agile model allows us not only to meet our clients’ needs, but also to adapt to new challenges when they arise. 

If you’d like to find out more about our agile approach to property management, you can sign up to our newsletter here or get in touch with us at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com.

Life as a Dot Dot Dot property guardian: Tom, east London

January 29, 2021

From east London Dot Dot Dot guardian, Tom

I’ve been a property guardian with Dot Dot Dot for nearly four years. I’ve lived in my current home in Tower Hamlets since January 2020. 

Years of private renting meant rarely picking up a paintbrush, or delving into any DIY. Tight rental rules on decorating, and deposits, means properties have to remain how they are. As a guardian, I have helped paint rooms, put up shelves and hang pictures. It is enormously liberating to know I can try new things without the restrictions normally found in renting. My knowledge of plumbing has also improved as guardians are encouraged to find fixes for small issues themselves before calling assistance. I’m far from a handyman, but I feel I’m getting better all the time.  

Dot Dot Dot’s focus on volunteering has led to opportunities that could have otherwise passed me by. Life can be fast-paced and even with the best intentions, volunteering time can be choked by other commitments. The obligation to do 16 hours a month as part of my licence agreement makes volunteering part of my weekly routine, and never an “extra” thing that gets squeezed in (or squeezed out). I’ve given time to many organisations and causes close to my heart such as male suicide prevention, community sport and local regeneration. I’ve made terrific memories and met lots of new people through my volunteering. I’m currently a listening volunteer at Samaritans 

Guardianship has also given me peace of mind. Dot Dot Dot’s warm, approachable relationship with their guardians is hugely reassuring, especially during a pandemic. I’ve only had one experience of being given notice but I was soon offered another in the same part of London. I knew this wasn’t a guarantee so I was grateful for Dot Dot Dot’s efforts. Staying in the same area means remaining a short walk from my office (when I’m allowed there!) – saving time and money that could be otherwise lost to a commute. Communication from Dot Dot Dot is excellent – it feels very clear what I can expect, and what’s expected of me – which only adds to a sense of stability and clarity.  

A good home for less-than-market-rate cost made my 2019 career change easier. After ten years in one industry I began in another I was more keen to develop in. This meant an inevitable pay cut and the inevitable internal questions. Among everything else I had to think about, I felt fortunate to need not worry about affording my licence fee and could focus on managing the transition. 

Becoming a guardian has introduced me to an unfamiliar area of London and one I now love. Living in modern developments in Finsbury Park and Stratford, I had never spent meaningful time in the Custom House / Canning Town / Poplar corridor, just north of the Thames. I try to visit the river everyday if I can. The beautiful Thames Barrier Park is perfect for exercise and the peaceful Thames path is great for disconnecting from the world. I’ve become a regular open-water swimmer (and a volunteer) at Royal Victoria Dock, completing the 10K Dock2Dock in September and have volunteered with several community events. 

I never shy away from recommending property guardianship with Dot Dot Dot to others. Its’ differences to renting means it usually requires a bit of explaining but I’m happy to take the time. Being a guardian has given me the freedom to pursue my goals, develop skills I didn’t know I had and live in an area of London I love. I’m very grateful to all those who have helped give me this opportunity.  

Read more from our Founder Katharine Hibbert, as she explores what change has meant for our current guardians, and how our model has helped them through periods of transition in their lives.

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