Interview: Improving operations processes at Unite Students
From living in our buildings to managing them, Lettie Hubbuck has had the full Unite Students experience. Now in the role of Head of Operations Support, we spoke to her about how her time staying with us shaped her approach to operations, how her new role facilitates improvements to our operations processes, and what operations improvements are coming down the track.
Before you worked at Unite Students, you lived with us. What was your experience like, and how did you end up working here?
I lived with Unite Students for a year in Edinburgh from September 2005 to June 2006 as part of a nominations deal my university had, where they effectively ‘book out’ a number of beds for their students from a private operator. The building seemed really far away from campus and on my first day, I got locked out of my room for six hours; there weren’t on-site maintenance staff in those days, so I had to wait for someone to travel in from Dundee to fix it. I didn’t know anyone at the time and couldn’t get into my room with all my belongings – but it created a great opportunity to meet my flatmates!
A little bit like our current Resident Ambassador programme, there were paid Student Resident Coordinators in the buildings who provided out-of-hours support when staff weren’t there, and I took on that role during my stay. After I graduated, my old manager from Unite mentioned that they were looking for someone to run the sales office and run viewings of the show flat – I did that informally for a while before an opportunity came up to be a Hospitality Assistant.
I’ve worked for Unite Students for almost 17 years now, and my living experience did influence me professionally – I definitely liked the idea of helping students to settle in. I’d travelled about 250 miles from my hometown near Sheffield so I could go to university in Edinburgh, so I understood what that move away was like and wanted to support students who were going through that.
How did you work your way up from there into a leadership role?
We were becoming more of an operations-led business and wondering how we could improve the quality of what we were offering students, one strand of which involved setting up both national and regional contact centres. I took on a secondment in the Glasgow contact centre, which became a permanent role.
While I was there, the organisation started to offer short-term summer bookings during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and it quickly became a big enough business to need permanent resource, so I returned to Edinburgh to oversee that. After I returned from maternity leave, I held several roles within sales – first in the city, then across Scotland – but, after five years, I missed the operations side of the business and applied to be City Manager in Edinburgh.
It wasn’t what I was known for at that point, but I wanted to prove that I could manage at operational level. Combining an operational focus with management, sales and leadership was where I really found my place, and I got Edinburgh to a place where we were selling well and had great student satisfaction. That city management role eventually became an area manager role, covering Newcastle and Durham as well as Edinburgh, and I managed 15 buildings and a team of more than 100 people. By 2022, after eight years in leadership, I was looking for a new challenge and successfully applied for Head of Operations Support, a new role.
What does the Head of Operations Support role entail?
The initial remit was to look at how we consistently run and improve our operations, taking great ideas from our cities and employees who work in operations so that we can test them and make sure they work, then finally bring that into our national way of working. One of the proudest moments of my career was leading on the initiative to set up our Virtual Sales Team in 2019; having the opportunity to explore an idea you’ve had and bring it to fruition isn’t something you get in every job, and it’s one of the things that drew me to this role.
We facilitate that work through our ‘Ops Forum’, which was set up in early 2022 and is a forum through which operations and support teams hear ideas and initiatives to improve our operations in the early stages. So, an initiative around employee safety came to the forum recently, and teams like finance, safety, data security, and learning and development had an opportunity to ask questions so that it could land correctly. We’ve never had that before in my time here. Instead of relying on chance to meet someone in the business who would suggest a great new idea, frontline staff now have more of an opportunity to shape our operations practices in line with their experience.
My team also looks at operational relationships with suppliers to make sure they’re both what we need, and what students need, as well as joining up with relevant support functions to effectively respond to issues and prevent teams from working in silo. If we hear from students that our internet could be better, for example, we’ll bring together procurement, IT and operations and create an action plan of how we will make it world class.
How are Higher Education partners considered in improvements to our operations processes?
Our organisation wouldn’t exist without universities, so they’re a huge stakeholder in everything we do. We need to think about what these changes mean for them, taking into account their requirements and feedback so we can accommodate these. Talking and learning from each other is a really valuable part of sense-checking that what we’re doing is right for the student population.
As an example, where we’re looking at improvements to our booking platform, we’re keeping in mind that universities will want this system to deliver a consistent experience for students whether they’re booking directly with us or living with us through a nominations deal. We all share the same priority of making sure students feel included in their accommodation experience, and working in a way that universities want us to work helps us to effectively collaborate on delivering that inclusive experience which allows students to thrive.
What improvements to our operations are your team currently looking at?
Ahead of the summer, we’re looking at how to improve our room turnaround processes to deliver the best product in the most efficient way. We’re also examining our WiFi offer in light of there being more online learning and requirements – we’ve come a long way from when I lived in a Unite building, when the internet was optional! Everything now is connected to WiFi, so we need that provision to be really strong.
Another area that makes me reflect on how much things have changed since I’ve worked at Unite Students is parcel management. It’s a whole different game now with online retailers and returning parcels being a key concern as well as receiving them. From an operational perspective, our teams need to store parcels as well as getting them to students quickly and efficiently – so that’s a big piece of work and a key focus for us.
Then of course there’s sustainability, which is everyone’s goal at the moment; we’re working towards being a net-zero carbon organisation by 2030, so are understanding how our operations work in that context. At the moment we’re considering how we turn around rooms in a sustainable way, minimising the amount that students leave behind when they move out, as well as looking at our fleet management to think about how we can work our operations without the need for vehicles to move people or stock around our cities.
There’s so much we can do to find efficiencies and work differently to support our net-zero carbon ambition, but also by working collaboratively with our teams and students.
Finally, if you had to pick one, what initiative or improvement to our service do you most wish had been in place in your student accommodation experience?
Our student support team are the best initiative that we’ve brought in. They help people to feel like they belong, they build that student community and have a genuine working partnership with our university partners. Our student support programme has helped students to stay at university, and the team provides vital support to our frontline teams so they can deliver the best experience they can. They are our gold star.
Read more insights about our university partnership working in our January 2023 interview with Moray Notman, University Partner Commercial Director.