With more than 135 years of history at its Bradford base, and over 2,300 staff working across West Yorkshire, the Yorkshire Building Society is truly invested in the region.
By Damian Holmes
The past year has put the importance of good financial management and support into focus for many, and banks, building societies and other financial institutions have been at the sharp end as people face increasing difficulties.
For YBS, the importance of providing that support for its customers has been paramount, to the extent that it was a double winner in the 2021 Moneyfacts Consumer Awards, being named High Street Mortgage Provider of the Year and High Street Savings Provider of the Year.
Damian Holmes spoke to Tina Hughes, Director of Savings at Yorkshire Building Society, about the way it has continued helping and supporting its customers – and its staff – during the last 12 months.
With its stated aims of getting people into their own homes and gaining better financial resilience, being named as High Street Mortgage Provide and High Street Savings Provider of the year was a real validation for the YBS, and a welcome highlight in a difficult year.
“It’s great to see our work in these two key areas recognised,” said Tina. “Our key strength is that we are a customer-centred organisation – we are a mutual which is owned by our members who are also our customers and our purpose is to help them in the key areas of homeownership and financial wellbeing.
“This has been a real strength throughout the pandemic as it’s allowed us to focus on helping our customers with these important objectives, while keeping our colleagues safe and well.”
As one of the few mortgage lenders continuing to offer 10% deposit mortgages last year, something many first-time buyers rely on to get on to the housing ladder, the society helped 10,800 first-time buyers get that first foot on the rung – a record for Yorkshire Building Society.
One particular highlight for Tina was receiving an email from the father of a junior doctor, who YBS was able to help with a mortgage to buy her first home when other providers either weren’t able to or wouldn’t do.
YBS also recently became the first lender to re-enter the 5% deposit mortgage market, which it says will support even more people to buy their first home.
Tina says the society is always looking for ways to improve customer service, and despite the challenges of 2020, its Net Promoter Score, which is a measure of customer satisfaction, rose from +51 to +53.
She said the pandemic also brought into focus just how important it is to have good financial wellbeing.
“What I mean by that is the ability to withstand the type of economic shocks and hardships which families across the country have faced during lockdown.
“Our focus has been to support our customers in building financial resilience through saving, something which became really crucial this year. Households with savings to fall back on have been more resilient against suffering the income shocks which have become a reality for many people as businesses were forced to close during the pandemic.
“We supported people to open more than 220,000 savings accounts in 2020 and helped them to access savings when they needed them. We also launched our savings app last year, which has supported more than 93,000 customers to stay at home and transact digitally through a brand-new channel.”
Value for members was vitally important as well, and the society tried to offer the most competitive rates possible; its average loan rate in 2020 was 0.17% higher than the market average, the equivalent to an additional £50m in interest to YBS savers.
Tina said the society’s staff had been amazing during the pandemic. “We’re extremely proud of the way our colleagues have stepped up to support customers throughout the crisis – their efforts have been nothing short of outstanding,” she said.
“We have heard so many stories of how colleagues have gone above and beyond to support customers and each other. They are the essence of what our organisation is about and we are incredibly grateful to every one of them. It’s a real honour to work with such wonderful and talented people and we would like to thank them for their unwavering support and commitment.”
She also paid tribute to customers and their loyalty. “Our purpose is to support them and without them, none of this would have been possible. It makes me extremely proud to know how many members we’ve helped throughout this difficult past year and their continued support throughout these challenging months has made all of the hard work worth it.”
YBS links with Bradford dates back to 1885, when one of the society’s predecessors established the Bradford Self Help Permanent Building Society in St George’s Hall Coffee Tavern. It is now based at the society’s Yorkshire Drive offices, although many are currently working remotely.
It’s links with Bradford are an important part of YBS’ heritage – and, says Tina, its future, with the society investing funds to help develop young talent in the city and surrounding region.
“In many ways, it’s a city of untapped potential – it’s the youngest city in the UK, with almost a quarter of its population aged under 16, and also one of the most diverse, with more than 85 languages spoken throughout Bradford,” she said.
“Our investment is about helping to nurture the talent of people from Bradford that may otherwise be overlooked and to support the people of the city in rebuilding its economy and opportunities post-Covid.”
That has seen YBS put £240,000 extra investment into Bradford for 2021, to deliver a commitment to provide employability and digital skills training and support its home city’s post-Covid recovery.
The investment supports the society’s longer term ambition to provide at least 2,000 people in Bradford, including at least 1,000 young people in the city, with employability support via access to training, work experience, mentoring, apprenticeships and some targeted financial support for further education by the end of 2022.
“As well as helping Bradford based businesses offer apprenticeships, we will also, through a focused pilot programme in partnership with carefully targeted schools and colleges in the most deprived wards of Bradford, be launching a competitive grants programme to support a small number of students with a proportion of higher education fees,” Tina said.
“By piloting and delivering digital skills workshops we will also be supporting adult learners, career switchers and those looking to return to work to prepare for the future of employment in an increasingly digital world.”
The society has been very conscious of safeguarding its staff throughout the pandemic, and helping support them throughout the continuing crisis, ensuring physical safe places to work and supporting their mental wellbeing.
“At the very beginning of the pandemic, we set out our priorities: safeguarding our colleagues’ health and wellbeing; keeping our customers in their homes; providing a safe place for their savings; and continuing to support them in accessing the essential financial services they need at this time. This gave us a lens with which to focus our decision-making throughout the pandemic through this lens.
“To enable us to safely provide essential financial services, in March last year we transitioned all non-key worker colleagues who were able to work remotely to work from home.”
It has worked closely with the union Aegis and local authorities, and strictly followed all guidelines on distancing, colleague welfare and hygiene, including using additional office space to reduce numbers at sites.
This has helped it keep supporting customers with the essential financial services many of them need at this time, said Tina, with contact centres and the vast majority of branches and agencies remaining open throughout the pandemic.
YBS also changed its policies on carers leave, offering staff unlimited dependents’ and carers’ leave, and any colleague who is shielding, unwell or needs to self-isolate and cannot work from home qualifies for fully paid leave at their full salary. YBS has not furloughed any of its staff and all remain on full pay.
It has also set up Coronavirus hub of wellbeing and engagement resources.
“Working with BUPA and Unmind, we have shared content including podcasts on managing stress, improving sleep, Covid-19 and finances,” said Tine.
“One of our employees in Bradford, who is a qualified yoga instructor, created an exercise video for our people to follow. Through our team of in-house mental health first aiders, we offered all colleagues the chance to have a confidential Covid drop-in session with an expert coach to help them process their thoughts and feelings.
“We know that many of our colleagues have appreciated this. We’ve received some excellent feedback from our colleagues, thanking us for the way the Society has supported them, and our colleague engagement scores increased during the pandemic, which was a real source of pride for us.”
Although the society says it is not in any rush to get colleagues back into the office, it does not have any plans in the future to close any office sites.
Tina said the society’s staff had always been very adaptable, and in some cases productivity has increased during the pandemic.
The process going forward now will be looking at the experience of the last 12 months and seeing what they can learn.
“We recognise that some colleagues are keen to be back working with their teams. We will work with colleagues throughout 2021 as the restrictions ease to ensure a safe transition back into the office,” she said.
“Like many organisations, we will be looking at what we can learn from 2020 in terms of how we work and the flexibility that we can offer to enrich the working experience of our colleagues.”