Life beyond the pandemic: People-first technology for housing associations

A lonely-looking senior woman looks longingly out a window

A grandmother who lives alone needs her leaking tap repaired. She calls her landlord, which is a large housing association.

She gets through, and the call agent checks the woman’s records. He notices a history of similar issues reported at regular intervals for some time.

For a moment, the agent wonders to himself about the plumber’s past work. So he makes a note to investigate after the call.

But keen to help her right now, he arranges for another plumber visit, confirming the booking details to the woman. She is delighted.

Three days later, the plumber arrives at the woman’s flat to discover the leak has mysteriously stopped and the woman has been baking.

The plumber needs to go to his next job, but the woman insists he stays for a moment. So over tea and cake, she starts proudly telling the plumber about her 12 grandchildren, who she hasn’t seen for far too long. She shows him the drawings stuck to her fridge and talks him through every family photo on her bookshelf.

In a fortnight, the woman will call the housing association again to report yet another problem. Until then, she will spend her days looking longingly at reminders of her family, hoping she will soon speak to a human being.

This is not a fictional story. In today’s society, the impact of loneliness is significant and has increased as an effect of Covid lockdowns.

Social landlords face a huge challenge. Face-to-face contacts are expensive and unnecessary repair calls are a huge financial overhead. At the same time, many social landlords believe it important not only to provide housing but also look after the welfare of their customers, too.

So why am I – an independent ICT consultant – and AdEPT talking about it?

Because for housing associations, it’s one of many unique challenges that have been compounded by, or emerged due to the pandemic. And technology has a critical role in helping address all of them. 

This blog takes a closer look at this very topic.

Working from home

Before we expand on the topic of loneliness, let’s consider the most obvious shift of all: working from home.

As with organisations of all shapes and sizes, March 2020 saw housing association employees decamp from offices and onto home working.

For me, strangely, this switch feels like it happened both yesterday and a million years ago. For housing associations, having staff work from home on this scale has posed some new and significant technology problems.  Challenges have included communications with customers – significant numbers of interactions have traditionally been face-to-face. There has also been significant disruption to repairs, safety checks, and void processing. Visits necessary to investigate ASB cases have been difficult. And with many customers’ work patterns disrupted, income has often been erratic whilst working in an environment where evictions have not been permitted.

First and foremost – and like all businesses – housing associations have found themselves having to find the bandwidth in their infrastructure to keep all of their basic customer-facing and property maintenance services functioning.

This has seen a demand for laptops and suitable furniture for homeworking – and for many, has presented challenges to provide secure remote connections. Providing telephone, and in particular contact centre services has often presented significant challenges. Alongside this, many working practices have had to change to remove the use of paper and support a geographically dispersed home workforce.

None of these areas are unique to housing associations – both have affected other many sectors. But, combine them with the duty of care that many housing associations see as an obligation to their tenants – and the increasing demand from those tenants as they spend more time than ever in their homes – and we’ve seen a perfect storm form before our eyes, affecting every facet of these organisations.

One other big factor here is the speed in which the changes happened. Tectonic plates shifted overnight. There was a clear distinction between those that were prepared for these changes and those that were not. And as I’ve continued to work with housing associations throughout the whole period, I’ve realised that although the changes have been enormous, they are in fact an acceleration of trends I’ve seen over recent years.

AI and chatbots

Using AI in customer service is one such trend that has been on the cards for housing associations for some time. We’ve already seen widespread adoption of chatbots in the private sector – and they tend to get mixed reviews.

For housing associations, using chatbots throws up some unique hurdles related to the demographics of social housing. Namely, that this sector tends to serve a greater proportion of older, vulnerable and disadvantaged people than in other sectors.

Take, for example, age. According to government statistics for 2016 to 2018, 17 per cent – or 3.9 million – of England households lived in social housing. Of those households, the biggest age group was those aged between 55 and 64.

Now consider the leaning towards chatbots by age group. Although it’s wrong to stereotype older people as more reluctant about technology than their younger counterparts, it does appear that older people are particularly unenthusiastic for chatbots, at least according to this GenPact / YouGov survey of 5,170 people.

Consequently, housing associations that are looking to use chatbots – and many are, in the wake of the pandemic – must tread carefully when rolling them out.

One housing association I am working with is doing precisely that. It’s looked at the common, repetitive tasks that can be automated – for example, booking a plumber – and now offers a chatbot to help with such enquiries.

In turn, this has allowed the organisation to reassign customer service staff to more complex tasks – and during the pandemic, that includes more regular outbound calls to isolated and vulnerable people.

In going through this process, this housing association found, first-hand, what we often see in other projects that involve unfamiliar technology: the more people use it, the more people get used to it – and even come to appreciate the rationale.

But, as I’ve seen over decades of working with this sector, whenever you increase capacity, you increase demand. Let’s return to our first story for a moment.

Video conferencing and collaboration

Many housing associations have been traditionally reticent to adopt video conferencing.  This, particularly for those who cover wide geographic areas, has meant a huge cost in travel expenses and time for both staff and board members.

We now live in an age of Zoom and Teams calls. The social housing sector is no different. With that, I’ve seen many organisations making the switch to Microsoft 365 – and they’ve soon realised that by using Teams, it makes sense to integrate it with Microsoft’s related products. This in turn is promoting greater use of other elements of the 365 suite such as SharePoint.

Business intelligence

Recent trends show that there is an ever-increasing demand for artificial intelligence to interpret the vast and rich sources of data which are typically held by housing associations.

This has included adoption of business intelligence and PowerApp tools available from within many housing associations’ Office 365 subscriptions. These are now being used to provide customer insights to allow better planning particularly around lettings, repairs and rents.

These tools can create dashboards which simply and visually highlight the use of resources and customer trends, allowing housing associations to have better insights about demographics and customer demand. This in turn allows a more proactive service to be delivered to customers whilst ensuring an efficient use of valuable budgets. For example, as mentioned at the start of this blog, it can help identify where demand is being created and can allow planning around more appropriate and cost-efficient remedies. 

Proactive response to customers benefits the customer as well as the housing association, as often simple solutions can be found – let’s not forget that technology exists to serve humans, not the other way round.

This is just one example of where using technology to provide real business intelligence can make a difference within, and beyond a housing association. It’s also ties into the many and complex regulations that this sector.

Tougher legislation ahead

In November last year, the government published its long-awaited social housing white paper. While some argued that the paper did not properly address the issue of housing supply, it did say “We will establish a new arm of the Regulator of Social Housing to proactively regulate on consumer standards including quality of homes, repairs, meaningful engagement with tenants and complaints handling”.

In short, this points to tougher regulations for the sector – and any housing association technology partner that’s worth their salt must be fully on board with these regulations.

For me and AdEPT, it’s about seeing the big picture and the seemingly little details – and being able to comply with rules from every direction.

For example, housing associations are obliged to make paying rent as easy as possible, including taking payments over the phone. And they must do so to meet the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS).

Prior to the pandemic, this was well established. But in the age of home working, processing such transactions over home networks carries greater risk of non-compliance.

Consequently, we at AdEPT helped housing associations take steps to improve their data security, ensuring that they comply with all payment regulations.

There’s a reason why we’re Stage 2 compliant with the Health & Social Care Network (HSCN) and work with more than 30 NHS Trusts – it’s because we know the regulations inside out – and we know how they translate to technology.

As the pandemic continues – and the true impact of the government’s whitepaper emerges – it’s clear that there are many areas where technology must step up to the plate.

For housing associations, this can only happen with a deep understanding of the complex regulations involved – and foresight to see what’s ahead.

Flexible working

With the mass vaccination programme now well underway, there is some hope on the horizon. But will we return to our old ways of working? I doubt it. And for housing associations, this offers some food for thought.

One lesson of the pandemic is that we perhaps do not need to follow the 9-to-5 routines of old. Perhaps we need to rethink our long-held view that being tied to a desk, at set hours, is not always the best option. And this may be especially beneficial for housing associations.

Prior to the pandemic, many housing associations remained traditional office-based organisations. The pandemic has led to a more pragmatic approach with appropriately socially-distanced visits to estates and properties.

It has also led to a move away from a rigid 9-5 office hours mentality – and home working has meant that housing officers have been able to adjust their work-life balance, in turn making them more available to customers at more appropriate times such as early evenings and weekends.

It has also seen a move to communications systems appropriate to customers’ needs. For example, in many areas WhatsApp has become a common way in which housing officers keep in touch with their customers.

One housing officer’s experience was particularly telling. She explained to me that prior to lockdown, her Monday-to-Friday hours meant she would visit homes to find people at work, wasting her time. She told me she would complete more home visits in a few hours on a Saturday morning than she would through all five weekdays.

Now, through the lockdown and home working, she’s seen a more flexible mindset emerge. Staff have been more willing to spend a few hours in the evening helping tenants – when tenants are available – if it allows them time in the day to be with their children. And home working affords that flexibility.

This one example illustrates the adage that necessity is the mother of invention – and I believe it heralds a permanent change in the housing association sector towards more flexible working. And technology must follow suit.

Legacy systems

It is worth mentioning one long-running technology challenge affecting the sector – that of the housing management systems used by the majority of housing associations.

Typically, these applications were developed decades ago for ICL mainframes, but they now struggle to work with the modern software used and valued by the sector, often meaning that staff must re-key the same information in multiple systems.

So far, I’ve not seen any software developers offer any real solutions to this problem. And so, I see a big opportunity here and hope that innovation comes soon.

I say this because it’s a critical point to address when working with housing associations – and we already factor this into our work with existing clients.

How we can help you

There are lots of ways we can help your organisation to use technology to better support your tenants now in lockdown, and tomorrow in life beyond the pandemic. Below are some of the areas where we already help housing associations, the public and third sectors:

・Business intelligence
・Data and cyber security
・Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS)
・Internet of Things
・Microsoft 365 and Microsoft Dynamics
・Microsoft Teams and collaboration tools
・Private / public / hybrid cloud
・VoIP and telephony
・WAN and SD-Wan

It may be that you’re already aware of these technologies, or do not know exactly what you need. Instead, as with most technology projects, you have a problem and want help finding a solution, irrespective of what that might entail. Either way, it all starts with a conversation – get in touch today through the contact details below.

People first, technology second

For a blog from a technology company, I’ve said very little about technology itself! And that’s because the housing association sector is inherently focused on people.

Returning to the story of woman at the beginning of this blog, there are clear ways that technology can help with the unique challenges this sector faces at this time and beyond.

Like all good technology solutions, they start and end with people. Here are our details – let’s start the problem solving with a conversation today…

  • Phil Riley is an independent ICT infrastructure and network consultant for housing associations. He has worked with this sector for more than 40 years – and at AdEPT, he is joined by Garry Drinkwater and Dean Barnes, who also specialise in supporting housing associations.

    You can get in touch with Phil, Garry and Dean on:

    0333 4002490

Written by Phil Riley

S.Tel Consultants Ltd