Sunday, 26 October 2014

Hands-on approach

A new breed of customer-focused housing officers is giving tenants a lot more satisfaction. Emily Rogers meets one of them

Brenda Eustace loves her Victorian flat in Earl’s Court, west London, where she has lived for 25 years. But three years ago, things got rather unpleasant for Ms Eustace, a widow who suffers from osteoporosis, when a neighbour’s toilet started overflowing into her bedroom.

Ms Eustace struggled to get her landlord, Notting Hill Housing, to take action. ‘I was advised to go to Citizens’ Advice. As soon as I said that, they repaired the damage,’ recalls the 69-year-old. ‘They stopped the leak, but it’s only within the past year, since Doug [her new housing officer] took over, that they repaired the wall in my bedroom. Before we had Doug, we had housing officers, but they were like ghosts. We hardly ever saw them.’

Doug is no ordinary housing officer. He is one of 131 multi-tasking Mr and Mrs Fix-its who have become the familiar friendly face of an otherwise intimidatingly large housing association over the past 18 months.

Each of them looks after 125 Notting Hill tenants like Ms Eustace, who now have their own housing officer’s mobile number in place of the call centre - which has been axed along with most other central functions such as repairs, allocations, lettings and complaints. In their place, this network of new housing officers juggle all these activities like one-man housing associations, controlling their own budget, which is allocated on a per-home basis and is there to tackle everything from repairs and plumbing to pest control.

Ms Eustace describes the change as ‘unbelievable’. ‘There’s no comparison to how it was,’ she says. ‘There was almost disinterest before. But with Doug, I don’t know where he gets his energy from. He’s on it right away. The consensus is that since we’ve had Doug, we’re all really, really pleased.’

The personal touch

Housing officer Doug Sargeant echoes his tenant’s enthusiasm with the new arrangement, although he admits he’s never worked harder in his life.

The 27-year-old started his new role in August 2009, initially as one of a pilot team of four. Previously, he’d spent a year talking into a headset in the organisation’s customer services team. ‘I never left the office, so sometimes it was quite difficult if somebody was trying to explain a repair to me over the phone,’ he recalls. ‘I had to try to imagine it and put it into a job and send it to the right contractor.

‘Now, I just come out and look at it, so it’s a million times more simple, because it’s not lost in translation. Problems can often be difficult to explain, so it helps a lot to see them.’

Mr Sargeant landed the role after being one of 140 Notting Hill staff to go through a day-long assessment process. It included exercises like roleplaying to assess skills such as working autonomously, dealing with angry customers and prioritising tasks from a loaded in-tray. The assessments followed a series of controversial redundancies at the housing associations.

Since then, Mr Sargeant says he has had ongoing training and support from 14,500-home Notting Hill in areas including the legal aspects of tenancies and budget management.

He started his role by spending around an hour with each of the 125 households on his patch in Earls Court. something he describes as key to building a relationship with them. As well as dealing with a backlog of maintenance issues, he has made things happen, such as redeveloping a garden for a block of flats and helping a tenant into paid work.

He describes the biggest challenges as keeping on top of his budget and managing tenants’ expectations. But he insists that his love of the job is widespread. ‘Everybody’s working their socks off and that’s not because managers are on their backs, because we’re fairly autonomous,’ he says. ‘It’s because the motivation comes from the tenants. It’s knowing that I’m going to let that person down if I don’t get things done.’

The revamp giving birth to Mr Sargeant’s new role started in July 2009. Linda Wallace, Notting Hill’s managing director, says it was the result of ‘remarkably consistent’ feedback from tenants explaining why their satisfaction rate was languishing at a miserable 58 per cent.

‘They said: “I don’t really think you know who I am, I don’t know who I’m talking to a lot of the time, I don’t feel informed about what’s going on if I have a repair or transfer request and don’t know where I am in your system”. They also said: “I don’t get called back regularly. Things take a long time and get passed around”.’

She recalls housing officers, meanwhile, saying: ‘We feel really frustrated, because quite often, we’re the people who are the interface for the customer, but we don’t feel able to control things and we’re not able to make decisions.’

Thinking smaller

Ms Wallace and her colleagues realised that the solution lay in housing officers building up personal relationships with their tenants. And to do this, they would need to shrink their patches to a fraction of the size they were.

The housing officer ‘map’, which covered 22 London boroughs, and saw staff working alongside specialised teams such as repairs and allocations in a ratio of around one officer to 600 homes, was carved up into patches less than a quarter of the size. Each one was allocated a dedicated housing officer meeting tenants’ every need.

Although Notting Hill says it’s too early to say how much this radical re-drawing cost in financial terms, it clearly came at a price. It resulted in 42 redundancies out of the 140 staff who were assessed for the new role. A total of 55 staff were recruited into the new role from outside the organisation. Notting Hill now employs nearly four times the number of housing officers it used to. They are paid salaries of between £22,850 and £30,500 per year.

The transition was complete by April. To date, around 12,000 tenants have have been signed up to this new relationship with their new housing officers through the process of introductory interviews.

The move was unsettling for staff. But the customer satisfaction figures so far suggest that tenants believe the revamp, called Altogether Better, has been aptly named. Out of 200 who had experienced the new system for at least three months, 78 per cent express satisfaction with their services, compared with 65 per cent still experiencing the previous system.

Notting Hill expects to make savings of around 6 per cent a year from this new arrangement, paying back the cost of the change within four years.

Altogether Better really does seem to do what it says on the tin.

Readers' comments (14)

  • As a housing professional who has been interested in the progress of All together Better, i think it is great that Nottinghill are trying to improve resident satisfaction and don't think that anyone can argue that by increasing the number of housing staff resident satisfaction will improve, I would be interested to find out what the arrangements are when the housing officer is sick or unavailable, would the resident have to leave a message? Is there a pool of staff that they can use? I have read some of the previous comments and and yes we have all seen generic before however maybe this time it might work! The only issue that I have with the article is that the details of the journalist are not displayed and the performance is vague apart from the very nice housing officer kneeling beside the very nice resident who has experienced poor service in the past. The article read more like an advertising campaign, if it is an attempt at getting a good news story out its a bit cheesy and unnecessary, if not apologies for cheesy comment and good luck Notting Hill.=

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  • I thought Notting hills repairs service was given 3 stars at their last short notice inspection, that rating is questionable on reading the conditions this poor resident had to endure for 3 years however I think that Nottinghill should read up on their repairs obligations as they are going to run out of money very quickly if they are going to paint every water damaged ceiling that is unless their repairs budget is as generous as their staffing budget. If the toilet was overflowing as the article reports and the leak wasn't from the cold water supply well poor show Nottinghill thats a serious environmental issues you left someone in for 3 years.=

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  • The article in Inside Housing is clearly written by the communications team, who have been told what to say in a desperate attempt to try and justify the mess Nhhg have further got themselves into. If it were true I would like to ask why so many of my colleagues are unhappy, stressed and feel totally unsupported and this can be evidenced by the number of new recruits who have left or are about to leave ATB. It is a great pity that the article was based on one resident’s opinion, which appears to be in total awe of a young man reflectively looking at her for the clearly staged photograph.
    Furthermore, the insignificant number of 200 who expressed satisfaction is not an indication of any level of satisfaction and I would wager that these 200 were in at the beginning of the pilot, when Nhhg were throwing money at the residents to give them anything they wanted. Yes anything and no expense spared, officers did not even have a budget, it was all done to try and get the ratings up, and, of course, at the expense of other residents who were not part of ATB at the time. What about the satisfaction statistics of the other 11,800 residents who have had no choice but to sign up to ATB?

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  • Am I missing something? Is this article saying that All Together Better is the only way that Nottinghill can manage to reach the same or similar status survey satisfaction levels as other housing associations using conventional methods costing less money and causing less disruption? What happened to performance management? In any case I have worked with some of the "ghosts" from their past housing team and they were very effective in my interaction? I agree with the article posted above (housing professional) and commend Notting hill on their commitment to resident satisfaction but they will always be haunted by their past if they continue to put it down in order to elevate their current efforts

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  • I am a housing professional working for one of the G15 organisations and I fully manage a patch of over 700 properties, working across teams and with contractors. We have achieved top quartile customer satisfaction and performance in all KPI areas. If I had only 125 properties to manage I would have to go home by lunchtime, as it cannot possibly stretch any housing professional officer’s capability, unless, of course, they are totally raw to housing and have to learn every aspect from the beginning. Therefore, if this is the case, in line with the expectation of the Chartered Institute of Housing it will take at least three years before they are professional housing officers. This cannot be a sustainable service provision or represent any aspect of Value for Money. Perhaps Nhhg could let me know why they feel they have failed to achieve results in the past? Thank you

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  • Dougie what a great article I love it. A true reflection of ATB. Your not going to please everyone and if people are unhappy then it's time to leave. My happiness comes before money as money is not everything at the end of the day. I come to NHH and do not get handcuffed to my desk I am free to leave anytime I like. NHH is a great place to work the people are great you make really good friends and I have always had the support I need from my mangers. I do love my job and my tenants, yes it sometimes get stressful but please tell me what job don't? If your happy then it rubs off on to your tenants. Great work Doug xxx

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  • This article has simply left me completely bemused. I obviously work in a different housing association. I feel that I speak for the majority of people working in the new structure who are under the most incredible pressure trying to make a (frankly unworkable) system function in order to justify the spin, as illustrated in this article, and replicated constantly by an invisible board and a Corporate Management Team with no understanding of the stresses of working in a poorly managed structure with almost no experienced staff members, who were all disposed of so disgracefully thus leaving the rest of us to try and pick up the pieces. The new managing director is a recent addition to the organisation so I have no idea why she is qualified to discuss the flaws of the old structure. In fact, a significant proportion of the transition work was done by her predecessor, who has only recently left Notting Hill Housing. I would second the opinion of “I can’t believe what I am reading” and the first comment posted after the article was published (which I note is one of several to be removed at the request of the organisation) which ask for a comprehensive survey to be carried out – 200 tenant’s are a drop in the ocean of this organisations client-pool.

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  • Paula, I am pleased to hear that you are happy in your work. I can only speak for myself, on the facts that I know and have witnessed and from the weekly meetings with our managers. I am sorry that this is the only forum that I can express my personal frustration. I am tired of not being listened to, tired of not being appreciated, fed up of having to make decisions that are beyond me and should be taken at manager level and most of all demoralised that my manager is totally inexperienced in housing and incapable of supporting or guiding me through lack of own housing knowledge or experience.
    I was new to housing, flew through the assessement,but have no past knowledge of the social sector and yet I am being told by my manager, when ever I query anything, to look on the word and see what we are supposed to do, problem solve, take responsibility, come with solutions, don’t ask questions, put a positive angle on everything and, above all ,keep quiet and say nothing controversial. - so no pressure!!
    When I joined ATB as an inexperienced officer this is not what I was promised.
    Like you and all the other ATB officers, I too work my socks off daily but I might as well be walking in treacle, as I constantly have that sinking feeling. I know my residents are happy with me as a person but are not happy with Nhhg, only empty promises that we cannot deliver.
    You are right money should never be your goal, and nor is it mine, however I would like to feel that I made a difference to the lives of those we serve and who pay our salary.

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  • I have been a resident of Nhhg for a number of year and must say that I think ATB is worse than before. I may have my officer's no but if they are unavailable I have to leave a message and wait for a reply which may or may not come. I appreciate that some of the services may have improved for others but I have not seen this, in fact I think it is worse, as access to my Housing Officer has gone down and it is no longer at my convenience.

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  • I posted a thoughtful and measured response to the article above ysterday and it appears to have either vanished or has been removed as too controversial. Not the first time I may add - Inside Housing - we are allowed our views I would hope as long as they are not offensive. If someone reports a comment does it automatically removed? Hardly fair. If another of my posts disappears for no other reason than it upsets someone who doesn't agree then I will take the issue further.

    I will summarise now and hope this is allowed to appear in the public area.

    Most staff are unhappy and I have that on first hand discussions. The ATB re-structure was a huge costly mistake and the satisfaction surveys were not respresenative. It was not thought through properly and staff were forced into new roles they had little experience in while others with many year of housing experience were made redundant because of an ill thought through idea.

    The residents I speak to also think it 'window dressing' and will not improve the one service they want to be better - repairs.

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