How have social housing providers been managing repairs and maintenance over the past year? An Inside Housing and Advanced survey looks at the impact and how COVID-19 has changed processes
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In late February 2020, Inside Housing began work on a survey exploring how social housing providers manage deployment of repairs and maintenance staff. We did so in ignorance of the enormous challenge that the pandemic was about to bestow in this area – as in so many others.
A year on, physical distancing is still required across society and shielding of the clinically vulnerable is once again in place. So how have social housing organisations adapted their approaches to repairs and maintenance during this time?
To answer these challenging questions, Inside Housing once again partnered with Advanced to survey those working in the sector. We asked a range of professionals to tell us more about how the deployment of repairs and maintenance staff is being managed during these difficult times.
A total of 128 people shared their views. The vast majority – 62% – work for housing associations. But local authorities were well represented too, with 34% of respondents hailing from one. We also had three who work for ALMOs, as well as one person from a construction/development firm.
The respondent profile was similar for our first survey on this area, from which it emerged that many had concerns about the efficiency with which organisations were managing repairs and maintenance staff.
A year on, it seems those worries have decreased for some. Almost 20% of our respondents to our current survey told us that they were ‘very confident’ that their organisation’s deployment of repairs and maintenance staff and/or contracted tradespeople is as efficient as it can be. This compared to 16% last time.
For Nathan Ollier, general manager for public sector and field service at Advanced, this might represent the way in which approaches have been rigorously tested in recent months.
“What I’ve seen from my customer community is that they’ve gained a level of confidence very quickly while working through all that the pandemic imposed upon them – whether that was just continuing to do what they already do in a more challenged setting, or where they were having to layer in additional services,” he says.
Advanced supplies software that supports housing providers to more easily manage staff working in the field, and it does appear that the pandemic may have served to bolster digitisation.
Only one respondent to the survey told us that their organisation manages the deployment of repairs and maintenance staff entirely on paper, while 45% said the process is entirely digital. And, interestingly, 47% told us that the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation projects. Just 13% said it has slowed progress.
Notable too is that there was a small increase in the number of people who said residents can report needed repairs online. Some 67% said this is possible for all residents (that figure stood at 63% last time around). Only 10% of respondents said no residents can interact with their organisation in this way, down from 16% last time. It seems likely the pandemic has influenced this embracing of digital communication.
“We’re seeing the sector focus more and more on customer service [for repairs and maintenance],” says Mr Ollier. “We know that the majority of the organisations in the sector have a method for self-service online reporting – the call centre models have been heavily challenged in the past 12 months and will continue to be. Huge call centres of people will have been forced to remote working overnight, and have had to work out how to do things remotely. There will be organisations who’ve been met with significant challenge as a result of having no capability around this.”
“What I’ve seen from my customer community is that they’ve gained a level of confidence very quickly while working through all that the pandemic imposed upon them”
Indeed, 16% of our respondents said staff shortages due to illness, shielding or the need to self-isolate have caused problems for the delivery of repairs and maintenance services in recent months. A quarter spoke of the challenge of social distancing in providing a responsive service; a similar number cited supply chain disruption; and 14% said there has been increased demand on services given that people are staying at home for longer periods.
Understandable resident anxiety about visits by repairs staff is also an issue. As one respondent said: “Attending properties is dependent upon residents allowing access. Not all residents are willing [because of the risks of COVID-19].”
It is little wonder, then, that the vast majority of those completing our survey said the pandemic had impacted the delivery of non-critical repairs. A quarter said that such repairs have been affected ‘to a large extent’ and 70% reported they have been affected ‘to some extent’.
With social distancing and working from home wherever possible likely to remain standard practice for some time, that picture is unlikely to change imminently. Partly as a result, many respondents said their organisations plan to further refine repairs and maintenance processes. One leasehold officer at a local authority spoke of plans to make “more use of tenants’ own electronic devices to digitally send pictures or [video] clips of repairs”.
One director of housing services said the organisation is “re-tendering for a responsible repairs service which will require digital integration and a customer app enabling self-service appointments”.
For Mr Ollier, these developments are all part of a clearer recognition than ever before of the role of technology in effectively managing repairs and maintenance. “I also think that all businesses for evermore will challenge themselves on, ‘What would happen if there was a pandemic?’ It’s the real-life disaster recovery scenario that the world as we knew it has never really had the chance to test itself for.”
Certainly 12 months ago, when we first surveyed on this topic, we could never have imagined the full impact the pandemic would have. Now, a year on, it is clear that many providers have adapted their ways of working on repairs and maintenance to deal with the reality of COVID-19. Let us hope that in another 12 months the environment in which staff are operating is very different.
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