Lockdown put a spotlight on flaws in how social landlords are managing key data about gas safety and other compliance checks. But a survey by Inside Housing, sponsored by Plentific, also shows that the crisis has also brought forward plenty of ideas for how to do this work better in the future
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Safety checks are a vital part of the business of running for a social landlord – and during lockdown, organisations had to pause much of this work, and then change how it was carried out once such visits could resume. Months on, having observed the benefits of new systems and revised ways of working, many are continuing to do their jobs outside the office and adapt for the long term.
One of the issues that many landlords experienced was simply gaining access to the right data – working out quickly which homes need a gas check, for example.
With this in mind, in July, Inside Housing felt it would be timely to ask housing management teams across the sector how they log data for gas checks, repairs and safety compliance and how it is used to gain a picture of their properties across the board.
A total of 210 housing professionals across the UK answered the survey, 64% of whom work for a housing association, while others work for a local authority or an ALMO, mainly in housing management, asset management or compliance roles. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 145 respondents (89%) agreed that COVID-19 has forced their organisation to work differently when carrying out repairs and safety checks. Remote working has highlighted issues with data systems for 36%, although less than a fifth are now looking to transform their system as a result. Nearly a quarter already have a reliable system in place for agile working in compliance and repairs and maintenance.
When asked how repairs and maintenance teams manage their processes, 67% of respondents said that their organisation uses at least some paper-based processes to complete tasks. More than half use mostly digital systems and sometimes paper documentation, while 64% are using multiple systems and processes.
Such a way of operating means that it is often difficult to look at the status of all properties to know where issues might be or whether all homes are compliant. This is reflected in the survey answers as only 13% of respondents said they are “very confident” that their organisation’s compliance data is up to date and easy to access, and a further 23% are “not confident”. The main reason for this is the use of multiple systems, 40% of respondents stated.
Cem Savas, co-founder of property technology company Plentific, believes that using a single system for compliance is the solution to this, and more so now that many teams are working remotely. “When I’ve observed how social landlords manage thousands of properties, the information that different departments use for their records usually sits in different departments. Everyone works in siloes and as a result they don’t share the data to give others insight,” he says.
“In a housing association, there’s a gas check manager, asbestos officer, health officer and a responsive repairs team… all working separately. When a compliance director needs information they would have to ask many different teams, have to go through the different databases and systems and pull information out and put it into spreadsheets. This is not the most productive way to know what’s happening in a home and to connect it to the bigger picture of compliance.”
Instead, Mr Savas suggests that a single system that tracks in real time every day would be more effective. This is similar to a prototype that Plentific has been working on during lockdown with a test group that included ForViva, RHP and Peabody – which shared and offered their feedback.
This is echoed in the results of the survey, as 77% said that whether it is a result of how departments are structured or a merger, a siloed approach to working makes management of compliance data tricky and time-consuming to gain a clear view. One respondent summed it up by saying: “We currently don’t have one version of the truth.”
Answers to the research also suggest that if residents were able to access some of this information, it might improve resident experience. Many housing associations have included online services as part of their digital transformation so that residents can pay their rent online or register a repair as an alternative to calling customer services. But Mr Savas suggests that using the data gathered by staff to inform residents could work well. “We want to enable and empower tenants to be involved in their homes, but they can’t be when the information they need isn’t to hand.”
Our survey asked social landlords whether it is time for them to adopt an approach similar to that which a resident might experience as part of a ‘consumer journey’ when shopping, banking or booking a holiday online, and despite 38% of respondents not offering an interactive option for residents at present, 85% would like to adopt a more ‘consumer’ approach to their provision of services to residents.
“It’s about giving the tenant options by offering them the same service and choices as, say, ordering an item on Amazon,” says Mr Savas. “For example, the customer can choose when they want an item delivered and to where. When it comes to a housing association, if the tenant knows when the check needs to be done and can arrange a time that’s convenient to them, not only is it more tenant-friendly but there are likely to be fewer issues with access.”
More than three-quarters of survey respondents agree, and selected “to be able to view compliance information of a property online to see when checks are due” in answer to what function would be most useful for a tenant. In answer to the same question, 84% selected registering a repair and requesting a visit and 81% selected receiving SMS tracking updates on the progress of a repair.
Mr Savas says this is all part of better resident care: “It’s understandable that residents would want to know when a lift in their block is being serviced and might be out of action. If the residents have access to an app that the landlord can message to inform everyone about the lift service and again, when the work is complete, they can send another message. This consideration will improve the tenant’s customer experience, and makes them feel better about where they live, which in turn potentially reduces other issues such as unpaid rent.”
It is all about joining the dots.