Senior sector figures gather at an Inside Housing round table, in association with Orchard, to discuss how technology is likely to change their businesses – and how they are preparing. Photography by SWNS
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Businesses across the board have been transformed by technology in recent years. Customers are now able to interact with everything from banks to utility providers, and retailers to schools, in a fast, streamlined way.
On the flip side, businesses are, in general, better able to understand their market and respond more quickly to demand.
Housing is no exception – and from logging repairs to paying rent, many tenants expect a much more responsive service than would have been the case even a decade ago.
To find out more about how landlords are using technology to drive change – and how it is likely to transform their businesses moving forward – Inside Housing brings together a selection of leading players in the sector for a round table discussion, in association with Orchard.
We wanted to find out where the sector is now by speaking to organisations at various stages of transformation journeys – and examine how those responsible for driving change are planning for the next steps.
Let’s kick things off with the here and now. Where is the sector starting from?
Kevin Heslop, chief information officer at Sanctuary Housing Association, says that the opportunities for landlords to overhaul the way they operate are “enormous”. “We’ve been discussing how to transform all areas: staff mobility, user experience and data analytics. There’s also AI and automation.”
Rachel Morrissey, chief financial and commercial officer at ALMO Your Homes Newcastle, says that it is at the start of its journey – but is looking to accelerate significantly in the coming months.
“We have different portals for repairs and housing management so it’s making for a clunky experience for staff and residents,” she says. “We would like to join everything up and have our vision in place by Christmas to define our plan for the next two years.”
Being more user-friendly and focused is the driver for many organisations upgrading.
Richard Holland, assistant director – technology and innovation, Waltham Forest Council, and Anne Costain, chief financial officer, Radian Group
Jo Barrett, operations director at Thrive Homes, says tenant demands are increasingly driving the pace of change.
“We recognise that the world outside our sector has moved on and with that, the expectation of our tenants has shifted,” she states.
“At first, we saw our transformation as an efficiency exercise. However, we evaluated our systems again when the rent reduction came in. It was a real push for us to look at how we transacted with our tenants. We recognised that we might have five staff dealing with one resident and wondered how we could make it a more seamless service.”
She continues: “Changing how we engage with our residents has been a change for the structure of the whole organisation and how we work – our culture.”
Sarah Barrett, director of customer experience and transformation, Magna Housing, and Tina Barnard, chief executive, Watford Community Housing
Sarah Barrett, director of customer experience and transformation at Magna Housing, agrees. Magna has many long-standing, settled employees, so this had to be factored in when introducing new systems.
The most important thing is trying to make any service work as smoothly as possible for tenants and residents, and tailoring the service as a result, she states.
“We’ve developed a different user experience for each transaction,” she adds.
Tina Barnard, chief executive at Watford Community Housing, is ambitious for housing providers to match the experience their tenants receive in other sectors. She refers to a new planned repairs service as being “Uber-style”, keeping residents accurately informed about when repairs are going to take place.
Jehan Weerasinghe, acting managing director, Glasgow Housing Association, and Deborah McManus, chief technology officer, Orchard
And it is not just residents who organisations need to listen to, according to Malcolm O’Brien, executive director of corporate services at Swan Housing Association. He says that it is also vital for organisations to listen to the staff doing the jobs when designing in change.
“We started our digital experience with our employees, not residents, to support their work,” he says. It then worked with residents to better understand what they wanted from a new-look service.
It is important to clearly define what data you have and any gaps that need to be filled when thinking about new systems, the panelists suggest.
Anne Costain, chief financial officer at Radian, says that Radian, along with other landlords, “need to understand what we need to know before we start thinking about how to collect the data”.
Andy Belton, chief operating officer, Notting Hill Genesis, Malcolm O’Brien, executive director of corporate services, Swan Housing Association, and Jo Barrett, operations director, Thrive Homes
Magna Housing chose to gather information using a chatbot, says Sarah Barrett. This proved to be a quicker and cheaper method than surveying by email, post or face-to-face, and it gained really rich data about resident satisfaction from simple questions.
Liz Haworth, group chief executive at Halton Housing, says it has invested heavily in new technologies and is “being smarter about using the data we’ve gained”. It has now reached the position where it can think again about the purpose of the services it provides as a result – planning ahead based on data it has collected rather than simply reacting to change.
“The strategy is to move our services from a reactive to a pre-emptive model,” she states. “Once we’ve got the data right, it has to be retrieved in a way that’s useful.”
Glasgow Housing Association is a few years into its transformation, says its managing director Jehan Weerasinghe. It has used data to guide its approach – but part of the learning is that tech solutions are not the answer for all tenants.
Rachel Morrissey, chief financial and commercial officer, Your Homes Newcastle
“Our challenge is making sure that residents aren’t [digitally] excluded,” he states.
It has looked to form partnerships with other organisations to benefit tenants, too – and drive awareness of and interaction with the landlord’s online services. “In May, we introduced a gateway for tenants to gain savings in stores such as Asda,” he adds.
“Since then 2,000 tenants have registered and saved £27,000. This is a benefit for our tenants who interact online – now about 40% are signed up to our portal and half of those use it regularly,” Mr Weerasinghe says.
Sanctuary’s Mr Heslop agrees that understanding what residents want and how they are already behaving online is key to designing effective services.
“We need to know more about how our residents get online, and most importantly, make sure they can get online before we start thinking about transformation,” he says.
Kevin Heslop, chief information officer, Sanctuary Housing Association
However, there is an expectation to change, says Andy Belton, chief operating officer at Notting Hill Genesis. “The driver is more than being efficient or reducing budgets. Our residents are citizens of the 21st century and they expect to be able to transact with us in the same way that they do in other areas of life.
“The change for Notting Hill Genesis is that our technology plans have become strategic to everything we do. Technology is up there with finance and development and it is accepted throughout the organisation that focusing on tech is something we have to do, otherwise we won’t be able to offer a great service to our tenants.”
He adds that housing organisations also need to get better at looking “outside of the sector for examples of good data collection and how to best use it”.
“Why would we look in the housing sector for predictive analytics tools?” he asks.
Kevin Ives, chief information officer, Sovereign Housing Association
Kevin Ives, chief information officer at Sovereign Housing Association, describes the situation at his organisation: “I am from outside the sector – my background is in transport – however there are similarities when it comes to the transition in our customer services and finding a synergy between that and our assets in a way that we’re not always organised to do. At the moment we’re trying to improve day-to-day services while looking at the longer term and developing a robust architecture, solid business process and capability of skills and mindsets of people both at Sovereign and our suppliers.”
“Other sectors are more advanced at looking at behaviour. We hold a lot of task data that makes us reactive – instead we need to find a way to look at tenant behaviour so that we can be predictive,” says Jo Barrett.
Deborah McManus, chief technology officer at Orchard, says that effective data analysis is key to driving effective and appropriate change in the sector. “For example, we can make predictions about rent arrears that might happen over the Christmas period and create a campaign [for] tenants before it happens,” she states.
Richard Holland, assistant director – technology and innovation at Waltham Forest Council, says that 85% of transactions with the council take place online after a five-year strategy to drive change. He says it is now “refreshing our kit and moving to the cloud to make sure we have digitally capable office systems”.
Mr Heslop says Sanctuary is using technology in other ways to improve customer service and resident care. “Our support workers can work on tablets so that they don’t have to return to the office when they need some information, which means they have more time with residents. It’s not much in technology terms but it’s a smarter way of working that makes a big impact for the resident. It’s what we’re all here for.”
It is this last point that is most important. If landlords are serious about providing a better service to tenants, they must get smarter about how they engage and the information they gather.
Chief executive, Watford Community Housing
Operations director, Thrive Homes
Director of customer experience and transformation, Magna Housing
Chief operating officer, Notting Hill Genesis
Chief financial officer, Radian Group
Group chief executive, Halton Housing
Chief information officer, Sanctuary Housing Association
Martin Hilditch (chair)
Editor, Inside Housing
Assistant director – technology and innovation, Waltham Forest Council
Chief information officer, Sovereign Housing Association
Chief technology officer, Orchard
Chief financial and commercial officer, Your Homes Newcastle
Executive director of corporate services, Swan Housing Association
Acting managing director, Glasgow Housing Association