Has COVID been the Catalyst that will bring Technology into the Housing Sector?
Simon Evans VP & CTO Ensono Digital
The global pandemic has had repercussions that seeped into every business sector. It has impacted every socio-economic group, and changed the way people live, play, shop and consume everything from media to education – across the globe. Here in the UK many of these behavioural adjustments are gradually receding as the government eases regulations and people begin to move more freely again, but many organisations – those that have seen the advantages of flexibility and adaptability in an ever-more unpredictable time – are choosing to learn from the fallout of COVID-19 and make strategic changes to the way they run their businesses.
In the housing sector fundamental strategic change was already afoot, with the government – as far back as 2006 – laying down aggressive challenges to the sector for tackling climate change, and then – more recently in 2020 – publishing the social housing whitepaper laying out a charter for widespread change.
But perhaps, despite the undeniable drivers that these challenges present to the housing sector, it is the COVID-19 pandemic that has been the most real, most motivating, and most eye-opening influence on the housing sector’s strategic focus. And that focus appears to be – better late than never – technology.
Technology has proved time and time again throughout the pandemic to be the pillar on which housing organisations and their tenants can lean. Across housing providers pockets of innovation have sprung up in response and our unique experience developing solutions for housing associations and landlords has exposed us to both the huge challenges that face the sector, as well as the vast opportunities that are there for the taking.
The Need for Efficiency
First and foremost, with resources increasingly strained just as the need for tenant communication and support rose, the call for greater efficiency was highlighted in earnest. Housing associations with thousands of homes needed to service those properties and their, often vulnerable, tenants across large geographies and a complex set of needs. The administrative load of dealing with repair booking, tracking, and logging across such a network can be difficult and time consuming – particularly when needing to keep face-to-face time to a minimum to safeguard staff and tenants alike. With lack of real-time data often more than half of all calls couldn’t be resolved first time, requiring repeat visits and an increased risk to both staff and tenants health, as well as secondary impacts on cost and time.
Some housing associations deployed booking systems to capture rich data at point of booking and deliver a frictionless experience for employees and tenants, significantly reducing system costs for the organisations and waiting times for residents. With the right technology solution these systems will be scalable, adaptable solutions that can – over time – build a picture of trends in demand and type of issues, allowing those organisations to plan proactive repairs and schedule resources with a far higher degree of accuracy than ever before.
People who Need People
By denying it for so many, the pandemic highlighted in extremis how social interaction is a basic human need for all. Older people are already particularly vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation and the proportion of over 70s experiencing depression has doubled from the start of the pandemic in March 2020 . With over 55-year-olds making up 44% of all people renting social housing, the housing sector has had to be on point in providing solutions to tackle the increased detachment felt by those having to shield – or those older people generally cut off due to fear or reduced social opportunities during the COVID-19 crisis.
Technology can – and has – played a key role in tackling this issue and connecting potentially isolated tenants with staff and landlords to provide solutions and maintain relationships.
AI and rich, well-managed data sets can help provide an interaction where a physical presence is not possible, or multiple in-person calls are cost prohibitive. Some housing associations are using chatbots to manage enquiries about common, repetitive tasks – such as booking plumbers – and redeploying staff to focus on more complex cases, or to service more vulnerable tenants who need emergency or specialist responses.
Video conferencing and calls – using Zoom or Teams – have been used to connect tenants and landlords or managers, particularly in housing associations that cover wide geographic areas. Many organisations have been spurred by the pandemic to adopt a digital platform, such as Microsoft 365, to enable them to integrate their collaborative communications tools with their operation at a greater depth.
Data Powers All
Overwhelmingly, there has been widespread recognition of the need for housing associations to maintain and interrogate a greater depth of data across their organisations. This might range from tenant data helping to determine the needs of the people they serve and the properties they occupy, to service, finance and technical data that provides the modelling required to run an efficient and proactive service.
Housing associations are waking up to the fact that any effective digital service platform requires accurate and up-to-date data. Remotely monitoring appliance performance can give early indications for the need to service or troubleshoot potential issues. And holding catalogues of data on common issues and how to resolve them can enable a self-serve capability that will empower tenants and free-up staff to tackle more serious issues.
Equally, managing financial data in a sensitive and compliant manner will enable organisations to understand tenants’ circumstances at a far greater depth. With the post-pandemic economy likely to significantly influence many tenants’ financial circumstances, being able to overlay income and lifestyle data to predict trends in the area will be an invaluable way to make strategic decisions on, for example, development of existing properties or investment in new housing stock.
Let’s Learn and Grow
It’s undeniable that the pandemic has been an extremely challenging time for tenants and landlords alike. But there is so much to be celebrated in – and learned from – the necessary innovation that sprang up in reaction to a pressing need for efficiency, understanding and connection where physical presence was no longer safe.
With many more challenges ahead, and a long-standing need for strategic change, this is the time for the housing sector to forge forward, use the lessons and creativity forced out by the pandemic, and take the sector into a new digital age.