Read my interview with Elly Hoult, Programme Director at Notting Hill Genesis. In Edition #1 of Fresh Perspectives.
An introduction to the series.
With Fresh Perspectives, I hope to bring talent from across property and housing together.
This series doesn’t focus on the loudest or most senior voices in the sector. Rather, I seek out leaders with a new perspective. Those on the front lines of housing in the UK.
They challenge the status quo. Transform attitudes. Process. Operations and customer service.
I hope that you get as much as I learn from it. That you - the reader - consider these fresh perspectives and how they might be applied to your own organisation.
An introduction to my guest - Elly Hoult
Elly has seen an illustrious rise in her housing journey - from project management to business development and business excellence - leading to her most recent role as Programme Director for Notting Hill Genesis. Her day-to-day involves working with successful heritage organisations on realising value within mergers, achieving savings and leading digital transformation. She is also a Governing Board Member of the Chartered Institute of Housing.
In this interview, we discuss:
Why housing is more than a home - the invaluable care and support that goes beyond giving someone a roof.
The biggest operational opportunities in housing today. And the big challenges.
Why big cities like London aren’t able to attract and retain crucial public sector talent.
How digital transformation will offer tenants a more personalised service.
The role of a housing association many years into the future.
What inspires Elly to understand her customers better and shape important change.
On Wednesday the 24th of July, Elly and I met at NHG’s Kings Cross office to discuss what housing means to her, and her vision of its future.
Shariq: Hi Elly, thanks again for taking the time to meet me. I want to start somewhere simple. Let’s start with ‘why?’. Why Housing? What was your journey into the sector like?
Elly: I have predominantly worked in the sector for most of my life. Been in housing for about 20 years. For me - and most people, I think - it’s vocational. Everyone needs a home. Everyone deserves a home. Living in London I walk past homeless people every day. So, we still haven’t cracked it. As long as there is work to be done to provide more homes, and more affordable homes in the sector - it’s what I’m driven to do.
Shariq: Was it so inherent, instinctive?
Elly: I sort of fell into housing - a lot of people fall into this sector, I think. When I left education I got a job at a housing association. I didn’t know anything about housing associations other than they provided affordable homes. I discovered this whole world of support they were offering.
Most of my family work in vocational-type roles e.g. nurses for the NHS. I knew this is what I wanted to do.
The housing sector has a large care and support function. So I started working with teenage parents and young men on probation. There was a lot of Government money at the time to help. It was quasi-social work - I took the time to understand them. What were their needs, beyond just maintaining their tenancy? That’s how I got into it. I realised housing provided so much more than homes to people.
Shariq: According to you, what are some of the biggest operational challenges in housing? Biggest opportunities? How does technology enable this, if at all?
Elly: Operationally, the biggest challenge we have - like a lot of sectors - is keeping pace with customer expectations. The infrastructure and software that sits behind that. In fact, Plentific is a good example where we’ve taken a challenge around repairs, not being able to deliver effectively on those - and found a simple, powerful solution to implement it. We can never seem to do it quick enough. That’s the thing. It’s pace. I think that’s the challenge.
There are so many opportunities to automate, to make things easier for residents - to make their experience better and give them more control over their experience. Make it more personalised. So, to reiterate - that’s the opportunity but the challenge is pace. Creating organisations that are agile enough to do that and flexible enough to do that is the biggest challenge.
In fact, Plentific is a good example where we’ve taken a challenge around repairs, not being able to deliver effectively on those - and found a simple, powerful solution to implement it.”
Shariq: Finding that sweet balance between tech, where it’s needed and how it can be personalised. It is important, I think. Will it overhaul any human aspects?
Elly: Some residents will still need human intervention. People who may struggle to access digital services will always need that extra support. The NHS has done this quite cleverly with GP Skype appointments - you can still have a human element and a digital aspect to it. There’s always going to be a need to provide face-to-face service for certain residents. It’s getting the balance right.
The more efficiently we can drive through our organisation, the more we can free up the most talented people in our staff to spend time with residents who need it the most.
Shariq: Let’s discuss digital transformation. It’s thrown around like a buzzword - but what are the real, fundamental ways it stands to change the future of housing? And more pressingly, customer service in housing?
Elly: When the (Notting Hill Housing and Genesis Housing Association) merger happened, we did a lot of work with our residents to find out what they really wanted. What’s important to you? What came across really strongly is the idea of local, personalised services - the ability to have some sense of control. There's an inherent imbalance in a landlord tenant relationship. I don’t like these trainers, I’ll get another pair. I don’t like this car, I’ll get another one. It doesn’t work that way in housing.
With homes you are tied to a location because of schools, family, cost, transport. You don’t realistically have a choice — that creates a natural imbalance.
So I think there’s a real opportunity - with the digital transformation our operating model is undergoing - to create a local, personalised service. Give some real power back to residents. Residents simply being on a panel doesn’t solve this. Being on a panel doesn’t mean they’re able to choose who will carry out their repair, how they want to pay their rent, what type of support they might need. The more we can create packages that allow them to have choice, the more we will break down the inherent imbalance.
I think, there’s a real opportunity - with the digital transformation our operating model is undergoing - to create a local, personalised service. Give some real power back to residents.”
Shariq: I think that’s genuinely great. It makes me want to ask - what’s the ideal role of housing/ communities in 10 years. How are young leaders, such as yourself, placed to deliver this?
Elly: It has to be longer term than that. If you just plan for the next 10 years, it’s not long enough to be sustainable for generations to come. There’s something intrinsically about placemaking in there.
It has to start today - working with communities to create places that people will want in the future. It’s quite tricky - there are so many players when you’re building communities. You have to think long term. People’s lives change quite a bit over those many years.
Thinking about the future of place, everything is intrinsically linked e.g. health and community. Working with tenants will be really important for us to realise this. As a sector we lost of sight of that a little bit - the push for the government to provide homes has centered the focus around provision alone, but not the type of homes and communities people need.
Shariq: Placemaking. Very interested in that. I’ve been reading about building with, not for, in cultivating places.
Elly: Here’s a good example I was discussing with someone the other day: the concept of a food desert. Quite often in areas of poor housing you find a plethora of fast food shops. To get something healthy, you’d have to go quite a long way - to a decent grocery store. There’s a cost to that. There’s a cost to obtaining your healthy food. You also realise that place hasn’t been thought through effectively. So I think it needs to be a broader discussion - thinking broader and working with all stakeholders around the big picture.
Shariq: And our young leaders?
Elly: So there’s a lot of research to show that most young people - most millennials and Gen Z - pick roles now based on social purpose. And that’s more important to them as a motivator than money and other motivators previous generations put higher on the ladder. With this generation of young people, that real drive for social purpose is well placed to deliver what is needed by our communities.
But also, funnily enough - I tweeted this morning about how young people can’t afford to live in cities anymore. The question to me is, how are we going to get that talent to the right places to deliver what’s needed? I had someone in my team last year, a young admin. And she resorted to sharing a bedroom with a stranger. Not a place - a bedroom. We work in housing and have to face these uncomfortable realities.
Shariq: I read recently that many public sector workers now can’t afford to live in big cities. Teachers, doctors, nurses - they just can’t afford to anymore. And it’s not just London.
Elly: And then we end up with poor schools because we can’t get the best teachers - that exacerbates crime, dropping out of education. There needs to be much more long-term plan, a sustainable plan about how we build homes and communities within big cities.
Shariq: Ok, so last question. And this one’s more about you. What have you read or watched recently that really resonated with you?
Elly: Well, ok so, one of the best books I’ve ever read recently is Steve Jobs’ autobiography. His drive for delivering what’s best for customers really came through. He was such an interesting character, in lots of ways irritating - but I just couldn’t put it down.
Recently I was also watching a Dave Snowden talk - interesting stuff around collecting qualitative data - and taking it to scale - to understand what residents really want. Instead of just ticking boxes. To understand what conversations are being had and scaling them up to inform better insights.
I thank Elly again for her time and hand her a copy of a book I have been reading lately as we say au-revoir. Her views and experiences have helped inform a much stronger understanding of housing for me.
Better placemaking can help solve some of the pressing issues in impoverished communities.
Digital can be more human if you build at the speed of inclusion and build alongside tenant voices.
Social purpose is a stronger motivator than money for the young housing professional today - they want to realise great change in the sector.
There is great opportunity in transforming operating models to offer a more local, personalised service to tenants. Give them real empowerment.
Housing needs to think beyond 10-20 years and well into the future to build communities future generations will actually want to live in.
Talk to Me:
Stay tuned for the next in the series. And if you’d like to recommend a young leader in housing for me to sit down and have a chat with, do let me know below.