How Housing Communities Can Build Better Technology

Shariq Kochhar

Start with a search. For affordable housing in the UK. 

The first thing you’ll find is uncertainty. We need more homes, we need them yesterday

But just building homes isn’t enough to solve the nation’s affordable housing crisis.

Millions of people already live in social housing properties, with a waiting list that’s twice as long. Tenants are expecting and demanding more. Prospective tenants even more so. Quality experiences, designed around their needs. They’re demanding more because current systems aren’t delivering.

At the same time, today, we take certain social technologies for granted. Uber for a car, AirBnB for a holiday, Spotify for music on the go. Similarly, consumer tech is influencing tenants to seek streamlined, frictionless platforms that are easy and intuitive.

The bad news? The sector can’t seem to transform itself quickly enough to build better customer experiences - with trust, accountability and transparency at the heart of them.

What’s even more concerning is that - in the technological context - we are starting to speak about complex concepts, such as ‘community’ and ‘engagement’ like they are easy to nail down - or worse, can be synthesised into a simple metric.

So, with this in mind, I've tried to rethink the 'community opportunity' in housing. To showcase a better role for technology to play in social design. To consider the prospect of building technology with, not for communities..

Here are a few ways to accomplish this:


1. Learn from other industries and disciplines.

Retail is the benchmark that everyone bases good customer experience on. It empowers customers by making them expect more - and housing associations can learn from some of the simple solutions it utilises. Today, 72% of retail customers expect a response to an issue within the hour. This includes queries posted on social media. PWC says the housing association of 2020 will be working with digital natives - no more traditionals. Or transitionals. Natives that will expect the housing provider to put them first, as KPMG further highlights. 

Imagine a framework within housing associations that could make this possible today - allow tenants to share simple, instant messages that get swift support from an operations team. Apply it to a service request and you could have the beginnings of self-serve model on your hands. 

More search platforms are also becoming streamlined in a Google-like manner. Amazon utilises AI (artificial intelligence) much like Google’s ‘magic sauce’ to predict what you might be interested in. Apply this to a housing community - utilising rich data, augmented by AI, to understand a resident’s pressing needs and the information they seek. 

HouseMark, a leading provider of data and insights, is already working towards making this a reality within social housing. 

 

2. Map customer journeys & pain points. Use data well.

One housing association chose to give new residents a kettle when they moved in. This received poor feedback. Why? When the customer journey was mapped, it was discovered residents prefer for the money to be spent on part-payment towards a removal service. Or food-vouchers to help them stock up their new home.

Now, the same housing association has a starter pack including all the food and lodging essentials a typical resident might need. It’s far more successful because most social housing customers are just £150 away from being overdrawn. The right kind of help at their most vulnerable goes a long way. The housing sector is a treasure-trove of dynamic data on which better digital investments can be made. To enable a better experience. To disrupt existing, inefficient processes such as repairs. 

+Better digital/IT delivery is here to stay. Read about a new means to map customer journeys in this “Tech meets culture” piece on the future of digital frameworks.

 

3. Build a disruptive framework for positive change.

Think of Digital as a change-enabler. And not as technology. Instead, consider it a framework that makes things as easy as possible from a human perspective. I discuss retail’s strengths above, but customer experience in the public sector isn’t about exciting, shiny tech. It’s about making crucial interactions less painful. A website that gives tenants the information they seek, in as few steps as possible, is a good example of such a framework. You get what you came for, and leave as quickly. Streamlined, painless.

There’s debate about whether Uber has accomplished this. But Uber’s also done for logistics what wheels did for horses. Its on-demand, accountable and responsive nature is the ‘disruptive’ standard to beat. Social housing needs exactly this - both in terms of communicating with residents and delivering service.

If this were applied to how repairs and maintenance is handled in the UK’s housing markets, it would provide the opportunity to record every repair from raised to resolved through a simple interface. It would also be possible to weave affordability into the supply chain by streamlining the admin and paperwork that play a key role in driving costs up.

+Read more about how housing associations are adapting key PropTech solutions to communication and logistics for tenants. From auto-scheduling to compliance, to an entire IoT (Internet of Things) overhaul for assets. 

 

4. React less, predict more.

Right-first-time (i.e resolution on first point of contact) is vitally important. But so is knowing which lift is going to break down next and fixing it before anyone gets stranded on the 15th floor. Reactive repairs impact the bottom line of every housing provider. And severely impact customer satisfaction metrics, too. The window of opportunity - to invest in changing this to a predictive model - will not stay open long, “as the government’s policy changes, rent levels and Right to Buy begin to bite.”

Agile working capabilities, woven into the IT fabric of housing operations, will allow for a housing portfolio’s entire data to be visible at the touch of a button. This means the possibility of identifying heat maps, patterns in repairs, maintenance and asset life-cycles. It also means the possibility of automating all processes associated with raising, procuring and tracking of said repairs - thus freeing up housing teams to spend more time with tenants.

Such approaches quickly turn tenants into fans. And fans into advocates. And because the grapevine is so integral to housing, there’s great promise to boost reputation in an environment of evolving expectations.

 

5. Leverage the community.

The ethos of “build with, not for” is that, when it comes to social-tech, civic-tech or PropTech, we must identify the real people our work is intended to benefit. Resident collaboration is the first step to humanising tech. Humanising also means ‘engagement’ should be measured in a more intangible way rather than shoehorned into tangible metrics

Inactives’ and ‘unengaged’ customers in social housing exhibit real human behaviour which is not recorded. We need a clearer picture of what inactivity means when we try to capture human interaction with a service. Who might be choosing not to engage. Or simply might not have been invited to participate. In contrast, understanding and leveraging a community’s everlasting purpose shouldn’t have to be. Helping someone move in. The time you took in your neighbour’s parcel. The school fair committee. When you helped sponsor a walk. Fixed a tyre.

With repairs and communal maintenance, we can utilise this community-thinking to offer a better service to social housing residents. A local tradesperson, who understands the community better than a Tier-1 contractor. Is invested in upkeep because they also call the same community home

This results in a more sustainable approach to procuring repairs, too - localising them and giving small trades businesses the opportunity to grow and invest money back into those very communities. It all starts with the same basic tenet of lending a hand to your neighbours. And also provides a shared sense of ownership and investment in the work - which is the very goal of encouraging engagement with new systems. 

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