Going Digital: Housing in a post-COVID world

by Liam Turner
laptop opening with lights flashing in dark

What are the emerging trends of the post-COVID workplace, and what lessons have been learnt from working in lockdown? To find out, Housing Digital sat in on a Golden Marzipan virtual roundtable, attended by some of the sector’s most prominent voices.

The world as we know it has changed. Remote working has become the norm, the traditional office has become the subject of a radical rethink, and the way in which we interact with customers has taken on a whole new dynamic.

All sectors have been affected by this shift. Research by management consultancy McKinsey & Company shows 90% of leaders believe the COVID-19 crisis will fundamentally affect the way they do business. Yet, just 21% believe they currently have the resources and expertise to adapt to a new way of working.

So, how is the housing sector faring? If this roundtable is anything to go by, it’s doing quite well…

Turbo-charging change

Fiona Astor, transformation director of Magenta Housing, says her organisation adapted with ease. Despite having just seven laptops for staff at the start of the crisis, Magenta managed to adjust to a completely new way of working within a week.

“We miraculously developed online capability within the space of five days and got our colleagues to work remotely,” she recalls.

Weaver Vale Housing has had similar success, with chair Paul Smith attesting that they got a call centre “up and running within 24 hours [of lockdown] remotely”.

And for Yvonne Castle, CEO of Johnnie Johnson Housing, the shift has gone so well that “we are now looking to come out of our current offices”.

Clearly, the transition to a fully agile way of working has gone smoother than expected. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been any challenges.

golden marzipan digital roundtable screenshot

L-R: Steve Dungworth, Digital Transformation Lead, Golden Marzipan; Liam Turner, Editor, Housing Digital; Gary Moreton, Board Member, Walsall Housing; Peter Lunio, Analytics and Artificial Intelligence Lead, Golden Marzipan; Cath Purdy, CEO, South Lakes; David Lister, Organisation Resilience Lead, Golden Marzipan; Gail Teasdale, CEO, Broadacres Housing; Paul Smith, Chair, Weaver Vale Housing; Fiona Moore, Chair, Castle & Coasts Housing; Yvonne Castle, CEO, Johnnie Johnson; Jenny Osbourne, CEO, Tpas & Chair, Stockport Homes; Steve Secker, Chair, York Housing & Board Member, Johnnie Johnson; Fiona Astor, Transformation Director, Magenta Housing

For Broadacres Housing CEO Gail Teasdale, despite an otherwise successful switch, connectivity and poor infrastructure has been a recurring issue.

“The quality of broadband [in North Yorkshire] is really quite poor,” she says. “Combine poor broadband with really poor providers…”

But while the issue of internet connectivity is particularly acute in North Yorkshire, it isn’t necessarily one that only affects certain areas of the UK.

90% of leaders believe COVID-19 will fundamentally affect the way they do business

“It’s incredibly frustrating that we as a country are not investing is what is becoming increasingly a utility,” says Gail, as all members of the roundtable, streaming live from across the country, nod in agreement.

For Cath Purdy, CEO of South Lakes Housing, the issue isn’t going digital, but the rapid pace at which the shift has occurred.

“We set ourselves a vision…that incorporated agile working, better use of technology, and digitising our operations,” she says.

Lockdown has “completely accelerated” this vision, and what would have ordinarily taken one-to-two years to achieve has taken two months. “We’re now trying to retrofit some kind of rules around that,” says Cath.

“Let’s not make big changes in the eye of the storm…It’s about shaping what we’re learning to what it needs to look like.”

Just a phase?

But is this new way of working and interacting with customers here to stay?

“I think the whole spectrum exists,” says Gail. “For me it’s permanent, but for others it’s temporary.”

Broadacres was well equipped for remote working before the lockdown. Out of a total workforce of around 360 people, two-thirds were already agile.

“We had already invested in agile technology,” says Gail. “We only had to buy 10 laptops to get the entire workforce agile in the run up to lockdown.”

Crucially, adds Gail, a remote-working norm opens up opportunities to those with disabilities, those for whom getting to and from work is difficult or impossible.

Like Broadacres, Orbit and whg had embarked on a digital-change programme before the pandemic hit. 

“At whg,” says Gary Moreton, a whg board member, “we started setting up a transformational change programme after about the first three weeks of lockdown.”

“There’s definitely been a culture shift, and I can’t see us going back at all,” he says. “What this will do is just accelerate the pace of change. I don’t think the direction is any different per se.”

The way organisations operate in the future, though – whether they remain remote or revert back to office-based working – could depend on factors such as age, location, and personality.

Steve Secker, chair of York Housing and board member of Johnnie Johnson Housing, says he’s already seen evidence that a work-from-home lifestyle may not be for everyone.

“As a board member, it’s about sharing experience and making sure the right questions are asked,” he says.

“Though they are very much technically capable, a lot of young city professionals, flat dwellers, are struggling – the environment is not conducive.”

“this will just accelerate the pace of change – I don’t think the direction is any different”

Jenny Osbourne, CEO of Tpas and chair of Stockport Homes, provides the ALMO perspective. While Tpas’s switch to remote working has been smooth, she says Stockport Homes must consider not only the needs and wants of its workforce and customers, but also Stockport Council, on whose behalf they manage stock.

“As an ALMO, we have to think about what our local authority’s vision is,” she says, adding that the “huge transformation” currently underway in Stockport’s town centre is something the organisation must keep in mind. When does ‘remote’ become ‘detached’?

Perhaps a mixed approach, one that combines the remote with the real, could provide the answer…

An augmented reality

A post-lockdown Golden Marzipan survey found that 53% of respondents would like to work from home two-to-three days a week, with the remaining days spent working in the office.

This notion of integrating the home with the office is one that resonates with many on the roundtable, with Paul Smith, chair of Weaver Vale Housing, proving a particularly strong advocate.

“We’re not a digital business – we’re a people business,” he says. “People like working with people.

“There will always be a place for that kind of coming together…it’s about getting that blended mix right.”

It’s an approach that Cheshire-based Johnnie Johnson is already experimenting with. Yvonne Castle says that, as a result of the lockdown, Johnnie Johnson had been “thrown” into a situation where it hadn’t got the right environment developed for agile working. But by reacting decisively and quickly, the shift to working from home was “very positively” received.

“What we’re looking at now is how we’re having a collaboration space,” says Yvonne. “Face-to-face is clearly very important. It doesn’t have to be one place all the time that people go to.”

Cath agrees. “People come into work because they want connectivity,” she says. “So we’re looking at a blended approach.”

The tenant focus

So you’ve made your organisation agile, and you’ve found the sweet-spot between remote and in-office working. But what good is it if your tenants and customers aren’t seeing the benefit?

According to research conducted by the BT Good Things Foundation, nine million (16%) people in the UK are unable to use the internet or internet-enabled devices by themselves, while 3.6 million (7%) are almost completely offline.

older lady using a tablet computer

Many older people have limited interaction with the internet and internet-enabled devices

For Johnnie Johnson, whose 10,000 tenants are mainly older, such digital illiteracy is problematic. According to the association’s own research, 37% of tenants lack a mobile phone, 61% lack wifi, and just 10% are interested in learning more about digital or receiving digital training.

In an ideal world, housing associations and their customers would improve their digital capabilities contemporaneously. But the reality is that many associations have leapt ahead in technological capability amid this pandemic. Which is why, says Yvonne, “face-to-face support for our residents will always continue.”

But Jenny Osbourne says she is “really excited” about how going digital could improve customer relations. “We’re hearing a lot of good stuff from involved tenants about the scrutiny groups in particular being moved to digital,” she says.

Jenny recalls how, prior to the outbreak, many organisations had the mentality of ‘we can’t involve our tenants early in strategies’. 

“We can now,” she says. “It’s easy to get the people together. That’s going to be a great step forward I think in getting tenants engaged.

“This should be seen by the sector as being really powerful because it’s spreading knowledge.”

Fiona Astor is also seeing the benefits. Since shifting to more digital ways of working, she says Magenta has been interacting with a whole new group of customers.

“We’ve been very traditional – we invited people in for a cup of tea and a biscuit,” she says of the way Magenta operated pre-crisis. “But we have also been able to reach out to those we typically wouldn’t.”

So the challenge for Fiona is a novel one: how do you keep in touch with a new group of digitally active customers, without alienating loyal, traditional customers.

And that brings the conversation back to the ‘blended’ approach…

Taking stock

There is a spectrum here. Remote, agile working at one end; traditional, office-based working at the other. And although all those present at this roundtable occupy a different space on the spectrum, not one of them advocates for going all-in at either extreme.

Steve Dungworth, Golden Marzipan’s host and digital transformation adviser, sums it up nicely: “Necessity is the mother of invention – rapid transformation is possible.”

The housing sector seems to have embraced the challenge.

Golden Marzipan is a digital transformation consultancy specialising in helping social housing providers develop and implement digital based change strategies. In the last three months Golden Marzipan have provided informal insights to over 200 leaders of 50 housing associations though their #navigatingthecrisis Breakfast Briefings. If you are interested in attending please visit https://goldenmarzipan.co.uk/events/”

Read next: The sum of success?

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