Amid an increasingly turbulent economic landscape, Matt Barnes, head of Health and Housing at cloud and managed-communication services provider Maintel, explains how housing associations can use emerging technologies as a source of stability for both themselves and their tenants
The strain on the UK social housing sector continues to grow, fuelled by rising homelessness. In England, the latest figures showed 68,680 households approached councils for support between July and September 2020. Providers find themselves under growing pressure from all sides, as regulation has also decreased rental rates, and customer expectations continue to rise.
The pandemic has also caused a shake-up in the social housing sector. Providers have been forced to move to a remote-working model, creating agility with technology solutions to allow employees to work from home.
There has also been an increased focus on improving tenant engagement via digital service delivery using innovative and emerging technologies. Gartner predicts this will be an ongoing trend, as demand for digital products and services is expected to grow by 7% in 2021.
While some in the industry are further along in their digital transformation journey, across the board organisations are beginning to realise the value technology can add. It now has an important part to play in almost every aspect of the social housing operating model, from improving the tenant service experience, to driving operating efficiency and enhancing employee engagement.
In particular, there are four ways in which technology can help add value to housing organisations.
Improving the tenant experience
Tenants now expect as keen a focus on customer experience and value from their social housing experience as they would from other common commercial transactions. From enquiries to service provision, expectations are increasing.
The experience must be easy, informative, and available through a range of contact channels, as failure to quickly handle enquiries can result in dissatisfaction. Tenants expect both quality accommodation services and the ability to easily contact their provider.
Ensuring digital inclusion must be central to social housing providers’ customer service transformation plans. However, this mustn’t come at the expense of social inclusion. While it is important that providers implement the digital products and services that will drive greater customer service, they must at the same time address issues around the opportunity, access, knowledge, and skill in relation to using technology. This not only improves their experience, but it also helps tenants with employment and educational opportunities.
All social housing interactions, whether searching for new accommodation, paying the rent, or getting the plumber to fix a leaky tap, must be easily accessible and effectively handled. Innovative technology can help transform the tenant service experience and enable a greater number of enquiries to be resolved. Leveraging call-centre technology enables tenant interactions to be managed seamlessly and efficiently via multiple channels and ensures that the most appropriate person responds to that enquiry. This is a win-win for providers as it also drives down their cost to serve.
Enhancing employee engagement
Social housing providers typically collaborate with many different agencies and are dependent on good communications to operate efficiently and provide a quality public service. Making sure your employees are engaged, flexible, and digitally enabled is key to maximising their satisfaction.
Attracting the right staff is also becoming increasingly difficult. Therefore, providers also need to be mindful that they are selling themselves to prospective employees. By providing easy access to information and collaboration tools, they can significantly improve the workplace experience.
“Engaged, productive, and digitally enabled employees are key to the delivery of a quality service”
The latest technology can help to improve staff morale, increase motivation, and enhance productivity by relieving employees from repetitive tasks and automating processes. Paperless systems, automated reminders, and online payments all give social housing staff more time to focus on the important parts of their job.
Resolving basic enquiries using AI chatbots and prioritising urgent calls also ensures that non-urgent customer requests can be handled without human intervention. Scale communications with large numbers of tenants can also be handled efficiently by automated systems, meaning that employees are not overwhelmed by a high number of enquiries.
Engaged, productive, and digitally enabled employees are key to the delivery of a quality service, and that is why enhancing employee engagement is essential.
Balancing information security & availability
Social housing providers capture and store a lot of personal information, so any loss of data is more than just bad news: it can have serious reputational consequences. Prioritising protection for your organisation from today’s vulnerabilities and tomorrow’s cyber-threats is vital. Consequently, network security, intrusion protection, and virus threat management are important considerations for all organisations.
There is a balance to be struck between locking down sensitive data and making information available to provide quality tenant services. Technology has a critical role to play in permitting legitimate use while preventing malicious access. Embracing cloud technology and the power of data should be a top priority for social housing providers that successfully walk the line between data availability and security.
Driving operational productivity
Rent regulation has reduced operational income in real terms. Consequently, organisations need to maximise efficiency in order to provide a quality service while optimising costs. Ensuring the optimal blend of innovative and cost-effective technology can help drive operational efficiency.
Technological innovation can add value to all aspects of service provision, from keeping operational costs low by automating interactions, to providing omni-channel customer service and consolidating communication infrastructure. Technology solutions can help providers continue to provide excellent tenant services while delivering maximum operational productivity and optimising costs.
There is no let-off for the social housing sector. Tightening budgets and the potential of a pandemic-related recession could heighten the pressure on providers further. Consequently, to remain efficient, engaging, and competitive, housing authorities should be looking to digital technologies such as the cloud.
Image: Matt Barnes, head of Health and Housing, Maintel
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