The top team at Cobalt Housing reveal how their organisation has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic – and what they are doing to manage the current resurgence and Tier 3 restrictions
How has your way of operating changed?
At Cobalt Housing, COVID-19 reaffirms the need for digital transformation and validates both our plans and aim to do it. It offers us, and the sector, massive opportunities to deliver innovation, service improvements, and business change.
COVID-19 has changed staff attitudes with many now more open and appreciative of the need to deliver services in different ways – this is great in trying to deliver digital transformational change like we are.
However, it doesn’t mean transformation or new operating models should be rushed. Any new solution and business change must be carefully considered and thoroughly tested to ensure its right for us and what we want to achieve, and that it will ultimately benefit tenants in the long run.
What projects have you started or brought forward because of the pandemic?
There is danger of reacting to COVID as opposed to being proactive about it and creating long term innovative solutions. So, our initial focus has been progressing digital solutions not determined by bigger or other factors:
- The first, and potentially the most powerful, is a Community/Estate Wi-Fi provision – the potential benefits of increased social mobility and resident connectivity is massive
- Second, we’re actively pursuing a Cloud-based telephony platform to replace our existing traditional hard-phone system – with staff working at home as a result of COVID-19, it’s really exposed the faults with our existing solution and its flexibility
- Third, we are exploring online workspace solutions and are currently trailing a product called Awingu, which provides online workspace and allows our users secure access to corporate IT resources such as company applications and files
- Finally, there is the need for our staff to have the right equipment to work both at home and in the office, and we are currently conducting an exercise to respond to this
What issues within your operation have been brought to light that you were previously unaware of?
Easily, the answer to this is our telephony platform. With all staff within our contact centre working at home during lockdown, issues such as calls muting, poor sound quality, and call dropping off has increased. It has really highlighted the need for a new, cloud-based softphone solution.
COVID-19 has also been very good at highlighting some inefficiencies in our processes. This was really emphasised by the need to change some of our processes quickly to react to the situation, which would have taken longer to implement without the urgency created by the lockdown.
“There is danger of reacting to COVID as opposed to being proactive – our initial focus has been progressing digital solutions not determined by bigger or other factors”
This is a really important point for the sector too and a real opportunity. Once COVID is over, we shouldn’t return the way services were delivered. Instead, let’s use this pandemic as a restart or baseline to deliver service in a customer-centric and ‘digital first’ way.
What kind of digital transformation did you undergo?
We are very much at the beginning of our digital transformation journey, with a long-term plan recently agreed. Our digital transformation is customer centric, which not only means it differs from a lot in the sector but also lends itself to more powerful outcomes by ensuring solutions, offerings, and processes respond to the needs, wants, and challenges of customers.
We’re also actively trying to be positive disrupters in our approach, not only through trying new ways of working but being very open to considering new approaches and solutions.
Examples include Plentific, which offers a radical new approach to repairs and contract management; and ‘EnergieSprong’, which is a revolutionary total retrofit approach.
It’s important to stress that our digital transformation is about providing digital services and solutions to customers in a way that they would want. We want to be more efficient in our service delivery so that we can free up resources and provide greater support to those in need of additional support.
What was your policy regarding remote working before the pandemic? How has it since changed?
Pre-COVID, all Cobalt staff operated from our head office and depot premises. While occasional home working was available, it was certainly not the norm.
As an organisation, we were always moving to a more agile way of working and had ensured people had work laptops and connectivity at home, so the initial move to home working was straight forward. We worked closely with our IT team to ensure any issues were resolved as quickly as possible, and we asked IT what was working well and how it could be improved.
When it became clear that this situation was going to be for the long term, we started looking at more permanent solutions for staff and asking what equipment they would need to deliver a service that combined a balance between home and office working.
Given the success with which we made the transition, Cobalt has agreed that, post COVID-19, any employee who can work from home will be allowed to do so as part of a hybrid home- and office-based working pattern.
How has the way in which you interact with tenants changed?
Our primary method of contact with tenants is by telephone, and this has not changed. The area that has changed is face-to-face interaction, both in the community and through our reception area. We have, through necessity, scaled back this type of interaction and looked into other methods.
In terms of our resident engagement, we have used virtual meetings to continue our work and, in regard to our revised neighbourhood plans, conducted a survey via e-mail, social media, and a link to our website. We are also running an innovative AI-powered feedback solution called Opinyin to gain insight from customers.
“Now the Tier 3 restrictions have been instated in Merseyside, our Welfare Benefits team are seeing a renewed uptick in calls for food and other support”
The number of people using the Cobalt digital portal has gone up by around 300-400 since the pandemic hit; however, this in itself has highlighted the need to offer greater functionality on our self-service portal.
We are proud to have a positive relationship with our tenants via our social media pages, and we have built on that relationship further over the last eight months. During the height of the pandemic, our social media and website became the bridge of that ‘face to face’ gap that our tenants needed at that time.
On our website, we created a dedicated COVID-19 support section, which had links to community support, benefit support, service information, and anything tenants requested support from.
We have used technology to make some of our processes ‘faceless’ – a good example being our sign-up process. We are trying to balance still being ‘visible’ with a need to be remote.
Have you noticed a change in the things tenants are concerned about?
Initially, there was a lot of concern about how people would access food, medication, and other essentials. And now the Tier 3 restrictions have been instated in Merseyside, our Welfare Benefits team are seeing a renewed uptick in calls for food and other support.
We’ve had many tenants who worry about losing their homes, predominantly tenants whose employment circumstances have changed and who may never have claimed benefits before. In response, we increased our Welfare Benefits at the height of the pandemic to ensure they were receiving the correct support.
There is also a concern about the levels of anti-social behaviour in the community, including people not abiding by rules around safety.
As such, we have launched a ‘Estate Champion’ scheme that is open to both tenants and people who live locally to join, which gives residents the opportunity to report any issues to our team so that we can maintain an active presence in our communities.
What difficulties have you had with tenants who aren’t used to or capable of interacting via a computer or smartphone?
We have not experienced any significant difficulties, but we have been reminded of the importance of finding out how digitally enabled our customers are – i.e. what devices they have, what access they have got, and what skills they have.
We found that, in some cases, we weren’t able to quickly contact vulnerable customers due to old phone numbers remaining on the system or a lack of contact method. Our formal tenant engagement processes have also been restricted to those with digital skills and access.
As we have adjusted services to protect staff and customers, moving away from the face-to-face interactions, some transactions have become difficult with people who have always engaged with us in reception and maybe don’t have the best literacy levels.
For some things, like gas servicing and electrical testing, this change has put pressure on our teams to retain high levels of compliance and adjust processes to both minimise risks and maximise access opportunities with tenants’ homes.
If you were to go through those first few months of the crisis again, what would you do differently?
Understandably, there was a lot of information that was published quickly, and sometimes overnight during the peak of lockdown. This meant we had to quickly postpone and adapt a lot of our services, and there was, at times, a lot of information going out extremely quickly to tenants as we tried to adapt while still supporting our communities.
Our teams worked together from the first signs of a lockdown to ensure we continued with essential services and increased communication with our more vulnerable tenants. We are especially proud of the way we engaged with our tenants and supported our communities.
If anything, though, we would have looked at how we managed the information we received from people and made better use of CRM.
What preparations are you making for future spikes or crises, like we’re seeing now?
COVID and future pandemics are a key issue on our corporate/strategic risk register, which is regularly monitored and assessed and included in our business continuity planning.
The lockdown at very short notice demonstrated our ability to provide continuity of service with minimum disruption to tenants. As we see a hybrid of home- and office-based working as the future, providing staff with the IT equipment and home office furniture they need to work effectively and safely from both locations is of utmost importance.
Effective team collaboration via digital media and robust telephony tools mean we can continue to deliver services to our customers safely and effectively.
What are your priorities for the future?
We need to drive the digital agenda – this will be a central strand for our board, leadership team, and tenants.
Our Customer Centric Digital Transformation Plan currently lists 82 items, ranging from big ticket and strategic items that affect the whole business to operational items pertinent to individual teams.
However, the priority is getting our infrastructure right, specifically getting into the cloud, getting our telephony platform right, and ensuring we have the right Housing Management Solution. For us, these are the ‘enablers’ to other solutions and must be tackled first.
We will then build out from there, adding integration and master data management solutions, then working through all remaining items to get the best solutions across the ecosystem.
Our approach is driven by our principles: we want to deliver solutions that provide the best outcomes for customers, while having both a ‘digital first’ focus and internally deliver more effective and efficient working practices.
We are excited about where we will be in a few years’ time.
Main image: Jon Webster, director of Resources, Cobalt Housing
Contributors: Chief executive Alan Rogers, director of Operations David Woods, head of Neighbourhoods Nick Grubb, director of Resources Jon Webster, and Technology and Transformation manager Chris Fray
More from the Keeping up with COVID series:
- Keeping up with COVID: Plus Dane
- Keeping up with COVID: Broadacres
- Keeping up with COVID: Golding Homes
- Keeping up with COVID: Ongo
- Keeping up with COVID: Johnnie Johnson
- Keeping up with COVID: Magenta Living
Are you a social housing professional? Sign up for a FREE MEMBERSHIP to upload news stories, post job vacancies, and connect with colleagues on our secure social feed.