The COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on how we live our lives. While much of this was temporary, there are strong signs that some activities may remain permanently online, say Peabody’s Anna Clarke and Antrim Ross
At Peabody, we wanted to know how well our social housing residents had been able to adapt to these new ways of living, working and learning. Three years ago, we asked our residents about their internet usage and what they did online. We were able to return to these topics to see what had changed and have published our findings.
Their responses were overall encouraging. We found a sharp increase in internet access, with more than a quarter of households reporting that they had installed broadband for the first time, and a similar number upgrading their broadband. At the start of the pandemic we were aware of some residents struggling with internet access, often having accessed it previously at local libraries, or not needed it much.
We worked with corporate partners to provide laptops, broadband, and training as needed. By March 2021, when we surveyed them, almost all households with school aged children had broadband connection, with many households having managed to obtain computers for their children to work on during the course of the pandemic.
This acceleration in digital skills, connectivity, and devices creates opportunities to expand systems for engaging with residents online via online portals, websites, or facilities to enable residents to connect with one another.
Like many housing associations, we moved our resident engagement and consultation events online with Zoom meetings during the pandemic. This was a success, with more than 1,000 residents having attended our virtual meetings over the last year – including many people who had never previously got involved. We’re looking to continue with an online element in the long-term, alongside face-to-face meetings for those who appreciate the social value of such interactions.
Our survey identified a shrinking group of people who were not online, increasingly concentrated in the very oldest age groups. Overall, only 5% of those surveyed by phone said they didn’t have access to the internet, but in the over-77 age group this figure was 40% – three times higher than the young-pensioner age group (67-76 year olds).
Reasons given for not using the internet were generally around a lack of skills and motivation – and only rarely around finances. Some experienced barriers relating to disabilities or literacy. As the numbers of people not able to operate online diminishes, this could mean those who remain offline become increasingly isolated or excluded from interactions that other people increasingly take for granted and struggle to access work, social interaction, or educational opportunities.
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However, digital inclusion is not as simple as being online or not: we found a few other groups with potential challenges to living and working online. Young single people were the most likely to be without broadband and reliant only on mobile data. This group need services to work on mobile phones and may also be limited in terms of data download speeds and capacity.
People who were out of work were twice as likely to say that they did not shop online or use the internet for video calls. Those who have been in work over this last year have developed new skills in meeting, interacting, and operating online – potentially exacerbating the skills gap with those out of work finding it harder to re-enter the workplace, as they will now be unfamiliar with new ways of working.
“The need for high-quality internet connections has never been greater”
At Peabody, our employment teams help residents to access work. This potential skills gap is something that needs considering when addressing the barriers these residents experience.
The other issue we found was people struggling with poor quality broadband. Most of our respondents said that their internet connection was good, but nearly one in five reported pictures freezing at least once a day while streaming or watching videos.
Most of our housing stock is flats, meaning that many residents are reliant on us as their landlord to ensure high-quality broadband connectivity. We are working to overcome the challenges in retrofitting broadband into older high-rise blocks without compromising building safety.
Overall, this research gives much cause for optimism, as the large majority of our social housing residents are living and working online in ways that opens up new options for engagement. We must address the outstanding challenges that remain, recognising that the need for high-quality internet connections has never been greater, whilst also retaining traditional means of contact for the small number not willing or able to get online.
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