A Blended Approach for the Future – Insight from Watford Community Housing’s CEO

Change for the best: 2020 in review 

In this edition of our Spotlight on Housing series: 2020 In Review, we spoke to the distinguished Tina Barnard – Group Chief Executive at Watford Community Housing – about how it is looking to embark on 2021 with a blended approach to technology, keeping only the most beneficial changes that were brought about as a result of the pressures of 2020.

Please could you give a brief introduction to yourself and Watford Community Housing?

“I am an accountant by profession and have spent 28 years working in housing, with the past 13 years as Chief Executive at Watford Community Housing – I just fell in love with the place when I joined!

“Watford Community Housing is a community gateway, so all our shareholders are residents, and in that way, we were slightly ahead of the white paper – we’ve always been a very customer-centric business.”

Related reading: Johnnie Johnson Housing: The art of the possible

Thinking about 2020 how has your digital offering for your customers changed as a result of the pandemic?

“In March 2020 we were due to launch our new ‘Let’s Go Plan’ and were aiming to continue moving forwards with our ongoing digital transformation programme.

“Of course, the pandemic hit and so, in the space of two days, we all had a shift to working from home. I would actually say that that shift was the biggest change we made last year.

“Anyway, as a result of the unexpected changes brought about by the pandemic and the various lockdowns, we slightly amended our plan and pushed ahead with it anyway.

“So, one of the key developments of last year was the increase in digital tenant services available within our portal, be that checking rent balances or booking repairs.

“We are particularly proud of our repairs service. It allows our residents to see who is coming to their home and at what time – so, it is safe and convenient for our residents.

“Across the rest of the business in 2020, we saw our first digital customer AGM take place. It went really well! There were lots of questions from our residents and the feedback was that it was one of the best AGMs we’ve ever had.

“We won’t continue with being fully digital for our AGM; I see the future as one with a hybrid model, taking the best of both digital and in person.

“In terms of lettings and house viewings, at the beginning of the pandemic, we stopped these. Then, when the guidance allowed us to continue, we move to digital signups and filmed properties for virtual viewings.

“Of course, we will always need people to come through our doors to collect keys and so on. So again, in future, we will adopt a blended model.

“As we encouraged people to engage with us digitally throughout the year, we saw lots of people doing so, it was a dramatic increase be that via a portal or over email.

“The great benefit of this is that it allows us to serve more of our vulnerable residents, because digitalising transactional workflows frees up the time of our colleagues, to look after the most vulnerable residents we have.”

Related reading: Digital inclusion: A paradigm shift in social housing

How has this year changed people’s mindset towards technology, and what does that mean for the future?

“I don’t think we will ever go back to working in the office five days a week, but, in particular, our younger staff have missed the office.

“Going forwards, we want to keep all the benefits of working from home and recreate the creativity, water cooler moments and innovative elements of being together in an office.

“So, I think we’ll have a blended approach here too, keeping the best parts of the office and the best parts of working from home – that’s once we’ve all had our vaccines!

“With regards to our residents, their response to our digital advances remains positive, a lot of people embraced this new way of communication.

“That being said, we will always still have residents that want to engage with us in the more traditional ways and that’s completely fine. We will never take that choice away from residents.

“This year, we want to embrace what we learnt in 2020, giving residents a choice and using nudge theory to encourage digital adoption where it is appropriate.”

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Discover other insights from some of the UK’s leading housing groups by following our Spotlight Series in the Futr blog. If you are interested in using automation to drive digital transformation in your organisation, contact the Futr team to see how live chat and chatbots for housing providers can help you. 

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