Leadership through the pandemic
In this edition of our Spotlight on Housing series, we spoke to Emily-Rae Maxwell, Head of Housing and Neighbourhoods at Brent Council.
Emily tells Futr why Brent Council is such a wonderful place to work, how they got through the pandemic and what their strategic priorities for the coming months are.
Putting residents first
Emily-Rae joined Futr to share why Brent Council is such an exciting and motivating place to work, and gives us a taste of some of their strategic priorities.
“It’s fantastic working for Brent; it’s a really forward-thinking and supportive Council. One of the Council’s key messages is ‘do the right thing.’ Colleagues are passionate about this and honestly put the residents first.
“We are all encouraged to be aware and honest of where we are not performing and encouraged not to pretend everything is always perfect. That helps us be accountable and always strive for greater outcomes, which is a working style that I enjoy.
“As for our strategic priorities, we have an ambitious digital transformation plan! We need to transform our digital offer and stop thinking like a council. So, we’re looking at the technology that our residents use daily in the rest of their lives and are aiming to bring ourselves more in line with that.”
Digital transformation programme
For Emily-Rae and the Brent Council team, one of the most significant workplace challenges of the past 12 months was continuing their digital transformation programme and launching their bespoke rent analytics platform. Here she tells us why delivering their new analytics platform was so vital to press ahead with, even in the throes of the pandemic.
“Of course, as with so many others in this sector, the biggest challenge was the balance of staff welfare and support while still being there for residents that needed us. But through sheer grit and determination, we didn’t stop any services at all, except very briefly because the government told us to. Everything else continued!
“Continuing our work included driving forward our digital transformation! So, one of our biggest successes of the past several months has been building and launching our own rent analytics dashboard during the pandemic. You could argue that was a bad time to launch, but we thought it was a great time because everyone was already really open-minded to trialling new technologies!
“The insights generated have been integral to our rent management over the past year or so. It’s enabled us to drill down into the lowest level of cases. The core function is that it automatically flags certain high priority cases to an officer when there is a concern, so they don’t have to go through each case manually. It also shows trends as they are occurring.
“What this meant in the context of the pandemic was that at the first sight of trouble, we could step in to support that resident. We were able to pick out 204 additional accounts where they had been on top of their rent pre-pandemic but had fallen into debt. Finding the right resident and the right time meant that we could contact them to explain how they could claim welfare assistance, help them with food parcels or make referrals to other agencies that they needed, before their situation got out of hand.”
Adopting digital solutions
As with much of the UK Housing sector, Emily-Rae and her team adopted a number of new digital solutions whilst being mindful of residents who are digitally excluded. For Emily-Rae, expanding the self-serve function of their portal is a highlight of last year.
“Before the pandemic began, we had been piloting our portal for a year with around three hundred residents and were building new functionalities such as the ability for residents to manage their own account and book repairs. Those new functionalities went live in March of this year, and we are now working to make that the channel of choice for residents so that ultimately, we can give our customers a better experience.
“We know there are pockets of digital exclusion amongst our residents, and so we are also looking at how we can build better digital skills amongst our residents. For some residents, we’ve aided their digital inclusion with donated laptops. For others, it’s been as simple as just giving them the confidence to go digital.”
Beyond their recent digital advances, Emily-Rae postulates on changes she foresees for Brent Council in the coming years and months, from the Council’s Black Community Action Plan to the social housing white paper.
“Our strategic priorities are mainly focused on the human side of housing. As a council, we have a Black Community Action Plan, and there is the poverty commission, which was chaired by Lord Richard Best. Those two priorities are very important to me.
“The first of those reflects the need to understand how our residents are disproportionately affected when accessing our services, and we can learn a lot from the data that we hold as a landlord. This data gives us an understanding of people’s potential living conditions such as overcrowding. We can then ensure the decisions we make at a policy level make a difference to ensuring we are facilitating people living in the homes that work for them.
“The second of those, for us, relates to a need to have a greater understanding of what does being in poverty actually mean for the resident. We need to develop a better understanding of the issues of overcrowding, dampness and mould, and what the knock-on effects of those are.”
“Beyond those two priorities, we will be working to address digital exclusion and responding to the social housing white paper. Although it was missing from the Queen’s speech, we’ve commissioned Tpas to run some workshops with us to completely re-evaluate our tenant engagement. I suspect a lot of this will involve developing our digital engagement.”
As for the wider sector, Emily-Rae points out that the pandemic has brought a new challenge for social landlords: how to accommodate space for residents to work from home comfortably, without putting undue strain on the already severely over stretched housing supply.
“I think the sector will need to rethink what we view as a good home because we need to acknowledge that because of everything that’s happened over the past several months, residents now need office space at home. That is going to be a tricky point. At Brent, we don’t have a fully formed answer or viewpoint on managing that new tenant need. We’ve still got 1,800 people in temporary accommodation, and a three-bed has a 16year wait time at the moment. But just because you live in social housing, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have access to that extra little bit of space.”
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