Change For The Best: 2020 In Review
In this edition of our series Housing Futr Spotlight: 2020 In Review, we chatted to the spirited Darren Reynolds, Director for Resident Experience at Shepherds Bush Housing Group (SBHG). Reynolds spoke of the digital advances brought about as a result of the 2020 lockdowns and what that means for the future.
Please could you give a brief introduction to yourself and SBHG?
“I’ve spent my entire career working in housing. Initially, I worked for Knowsley Housing Trust (KHT), based in Liverpool, in the fifth most deprived ward in the UK at the time.
“I’ve been based at SBHG for the past six years and I remember when I first got off the tube at Chiswick and thought, ‘Wow, this is different!’
“Clearly, London presents different challenges in terms of socio-economic mix. And, with 5,000 homes, SBHG is smaller in scale than KHT, but is really great in terms of being close to our customer base and seeing the positive difference we can make.
“I almost feel as though I have out-of-sector experience having worked in two very different parts of the country!”
How did the pressure of the pandemic change your digital offering last year?
“There was a lot of change for us last year! Firstly, we closed our drop-in office and we’re only just reviewing that now, to see if it makes sense to reopen it in the future.
“We were more proactive on outbound email last year than we ever were before. Because, if Boris Johnson made an announcement on Friday, we needed to email residents what that meant for them on Friday!
“Our community engagement panel and various resident meetings took place online rather than face-to-face – which was well received.
“Our board away-day also took place online, via Zoom and with lots of breakout rooms! One advantage of that was that when it finished at 2 pm we were already at home!
“Other changes saw our property inspections go online via FaceTime. We’ve also moved to digital sign-ups for letting properties, with a fully digital sign-up pack having been created.
“rather than face-to-face and telephones being the default going forward, we hope that that can now be the backup”
“Of course, there will always be a need for face-to-face service and we still want to maintain a regular dialogue with our most vulnerable residents.
“But rather than face-to-face and telephones being the default going forward, we hope that that can now be the backup as we develop more self-serve and digital communications channels, for those who are able to self-serve.
“We know there is an appetite for this shift; before Covid began we implemented a voice bot – residents can call up to be put through to an automated line to pay their rent. We didn’t publicise this service, but as soon as Covid hit, lots of residents started using it. It really took off! And our rent arrears are coming down – so it must be working.”
How did last year change people’s mindset towards technology?
“For us, there was a big emphasis on making sure that people had the right technology to be able to do their job properly. With this, colleagues have been much quicker getting onboard with new technology, which is definitely a positive!
“the volume of demand in our call centres has been a significant challenge for us.”
“With regards to our customers, the volume of demand in our call centres has been a significant challenge for us. So, we are certainly of the mindset that channel shift is the way forward. A lot of our residents are using tools like email at work anyway, so we know digital is natural to many of them.
“ultimately self-service is what residents want”
“We are also seeing a greater shift towards resident demand for round-the-clock service, they don’t want to only be able to speak to us 9-to-5! So, that – along with the success of our telephone voice bot for rent – is telling us that ultimately self-service is what residents want. So, we will be trying to deliver more of that going forward.”
What do you think were the best unexpected developments that happened last year?
“As a result of flexi-working, we require a smaller office space which creates a cost saving that we can reinvest into our tenants’ homes. Also, we are all printing less, which is another unanticipated benefit of the year!
“The pace of change last year was the equivalent of two weeks instead of two years. As a result, last year, many things that had been on our wish list, were achieved, and much quicker than they might have otherwise been. So, for that, I’ve viewed last year as an opportunity.
“The pace of change last year was the equivalent of two weeks instead of two years.”
“Looking at the bigger picture, we can’t stand still while everywhere else is improving at the rate of knots – just look at how fast smart phones improve and wider tech developments!
“So, I hope that going forwards, what we’ve learnt about our own ability to make rapid decisions will not be forgotten and that we continue to be brave in trialling new technology and workflows.”