Leadership through the pandemic
In this edition of our Spotlight on Housing series, we spoke to Mick Capern, Assistant Director of Transformation at Westward Housing Group.
Mick describes how the pandemic pushed Westward Housing Group’s digital transformation programme to accelerate, trial new technologies and double down their focus on giving residents a choice on how they interact with their landlord.
A forward-thinking business
A career in social housing, punctuated with a stint as an IT consultant, Mick describes how Westward Housing Group brought him back to the social housing sector.
“I was working at 3cConsultants, who specialise in social housing IT, and while I was there, I was spending a lot of time working for Westward Housing. So when they created the Assistant Director role of Transformation role last year, I went for it.
“Before all of this, I’d worked in social housing all my life, and when I went into consultancy, I didn’t plan to go back to working directly for a Social Landlord any time soon. But, with a stock of just under 8,000 homes across Devon and Cornwall, Westward Housing is a very forward-thinking and pragmatic business and felt I could add a lot of value and complete the Digital transformation programme I had been managing.”
Adapting resident services
Mick recalls some of the most significant challenges he encountered as the pandemic struck and how adapting the way he and his team delivered services to their residents uncovered new and better ways of working.
“Like so many organisations, the biggest challenge was the switch from the standard office environment to the working from home model, both in terms of technology and culture. Of course, the pace of change was also a challenge; rolling out laptops and other devices to the whole company would have been a 4-5 month project, but under the pressure of the pandemic, we nailed it in around six weeks.
“In terms of services to our clients, the most significant change was that we couldn’t enter people’s homes, except for emergencies. So, we saw a drop in the number of calls we were receiving at the outset of the pandemic.
“We’d already done a lot of work on developing different ways to communicate with our residents. So, although we couldn’t get out to see them face-to-face, in the early days of the pandemic, we were able to continue providing support to our customers through recently adopted channels such as text messaging.
“As time went on, to continue supporting our residents, we trialled new technologies, such as the use of video for appointments and repairs. It worked well and was well-received by residents, so although we didn’t go for it at the time, it’s in our roadmap for this year to reintroduce this technology as a standard. In addition, we introduced virtual property viewings and a new digital tenancy sign up process for new residents.”
TED Talks for Westward Housing Group
Of course, one of the significant challenges for leaders across the UK Housing sector has been engaging with their staff. For Mick, shifting large group meeting onto Teams uncovered some more unexpected wins. So, Westward Housing Group will look to build on this by introducing new ‘WIN Talks’ (Westward Information Networking Talks), a model based on TED Talks, to help engage staff.
“For a lot of people, the switch to Microsoft Teams has been a positive move, that’s not to say we don’t want to have some kind of balance. In some situations, face-to-face interaction is very beneficial. That being said, we’ve found that staff are more likely to interact in larger meetings that are run digitally because, for example, it’s a lot easier to put a comment in the meeting’s comment box. So, in some ways, from a leadership perspective, this brings us closer to our staff.
“Capitalising on this, we’re just about to introduce ‘WIN Talks’, modelled on the idea of TED Talks. We’ll have some internal speakers and some external sector experts as guest speakers. The aim is to bring some colour to topics such as new government legislation, the IoT and the white paper. These internal webinars will hopefully engage our staff in more dynamic ways than just posting on our intranet or giving updates in staff briefings.”
Massive change for the customer journey
For Mick and Westward Housing Group, their strategic priorities for the coming months are wide-ranging—from an ambitious development programme, to massive digital change in their customer journey and remodelling their head office to become an innovation hub.
“Our ongoing development programme in terms of new builds is a significant part of our strategy in the coming years.
“At the same time, a massive area of change will be our customer journey and our pursuit of customer excellence. This isn’t just going to be about channel shift. Instead, our focus will be on giving people a choice about what the best way for them to interact with us is. We want our new digital services to be as good as—if not better than—our more traditional service methods. In terms of innovation, this includes reviewing webchat and chatbot services to make ourselves available 24/7, without having staff physically available around the clock. Ultimately, this is so that residents can get information and trigger a service whenever they need to.
“Internally, as a result of our new working from home model, we ended the lease of one of our offices and will be redirecting the cost of maintaining that site into other key business areas. As part of this change, we will now look to start refurbishing our main office to make it more of an innovation centre where people can go to hot desk, with break out areas that foster collaboration as we move further and further away from the traditional office model.”
As for the wider sector, Mick hopes for greater adoption of technology and a continuation of the collaborative working practices that he witnessed being born out of the pressures of the pandemic.
“I’d like to see more collaboration; in the past year, we’ve seen great collaboration within the sector. For example, I’m doing a presentation with another Housing Association on data quality and governance this week. I hope this collaborative working practice continues and grows into the future.
“The past year has been a shakeup in terms of dragging us forwards technologically. Everyone in the sector has had some sort of digital transformation programme going on, but typically they’ve been fixed and focussed on the technology itself to drive efficiencies and savings during the austerity measures. So, going forward, I hope that the sector dedicates more thought to the wider aspects of digital transformation such as engaging with customers and refocusing on what social landlords are there to provide. Especially as many people will be facing tough economic and health and social challenges as we remerge, hopefully into the post pandemic era.”
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