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We need a digital revolution in the housing sector

(Image credit: Photo Credit: bergserg/ Shutterstock)

Digital transformation is rising up the agenda in the housing sector. In the face of increasing societal pressures, embracing digital solutions ensures housing associations can continue to have the right impact where it’s needed most.

The pandemic has brought this into even sharper focus than before. Highlighting again, the need for more social and affordable housing and the ability to operate effectively online.

Although digital transformation is a relatively new thing in housing, there are many lessons that we can learn from elsewhere. User-centered design has been shown to be critical to success.

Associations must engage their users as they develop and embed digital technologies, so they can design services based on their needs.

From people facing eviction to those on shared ownership schemes, housing providers have a stronger than ever imperative to use digital solutions to cater to the wide range of challenges that play out in the lives of their residents.

Used in the right way, technology makes processes more efficient and delivers an improved and consistent service. It means that staff have more time to deal with complex queries and support the most vulnerable residents. And it frees up money to spend elsewhere.

Supporting communities

Whether it’s creating more affordable housing stock to meet heightened demand, or having the technologies in place to meet the challenges of an ageing population, many associations are looking to play a bigger part in supporting and strengthening their communities.

This means shifting the mindset around services and building teams that are capable of continuing to improve and adapt services. IT and digital teams are often tasked with working out how to take advantage of the opportunities technology offers. But it needs people from across the organization to be accountable for creating new digital services that work for both residents and staff.

So, what should housing associations be doing?

Designing services that work for residents

This starts with understanding what residents need. Instead of looking for ways to increase the effectiveness of current services, housing associations need to focus on how they can deliver positive outcomes for their residents. This should be an ongoing process of learning and improving.

At dxw, we partnered with Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing to create MTVH Online. A platform designed to help residents do things like pay rent and log repairs. This service makes it easier for residents to keep up-to-date with their account, find information and get in touch with the right person when they need to.

Matthew Cohen, Head of Digital at Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing explains: “It was clear very early on that partnering with dxw would mean a very different approach to building services.

We knew we were going to create good digital services that meet the needs of our users, but what we didn’t anticipate was the impact it would have on how we organize ourselves and our approach to problem solving. We’ve learnt so much working alongside dxw as one team. Almost 8 years on we still have a close working relationship, with dxw continuing to support us with growing our internal teams and ways of working.”

Running a service like this, alongside an existing call center, saves time and money and means associations can provide a better all-round service.

Residents feel more secure with a service that’s accessible 24/7. They understand the status of their account, this builds trust and encourages independent living. Associations also need to ensure that services are fully accessible. That means helping people with lower levels of digital literacy to use the online service, building the right tools and services for people with accessibility needs, and offering alternative more traditional channels.

Person-to-person communication will always have an important part to play in the housing sector. Some residents will always want, or need, to talk to someone. When balanced with functionality like self-service, associations can maximize the efficiency gain and deliver a better service.

Flipping the switch on legacy systems

Legacy systems that haven’t evolved to meet changing needs make it difficult for housing associations to deliver suitable services to residents. This creates extra costs, with continued friction for the association.

Many associations are burdened with a whole host of disparate and legacy applications. Maintaining outdated IT systems is complex. It’s not uncommon to find applications that have been implemented on a case-by-case basis, with little or no integration between one another.

This creates silos within organizations, not only in terms of the technology but also between different operational departments.

Although there are pockets of innovation in the housing sector, many associations have been stuck using outdated systems for some time. It’s a challenge that’s common across the wider public sector too.

Building something better

Moving from legacy systems to a new service is challenging.

Familiarity can lead to a ‘if it's not broke, don't fix it’ mentality, or the scale of the change needed can seem overwhelming. It takes vision and action from the top of the organization to change this mindset. Leaders need to find resources to allocate time to build something better and champion new ways of working.

MTVH brought in external expertise from dxw and asked us to help them build their internal capability, transferring knowledge on how to build user-centered services. Demonstrating something in practice is usually the most effective way to gain support, so that large scale change can happen.

Over the last 6 years, MTVH Online has taken over £57 million in payments and received over 11,000 repair reports. The use of online payments has increased from less than 10 to over 80 percent. Research shows its residents’ preferred communication channel.

To get there took time and continued effort. With support, MTVH adapted to a new way of working and have been able to scale the service, which is now accessible to the Metropolitan resident base, covering 58,000 homes.

What’s next

MTVH are now focusing on making sure their in-house team can maintain the service. They want to take what they’ve learned and apply it to the wider organization, as well as continuing to improve the service based on the ever-changing needs of residents.

We’re continuing our work with them to make sure they have the right in-house capability to become fully self-sufficient.

Kath Cooper, Delivery Lead, dxw