As we start to get the coronavirus outbreak under control, now might be a good time to examine how communication with residents has changed during this period, how it might evolve and how this will ultimately benefit residents with an increased quality of life and improved customer satisfaction. With a significant reduction in the ability to visit residents, as well as an increased reliance from residents on their housing providers for a number of different services (including mental health, financial and general companionship requirements) - housing providers have increasingly turned to digital technologies as a means of communicating to provide the necessary quality of service.
The Problem of Loneliness
One of the largest challenges faced by housing providers attempting to service their residents remotely is in reducing loneliness. Clare Budden, chief executive of Clwyd Alyn (based in North Wales), said that loneliness was a focus of her organisation during this trying time. “Particularly for older people loneliness is a really big issue. People might feel safe at home but they are going to feel quite lonely as well”. Loneliness was already a growing problem for many housing providers before lockdown, but now the size of the issue has grown astronomically. There are real worries about the long-term effects this period of social isolation will have on our most vulnerable populations. Clifford Singer in his study on the health effects of social isolation claims that the “effect of social isolation on health appears to be of a similar magnitude to other risks to health, such as high blood pressure, smoking and obesity”. Back in March, in order to try to tackle this problem preemptively, Clare Budden’s housing association planned to “pull together a list of all our known vulnerable customers and, through our contact centre, calling those people once a week to check how they are and see if there’s anything we can support them with”. Without the help of scalable digital services, they were faced with the enormous uphill battle of individually contacting their most vulnerable residents weekly. In order to do this, they had to be selective with their audience who were considered to be vulnerable - and whilst the effort is commendable, housing providers that have not already deployed scalable technology are now behind the curve in terms of managing this problem. Housing providers across the country, including Anchor Hanover and Yorkshire Housing, for example, have shifted to providing services and one-to-one meetings digitally - and this change in approach is likely to be the new norm for most providers through 2020 and into 2021. Housing providers are no longer able to rely on in-person meetings as a way to avoid isolation. Tackling loneliness is going to be too big of a problem for years to come - and attempting to solve it with more man-hours and a can-do spirit is unlikely to be successful.
Providing Normal Housing Services
Another big area where communication has had to adapt is in providing regular day-to-day services for residents. With reduced physical access to residents in their homes, providing appropriate levels of service has proved to be a huge challenge. Where a resident liaison officer might have been able to drop in for a quick cup of tea and a chat about energy usage before the outbreak, that same advice is now (by necessity) being delivered to the resident through digital channels. Elaine Melrose, director of resources at Wheatley says that they are “doing everything we can to support our customers through these unprecedented times and that involves making wider use of technology than ever before”. This is a huge shift for most housing providers who have been reliant on in-person communication for a very long time. From our own experience, we know that digital communication is both significantly cheaper and more effective than other forms of communication (Switchee’s digital messaging system for example has an 89% response rate within 24 hours). As a result, once the investment has been made into the required technology (whether that be our own devices, tablets or another form of installed personal screen) - it is unlikely that housing providers will look to revert to the ‘old way’ of doing it. For some housing providers, this is already being viewed as a positive shift - as well as a catalyst for resident communications to evolve into a more 21st century approach. Nick Atkins, the chief executive of Yorkshire Housing says that this period of isolation will “change the way we offer services to customers, and their expectations of us will change, too”.
Increasing Resident Satisfaction
At the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, most housing associations would have agreed that the next few months were going to be some of the hardest in recent memory. As a result, resident satisfaction was expected to take a significant hit. Some months on and some housing providers have definitely seen this come to fruition, but others have flourished through the diversity. It has given housing providers the motivation to address some core user experience issues and allowed them the flexibility to find creative solutions to some of their most difficult problems. Housing providers across the UK have been using Augmented Reality to provide remote maintenance assistance to residents, utilising apps to provide wellbeing services and providing tablets to keep vulnerable residents connected. When asked about her association's experience with Covid-19, Alex Nagle, head of operations at Vivid Homes, responded that “I would never have imagined that my whole customer experience team would be working from home, dealing with all customer contacts effectively and achieving a satisfaction score of 9.2.”. When the restrictions begin to lift and housing providers take stock of their actions, some will have come out of this with a more robust internal structure that provides better outcomes for their residents. Long-term this can only be positive for resident satisfaction. The hard-fought battles of coronavirus resident support will have laid the foundations for a more flexible resident support framework.
So what does the future hold?
Whilst no-one can ever be certain about what the future holds, I think a lot of the lessons learned from this period are likely to stick. To get to where we are now - with housing providers being capable and willing to provide large portions of their services digitally (or at least partially digitally), it has required concerted efforts and a noteworthy investment of capital. Many of the changes have proved to be beneficial and in some cases an improvement on the efficiency of the pre-coronavirus era. We aren’t moving to a world with no in-person visits, but we are most certainly moving to a world where communication can be done quickly, with minimal cost and at a far greater engagement rate than ever before. That’s the world Switchee wishes to help its housing associations and their residents return to when we face the new normal that awaits us.