Having acknowledged a need to adapt to changing technologies in housing management, Your Homes Newcastle, an ALMO set up by Newcastle City Council to manage its council homes, launched its mobile working pilot. YHN’s Geof Ellingham, head of IT, and Karen Hedley, operational support officer, share the benefits and challenges of the pilot so far.
In the most part, we have been carrying out our day-to-day work in a traditional way, with housing staff based in offices with computer systems and printing the relevant information before visiting tenants at their homes. While this is a tried and tested method that has worked well to date, we were aware of emerging technologies that would enable us to operate more efficiently, for both tenants and staff.
Our objective for the mobile working pilot is therefore to understand how this new technology can help us. It’s a pilot for the moment as we were reluctant to pursue a standard procurement without a better understanding of what we needed to specify. Mobile technology is expensive, although the costs are falling, and the possible solutions are many and varied.
For now, we want to gain insight and experience with mobile technology that can be used to develop an approach to a future, larger scale implementation.
We needed to enable our staff to do their jobs wherever they are and whoever they are with. With the breadth of services we offer, our staff were finding it difficult to resolve queries from customers which weren’t strictly related to the subject of the original visit.
By working closely with Kirona, we have created a bespoke mobile system that is helping to break down these barriers. Staff in the pilot have been able to respond to customers’ needs immediately by using a tablet computer, as it brings them just a few clicks away from the information we need.
There have also been significant improvements in productivity during arrears visits. Inputting data on the previous system averaged at 26 clicks, taking five minutes in total, but with the new technology this has been reduced to just 5 clicks in one minute. It’s estimated that we will save around 6 minutes per visit. Over a year the savings are estimated at around £48,000 which equates to 1.5 full time employees.
When selecting staff to take part in the pilot, we chose a representative sample of staff, including a range of people across different locations and stock types. The group of 20 included 10 generic housing officers, eight rent specialists, one collections officer and one court officer. Some were keen on working with new technology, others quite terrified at the prospect, but all were fiercely committed to the project, with some proving to be very proactive in finding solutions to issues which helped us develop what we have today.
We focused on specific areas within tenant and estate management, including income and rent recovery which is an organisational priority given the impact of the government’s recent changes to the benefits system.
We had some key functionality requirements from the technology:
- Be able to work offline;
- Integrate with our existing systems;
- Allow staff to communicate with other members of staff so referrals to other teams could be done at the point of contact.
All of us needed some persuasion to adapt to the new ways of working but you have to be persistent and passionate about the technology. The management team at YHN have continually encouraged staff to use the tablets and been quick to recognise the benefits the pilot is already realising.
For example, the court team has already made significant productivity gains. A court officer can spend entire days waiting in court for cases to be heard, keeping them out of the office and unable to use that time efficiently. However, the tablet has enabled them to do their work while waiting in court.
Housing officers have reported that the mere presence of the tablet can feel quite intrusive for some customers, particularly when sensitive matters are being discussed. One of the things we have had to accept is that there will be times where paper notes should be taken; the relationship with the customer remains paramount.
We were keen to share our experiences from the pilot with other housing providers – both the positives and the challenges. In common with other large housing organisations in the UK, we were already using mobile technology for repairs. We had already adopted new technologies in our concierge and furniture service teams, but the nature of housing management is far more intricate, with staff often required to react to a wider range of issues and concerns.
The pilot has now been extended to September 2014 so that we can properly evaluate the final phase, gather feedback from staff and customers and undertake a full evaluation of the project.
Geof Ellingham is head of IT and Karen Hedley is an operational support officer at Your Homes Newcastle.