When lockdown hit, it immobilised the entire housing sector; staff had to move to working from home, tenants and clients could only be supported online or over the phone and all repairs and maintenance work was brought to a sharp halt.
Fast forward to now, after months of moving operations online and trying to digitise processes, several industry challenges have been put under the magnifying glass. Straight away, many organisations realised that having remote teams presents collaboration and information-sharing challenges. Manual processes put compliance and customer experience at risk and a backlog of compliance checks and repairs could not be avoided.
Repairs and maintenance teams experienced reduced access to properties due to people shielding or self-isolating; a survey from the Regulator of Social Housing stated, “The number of properties with an expired gas safety check has generally increased and likely to continue to rise.”
With the recent easing of restrictions, how can housing providers ensure they are remaining compliant while managing the accumulation of safety checks and maintenance work?
Connecting your content
When 93 per cent of staff can’t find documents because they are badly named or tagged when filed, it poses a significant risk to tenants’ safety. With a backlog of safety checks and maintenance, the paperwork and risk become even greater. Sharing information and collaborating efficiently is going to be key as teams work towards managing the backlog, but unless the relevant files and information are processed accurately, it will be a much bigger hurdle.
Some housing providers have seen the benefits of combining optical character recognition (OCR) and metadata technologies to empower teams with the tools to manage safety checks and documents intelligently, ensuring everyone has the right access to the relevant information instantly. Key information is picked up from documents automatically through OCR which then populates the metadata tags. This information not only determines how it is stored, managed and who has access to it, but also ensures it is tagged to the relevant property and tenant.
The time savings and information visibility have taken the sector’s efficiencies to the next level while minimising the risks of information being misplaced, lost or requests being overlooked.
Automate and track compliance
Once the burden of processing paperwork manually has been lifted and your information is organised, easily searchable and managed correctly, you can take it further and automate complex processes such as compliance.
Let’s take handling the backlog of gas safety checks as an example. You will need to prioritise safety checks and assign the work. With the information from metadata tags, you will be able to create views based on criteria you set to aid prioritisation. These could be based on expiry date, address or tenant status. Once the most urgent properties are identified, automated workflows can create jobs to assign the safety check to your maintenance teams and field agents who can then record any necessary information during their visits in real time. In this case, the safety check carried out is a pass so the relevant information will be updated against the property and tenant record. Reminders are then automatically set to notify the right team of the next check for that property to ensure it meets the 12-month obligation.
Automating standardised processes such as safety checks saves your teams time and gives them a full overview of the compliance status of your properties. Alerting the right teams when safety checks are raised or needed, assigning tasks to relevant people, and having one place with all the required documentation are essential in case a tenant, client or regulatory body requests this information.
Tenants have higher digital expectations and are more informed than ever. As already mentioned, it is vital to have a full audit trail of information relating to a tenant or property and even more so when it comes to safety checks, maintenance or repairs. Maintaining accurate, up-to-date information is the first step to achieving transparency. It enables you to respond to tenant queries quicker with correct documentation and information and you can quickly evidence compliance, for example, for a disrepair claim or a GDPR subject matter request.
The next step that many housing providers are taking is a more ‘digital consumer’ approach to how they share information. One way they are achieving this is by using a platform that tenants can access 24/7, is personalised, secure and allows two-way communication. A client portal, for example, can be used to automatically share documents that need signing, documents that have been finalised, important updates on repairs or maintenance, active safety certificates, important contact information or tenancy agreements.
This doesn’t mean extra work if you integrate your information management platform with a client portal and automate what information needs to be visible in the portal, so you can get information to tenants faster and exceed their expectations.
Lockdown has brought about many challenges for the housing sector, but difficult times can also be the catalyst for innovation. We have seen it drive digital thinking in the industry, improve processes and have realised that a lot can be achieved remotely. Compliance will forever need to be addressed by housing providers and letting technology help with the manual and mundane can be truly transformative.
Shobha Mahtey is an account executive at M-Files.