Housing Technology asked senior executives from Digital Space (formerly Timico), Fortem, NEC Software Solutions (formerly Northgate Public Services) and Places for People on the changes they expect from mobile technologies combined with new ways of working, in the context of repairs and maintenance, dynamic scheduling, remote access, tenant services, productivity and reporting.
How has mobile working changed in the past five years?
Trevor Hampton, director of housing solutions, NEC Software Solutions (formerly Northgate Public Services, said, “Over the past five years, we’ve seen a flirtation with mobile working, with most housing providers experimenting with various ways to push it up their agendas. Pre-pandemic, it was mainly confined to staff working on the ground, such as people responsible for repairs and inspecting properties, who used rudimentary technology to pick up jobs and update the system periodically during the day.
“However, for many organisations, a wider roll-out of mobile working remained on the backburner, but the pandemic transformed mobile working from being ‘nice to have’ to essential. Now all housing staff, no matter their discipline or background, are finally and irreversibly unfettered; any remaining cultural or technological tethers to office-based working have been cut.”
Chris Hone, chief information officer, Fortem, said, “Our tradespeople have been using mobile technology for the last 10 years to receive jobs and send back real-time updates – our remote-worker technology foundations of laptops, Teams, VoIP and VPN access have long been a part of our business continuity plan so it was an easy switch for us when the pandemic hit.
“The two things that different types of mobile workers all need are secure and reliable access to applications and data, and a strong sense of corporate belonging, even though they aren’t in an office.
“Bear in mind that although the shift to mobile working has many corporate and work/life benefits, the ‘always on’ mindset can be dangerous for staff wellbeing because people look at emails out of hours, while on holiday and so on. A balanced approach is important; an over-reliance on emails and back-to-back Teams calls need to be carefully monitored to ensure employee wellbeing isn’t adversely impacted.”
Greg Easton, account director & head of social housing, Digital Space (formerly Timico), said, “There are three factors that have enabled mobile workers, including those remote working and those visiting homes, to become more productive. These are the widespread adoption of powerful mobile devices, the migration of business applications to the cloud or software as a service (SaaS), and ubiquitous (for the most part) 4G network coverage.
“These three factors enable mobile workers to accomplish most, if not all, of their tasks easily, combined with updates direct to their back-office systems. For example, a maintenance engineer diagnosing a fault in a tenant’s home can update the central system and order the necessary parts there and then, without needing to return to the office.”
How should mobile integrate with other applications?
Dean Garvey-North, technology officer, Places for People, said, “We have an ‘available anywhere’ technology strategy, combining cloud, security and connectivity to empower our mobile workers. Our API-driven, ‘composable’ microservices architecture lets us seamlessly integrate our business applications, be it via native APIs or developing APIs ourselves, combined the increased availability of no/low-code platforms.”
NEC’s Hampton said, “Mobile working is now less about integration and more about ‘straight out of the box’ when it comes to connecting with back-office applications. The capability should already be built into your back-office housing systems as standard; if it isn’t then you are on the wrong platform.
“For example, if an arrears payment is made in the field or a payment date needs to be changed, the mobile solution should simply connect to the finance system and not orchestrate some integration with it. The heavy lifting should already be part of the back-office solution. Mobile is now about being device independent, OS agnostic and supporting any browser; it’s no longer just about being a mobile application.”
How have mobile workers’ attitudes changed?
Fortem’s Hone said, “Users’ expectations have increased as people use more apps in their personal lives, but we must be careful not to ‘over app’ people. Apps need to be intuitive and easy to use; after all, no-one has to be trained to use Amazon or Facebook. The end game should be ‘zero-hours training’ for new mobile apps and features.”
Places for People’s Garvey-North said, “For field-based workers, mobile technology has driven efficiencies and allowed them to be closer to the customers, quicker. Mobile technologies, such as Salesforce Field Services Lightning and the forthcoming location-data mapping in Service Cloud, allow our teams to be dynamically assigned jobs based on their locations and routes, saving waiting time for customers and travel time for our team.
NEC’s Hampton said, “All new ways of working take time to be accepted and mobile working has been no exception. An early concern was that it could be used by employers to track, monitor and measure workloads. Over time, the evidence of its value has changed attitudes and staff can see its value as a productivity tool.
“Mobile technologies have reduced the need for double-keying information and wading through paper-based bureaucracy while automating many mundane tasks. Workers can see tangible benefits and they outweigh any drawbacks.”
How do you measure the effectiveness of mobile working?
Digital Space’s Easton said, “When looking at quantitative metrics, housing providers should consider how employee productivity has increased and how. For example, how many cases have been closed or how long did it take to solve the query? Qualitative metrics should always be based on CSAT scores, but employee satisfaction and retention should also be measured to highlight how beneficial the technology is to the organisation and its staff.”
Fortem’s Hone said, “For mobile workers, we typically use jobs per trade per day, first-time fixes and appointments made and kept. For remote workers, you could look at the reduction in sickness days, staff turnover and retention and also reductions in travel costs.”
Places for People’s Garvey-North said, “The focus should be on outputs and outcomes. Are we seeing an increase in the number of jobs completed? Is there a reduction in repeat work? Are customers more satisfied?”
What do tenants like most about mobile?
Fortem’s Hone said, “What tenants like is our tradespeople having access to the right information when they are on site so they can complete a first-time fix. And when they can’t, they at least have the ability to have a live video call with other people in the business to show them the problem and get advice.”
NEC’s Hampton said, “Undoubtedly, it’s the face-to-face interaction which is the most appreciated aspect of mobile working by tenants. Not only has it added transparency around conversations and actions, but it has also added confidence.
“Tenants no longer need to worry that an agreed course of action might get ‘lost’ in the system because they can see it being actioned in front of them. Tenants also feel more satisfied that a resolution to a problem can happen with a single point of contact because the mobile worker has all the information needed at their fingertips.”
Which new mobile technologies should you be considering?
Digital Space’s Easton said, “The pandemic has highlighted the importance of video technology on mobile devices. Video platforms give employees access to resources in a way not previously possible, leading to faster resolution times, plus tenants can have face-to-face interactions without having to leave the comfort of their own homes.
“We also expect to see the adoption of machine learning and AI enhancing and accelerating mobile working across the workforce. For example, AI will enable field-based staff to interact with CRM and ERP systems without the need to involve humans. On the other hand, IoT devices such as smart cameras and sensors, coupled with machine learning and data mining, will enable housing providers to be far more proactive in solving tenants’ problems.”
Places for People’s Garvey-North said, “Secure mobile network connectivity needs to feature in everyone’s software-defined wide-area network (SDWAN), software-defined network (SDN) and cloud strategy.
“Cloud services and mobile apps are great, but connectivity is key. Enabling teams to connect, collaborate and have access to data from anywhere will be the game changer.”
NEC’s Hampton said, “There are exciting times ahead with innovative technologies to enhance mobile working – for example, live video chats really help to shift the dial when it comes to resolving problems in situ.
“If a tenant is experiencing financial problems, the housing officer can start a live video link from the tenant’s house and bring together other professionals, such as the anti-poverty officer, who can provide support. Or if there’s a repair that needs input from a specialist contractor, an engineer can be invited into the home via the video link to check out the issue so that the contractor can then arrive with everything they need to complete the job. Augmented reality will also make it far easier to highlight repair issues by using a virtual pen to mark-up the video link images.”
How will mobile working look in five years’ time?
Fortem’s Hone said, “There will be much more focus on security because users will want to access more data and systems from different devices and locations. And with an increased focus on apps, ‘aggregator apps’ will be needed to bring together different apps to avoid the risk of ‘over-apping’ tenants.”
Digital Space’s Easton said, “The evolution of mobile working needs to be focused on the customer. Through open APIs and a continuous flow of data, mobile applications will become more integrated across departments and organisations. As a result, mobile- and field-based workers’ roles will become less rigid, enabling housing staff to provide services to tenants that span multiple disciplines such as maintenance, safeguarding and community engagement.”
Places for People’s Garvey-North said, “Mobile-first working will become the default, using 5G as the primary connectivity method into corporate services, with housing providers’ IT teams developing and implementing mobile-first applications to simplify the user experience.”
Housing Technology would like to thank Greg Easton (Digital Space), Chris Hone (Fortem), Trevor Hampton (NEC Software Solutions) and Dean Garvey-North (Places for People) for their comments and editorial contributions to this article.