How feasible and useful is it for housing providers to move to a 100% digital tenant lifecycle, from initial application and onboarding to tenant engagement, finance and payments, and maintenance and support, through to renewals, voids and re-lettings? Housing Technology asked digital experts from Civica, Commonplace, Insite Energy, M-Files and NEC Software Solutions for their views.
Beyond electronic onboarding
In Housing Technology’s view, paperless tenancies go beyond ‘mere’ digital tenancy documentation and electronic onboarding and should span each tenant’s entire lifecycle with their landlord. There will naturally be some exceptions to this in the case of, say, the possible legal requirement to file paper-based tenancy agreements and vulnerable and/or digitally-excluded tenants.
Paul Berry, head of product management for housing at Civica, said, “Paperless tenancies are all about delivering digital services to customers. They relate to the tenant’s entire journey, from initial onboarding, tenancy management and post-tenancy activities all being available and served digitally.”
Benjy Meyer, vice president for product and technology at Commonplace, said, “When it comes to engaging with tenants throughout the life of their occupancy, we see a combination of functional and emotional touchpoints.
“Typically, the more functional end of tenant-landlord relationships concerns managing leases, rent payments, safety records, maintenance requests and follow-up, energy use monitoring and more, while the more emotional touchpoints relate to areas such as community events, wellbeing, antisocial behaviour and tenants’ associations.”
“‘Paperless’ suggests making things more efficient and at a lower cost. For us, going paperless is really about designing more relevant, more personal and more human interactions. It’s easy to conclude that ‘paperless = faceless’, but digital is very effective at supporting both face-to-face interactions (in conjunction with housing officers’ mobile devices) and remote interactions. The beauty of digital is that every touchpoint can be personalised to the individual or household at low cost.”
Barriers to paperless tenancies
Trevor Hampton, director of housing at NEC Software Solutions UK, said, “The potential barriers to paperless tenancies include whether the housing provider has digitised all of their contracts and tenancy information through to having the necessary governance with their legal teams. For tenants, it really comes down to their individual access to digital tools and knowledge; do they have a smartphone or equivalent technology and how comfortable are they with using it?”
Colin Dean, director of Western Europe for M-Files, said, “To give tenants the best possible service, housing providers must guarantee that their information and documents are easily accessible and secure. Doing so in a paper-based world isn’t just tricky, it’s often impossible.
“Transitioning to a completely paperless office isn’t something that happens overnight but it is possible in the long term. Understanding why it’s important to start going paperless in the first place is the first barrier of entry.”
Civica’s Berry said, “There are challenges around transforming complex housing processes into a frictionless customer experience, particularly where a housing provider’s existing application landscape isn’t fully digital.
“The other side to this for tenants can be feelings of confusion and disjointedness where processes aren’t as clear or as seamless as expected, particularly when compared with their day-to-day consumer experience of digital. There can also be need-driven barriers where tenants can’t access digital services, with similar-quality alternatives required to avoid dual standards of customer service.”
Commonplace’s Meyer said, “Every tenant has a different experience of their tenancy; there are clear milestones at the start and end of each tenancy, but the parts in the middle are too often forgotten. These can be the more emotional touchpoints around health and wellbeing, social cohesion, safeguarding vulnerable people, sharing news about local jobs and so on. Delivering a strong digital experience between the frantic start and end of a tenancy is therefore so important to sustaining long-term tenancies.”
Anna Machell, head of onboarding at Insite Energy, said, “For tenants using our app, their entire journey with us takes place online. This goes from a welcome email and link to a scheme-specific microsite at the start of the tenancy, access to our app to track their consumption and account balance throughout their tenancy, through to web-based moving-out forms.”
Business and IT changes
Civica’s Berry said, “You need a strong focus on transformation and cultural change to become digital by default and support paperless tenancies. This can be done incrementally by focusing on the customer journey at clearly-defined stages, such as onboarding. The specific benefits can then be gained as well as the pitfalls understood before extending the programme further or including more services.”
NEC’s Hampton said, “It depends whether a housing provider has invested in electronic document management systems (EDMS) with effective workflows so that documents with the right information are sent at the right time to the right person and in the right format.
“Moving to paperless tenancies can be a difficult process – not necessarily from an IT perspective but a cultural one. Many employees and tenants can take a while to warm to the idea of going paperless; good stakeholder management always goes hand-in-hand with effective IT implementations.”
Commonplace’s Meyer said, “Going paperless can involve using multiple online platforms. The SaaS revolution has resulted in a plethora of products specialising in different aspects of tenant relationships. A key feature of SaaS software is its portability, accessibility and ease of use, with the potential to decentralise many aspects of the tenant-landlord relationship while still providing data that can be collated and shared with other business applications.”
M-Files’ Dean said, “While information management platforms are easy to implement and usually work from the first launch, housing providers must also try to put their employees at ease, so training may be needed to give staff the confidence to use the platform to the best of their abilities.”
Benefits to housing providers
Civica’s Berry said, “Paperless tenancies help housing providers to deliver services to tenants more efficiently, freeing staff time to focus on other more complex interactions and value-adding tasks. Intelligent automation should drive the relevant processes to the right people at the right time as well as removing administrative overheads.”
Insite Energy’s Machell said, “Paperless tenancies dramatically reduce the administrative burden for housing providers because tenants can self-serve far more. Paperless tenancies also provide better audit trails because housing providers will have electronic copies of everything they need.”
NEC’s Hampton said, “The pandemic demonstrated the value of paperless tenancies because everything had to move online when access to tenants and properties was severely limited. Now is the time to take advantage of the new ways of working because there is the ongoing problem of providing services with reduced staffing.”
Commonplace’s Meyer said, “Creating a digitally-led experience helps not only with administrative tasks but it can also create a much richer experience for tenants during their tenancies. And those same digitally-led methods can help with offboarding; having a single portal to sort out all the hassle of moving out creates a much smoother process for both tenants and housing providers.”
Civica’s Berry said, “Tenants benefit from easier access to services which are available at a time to suit them, plus all interactions are more seamless and provide a richer experience.”
M-Files’ Dean said, “Creating, sending and signing leases can be accomplished online within minutes. Housing providers can fill empty properties sooner, and tenants can secure their home faster.
The importance of face-to-face contact
NEC’s Hampton said, “Although there are many benefits to going digital, an important thing to be aware of is the need to maintain the human touch.
“Face-to-face contact is a vital part of social housing and can’t be easily replaced. It’s all about building trust and the situational experience which can’t be done remotely. As an example, for a vulnerable person moving house can be a traumatic experience so having someone to meet you and make sure everything is set up can be reassuring and can help to build a strong relationship.”
Civica’s Berry said, “Tenancies are ultimately about people and their homes, with an important part of this being tenants’ relationships with their housing providers. Paperless tenancies can support a good relationship by providing an excellent digital service but the human element of person-to-person support and interaction shouldn’t get lost in the process.”
Housing Technology would like to thank Paul Berry (Civica), Benjy Meyer (Commonplace), Anna Machell (Insite Energy), Colin Dean (M-Files) and Trevor Hampton (NEC Software Solutions UK) for their comments and editorial contributions to this article.