We live in a 24/7 world, with a culture of immediacy when people expect things yesterday. The days of a successful business operating from nine to five are over.
The digital revolution and the rise of social-media platforms have burst into people’s lives, creating this ‘always on’ culture, making it possible to reach customers, and for them to reach us, with just a few taps of their phone at any time of day or night.
But shackled by old IT legacies and systems infrastructures, the housing sector has failed to keep up, prompting us at Salix Homes to challenge ourselves and the sector to do things differently.
In 2018, Salix Homes set out our ambitions to ‘rethink housing’ in order to meet customers’ needs and expectations in the new world.
Our history has been far from straight-forward, nor immune from external factors, but this has given us our backbone, and the challenges we faced along the way helped set a culture of determination and ‘thinking big’. This is now part of our DNA, and has given us the foundations to begin our digital transformation.
We knew that our plan to ‘rethink housing’ needed to be more than just words. To fulfil our ambitions, we needed a fundamental rethink of our ICT infrastructure. And so began our programme to become the first housing provider to fully embrace the public cloud. This has involved migrating everyday operations to Microsoft Azure, including applications, databases and file-store servers, domain controllers, Active Directory and desktops from a legacy on-premise environment that had thwarted our previous ambitions at every turn.
Our infrastructure is deployed over two Azure regions to provide continuity and resilience for our key services, ensuring staff have the foundations to support the services we offer.
These technologies will allow us to offer fully-digitised services to our residents, from an Uber-style repairs platform to smart home-sensor technologies, and increase our ability to deliver significant business transformation projects.
Azure also allows us to achieve our digital ambitions and innovate our services. The platform enables us to support our investment into emerging technologies such as IoT, AI and machine learning as well as large-scale data analysis with lower overheads than a traditional on-premise environment.
And it doesn’t stop there. In a world of data hacking, ransomware and GDPR, our resilience to cyber-crime is now tighter than ever.
To put it simply, this has been the single biggest ICT project we have achieved and it was fundamental to our plans to rethink our services and finally sever our last ties to our old legacy systems.
When it comes to our customers, we know that people’s expectations have changed. By 2020, there will be over six billion smartphone users globally, and every person will have six connected devices – we wanted to be ready for that.
The demographic of our customers is also changing. We are increasingly providing homes to ‘millennials’, yet as a sector, housing is generally failing to provide the services they’ve come to expect in the modern world. For example, when a customer calls to report an urgent repair and we say we will fix it in 30 days, the digital generation of millennials won’t accept that, and why should they?
And it was this notion that prompted us to launch a radical review of our repairs service to match consumer expectations.
Coming this spring is the launch of our new digital repairs service, complete with chatbot diagnosis and a UX-focused interface to mirror the offering from e-commerce platforms that consumers have come to expect. Removing the friction and legacy processes from our repairs and maintenance services has been a difficult yet necessary step in being able to deliver this, and marks our next step on our rethinking housing journey.
While it may be too early to quantify the impact on improved services and processes, it isn’t over-exaggerating to say that the new infrastructure will facilitate improvements across the business; we anticipate an increase in digital transactions; processes for staff and customers will be streamlined and improved; and data-informed communications will be smarter and more targeted.
For Salix Homes, rethinking housing goes beyond technology. We’ve been applying the same principle of ‘doing things differently’ across all of our services, thinking beyond the realms of what’s gone before to tackle some critical issues facing our sector, most notably the housing crisis.
In a bid to create more homes, we’ve been repurposing empty buildings – shops, pubs, an old jobs centre – and transforming them into affordable and social housing.
The technology is minimal, but the ideology is the same; rethinking the way we do things in order to meet the challenges of a modern world with an ambitious and forward-thinking vision.
What Salix Homes lacks in age, we make up for in accomplishment, and while there’s still much work to do, we are well on our way to becoming an ultra-modern and digital housing provider of the future.
Sarah Henderson is head of business services and Chris Henry is ICT manager at Salix Homes.