Digital technology is constantly evolving to transform the way we live and work. It has become so simple to book a table at our favourite restaurant, transfer money instantly to the other side of the world or buy a car online with just a few swipes of a screen.
The online experience is often intentionally designed to be fast and straightforward with no requirement for human intervention.
However, social housing is a sector very much focused on people, not processes. While housing providers undoubtedly need to be able to operate efficiently to meet their tenants’ needs, the digital technology they use must always be designed with a human touch.
Online services that require countless forms to be filled in or seem to go round and round in circles before offering a plethora of different options for contacting a housing provider will do little to instil trust in people that their queries or issues will be dealt with properly.
Tenants need to feel they are being seen and heard. To achieve this, a much more empathetic and integrated approach is needed to ensure digital channels provide the information and support people need, and the reassurance that any concerns will be dealt with by a human being.
There are three key factors housing providers need to consider to ensure that the online services they provide are human-focused.
1. Build people-centred systems
A tenant who must navigate through endless mandatory fields of an online contact form to report an incident of anti-social behaviour or request financial support is unlikely to feel they are getting the appropriate emotional, physical and social response from their housing provider.
In social housing, a person’s digital experience shouldn’t look the same as the one they would get managing a bank account or buying goods online.
A housing provider’s website needs to be centred around the human experience so that tenants don’t end up feeling like they are just another number in the system.
Digital channels also need to be easy to use and fully accessible to encourage those who may not be confident using technology to trust that any issue they are concerned about will be dealt with, not simply lost in a digital black hole.
2. Provide staff with deeper insights
The details being recorded and stored in a housing provider’s HMS should enable staff to gather all the information they need to understand their tenants’ circumstances and respond efficiently and effectively to meet their needs.
From one screen, a housing officer should be able to see a tenant’s individual personal challenges, whether that’s caring for a vulnerable relative or a recent job loss. With the right blend of human and technological intervention, the help provided will be tailored to the specific circumstances of the tenant without them having to answer endless questions or repeat information they have already given.
Tools that are AI-enabled can save hours of time for housing officers and also help them anticipate problems before they become crises. They could help a staff member spot patterns in rental payments, for example, and allow them to take action in a timely way to offer debt management advice if required. This will go a long way towards helping a tenant to feel supported and valued by their housing provider.
3. Free up staff to focus on tenants
Digital technology should free staff from the burden of administration so they can engage more directly with the people they serve.
Automating many of the mundane or routine processes staff undertake allows them to dedicate more time to supporting tenants with complex needs or those who are not digitally confident.
Whether online or offline, people want to know that their housing officer understands their needs and expectations. With a people-centric approach to digital services, a housing provider can avoid being regarded as a faceless organisation and build a relationship with their tenants which is valued and built on trust.
Brendan Sarsfield is a strategic advisor at NEC Software Solutions and former CEO of Peabody.