Caredig, a Swansea-based housing provider whose name means ‘kind’, offers some tips for using technology in a way that keeps people and relationships at the heart of their work.
Help staff transition away from pen and paper
When we first started working with Housing Insight (our software consultants) three years ago, we were looking for a product that would give our staff, and particularly our dispersed teams, a viable alternative to paper records. PanConnect gave us an efficient way to digitise staff case and support notes, made either with the tenant during a visit or in the office afterwards.
There was previously lots of ‘double-handling’ of paper. Now, by reducing the amount of time that staff spend on digital ‘paperwork’, we can increase the time available for tenant care. And it’s easier for us to share the information that we hold with tenants when they want to view their own support notes and tenancy details.
Facilitate offline access
In the past, we tried other digital products that proved problematic when an internet connection wasn’t available (which can happen when working in certain housing schemes, for example). PanConnect functions as an offline product, so it can still be used when wifi isn’t available. It simply syncs when a connection is restored, without any loss of data and therefore without becoming a source of frustration for our staff.
Give tenants 24/7 access to support
In addition to team efficiencies, we wanted to make it easier for our tenants to contact us and find the support that they needed outside office hours and also using their preferred means. A digital solution that tenants can access using their mobile, tablet or PC opens up plenty of options, wherever and whenever suits them best.
Design your own forms
We wanted to replace Word documents stored on SharePoint with something that would make it easier for us to create our own forms. Using PanConnect, we now have a better database with a logical format that allows us to choose the fields we use so that we can generate bespoke forms and customised reports. We use these internally, but they also let us share relevant tenant records with other agencies as well.
Grow capacity using a modular approach
Once we had our staff app and tenant portal, adding an applicant portal was the natural next step for us. It means that would-be tenants can now start their journey with us by applying online, and they don’t have to wait to call us during office hours.
Look for unexpected benefits
We quickly realised that we could use the staff app to help us build a bigger picture of the business, gathering inspection data not just for a single scheduled visit but also for adjacent properties and the surrounding area. This gives us a better overview of a particular patch and it also provides useful insights into which tenants to visit next and how to plan further work. For example, it might be possible to combine a gas service visit at one property with a rent arrears visit to their neighbour.
We knew that the staff app would be useful in the field but we hadn’t anticipated how helpful it would be in the office (when looking up detailed information for contractors, for example) and in providing emergency contacts for on-call team members as well.
Involve end-users wherever possible
We’ve learnt the importance of scoping new projects, to examine them from all angles before starting. We involve end-users as much as possible, often in focus groups with Housing Insight, to try to ensure that the end-results turn out as expected.
We tend to develop the first iteration of a project and then improve it during a second phase. For example, we wanted to ensure safe working practices for our estate staff by recording tool vibration values so we asked for their input to make the relevant form as easy as possible for them to use.
To improve the tenant app, we look at feedback from individuals as well as data about how the app is actually being used. In other scenarios, we put together cross-party teams to ensure that an app is working efficiently for everyone who needs it.
Choose a supplier who understands housing
We’ve known members of the Housing Insight team for about ten years now thanks to a connection that began in other projects. They are known to our sector and are held in high regard because of their knowledge about the housing sector and its requirements.
Our project manager is in touch by email every week, and we have regular catch-ups with Housing Insight’s executive team. We view Housing Insight as a strategic partner and we enjoy a close relationship with them.
For us, digital will always be a work-in-progress. Since taking on the form-designer module, for example, we’ve devised a support plan that will give us a 360-degree view of each tenant, including key psychological information.
We also intend to strengthen the maintenance element of the staff app around pre-/post-inspections and void works, partly in preparation for the Renting Homes (Wales) Act which comes into force this December, making it a requirement to record repairs and communications with tenants.
Think processes first, technology second
Finally, although digital is a key tool for us, we aren’t led by technology. We choose to review processes first and then apply PanConnect in the way that will best suit our business, staff and tenants.
Technology makes us agile but only after we have decided what we need it to deliver for us. That way, care and support remains front and centre.
Stuart Thomas is head of property and estate services and Robert Needham is the systems and performance development manager at Caredig.