In late February 2020 we carried out a sector-wide survey to explore how social housing providers manage deployment of repairs and maintenance - at the time not realising the enormous challenge that the pandemic was about to bestow in this area – as in so many others. A year on we ran a similar one to the same audience with some very interesting results.
With physical distancing required across society and shielding of the clinically vulnerable in place for 12 months; how have social housing organisations adapted their approaches to repairs and maintenance during this time?
To answer this challenging question, we asked a range of professionals to tell us more about how the deployment of repairs and maintenance staff is being managed given the limitations of the pandemic.
The sector’s view
A total of 128 people shared their views. The vast majority – 62 per cent working for housing associations, with local authorities well represented and several who work for ALMOs - as well as a person from construction / development.
It seems that a year on, some concerns have decreased. Almost 20 per cent of respondents to our recent survey told us that they were ‘very confident’ that their organisation’s deployment of repairs and maintenance staff and / or contracted tradespeople is as efficient as it can be. This compared to 16 per cent last time.
What we’ve seen from our customer community is that they’ve gained a level of confidence very quickly while working through all that the pandemic imposed upon them – whether that was just continuing to do what they already do in a more challenged setting, or where they were having to layer in additional services or more digitisation.
Only one respondent to the recent survey told us that their organisation manages the deployment of repairs and maintenance staff entirely on paper, while 45 per cent said the process is completely digital. And, interestingly, 47 per cent told us that the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation projects. Just 13 per cent said it has slowed progress.
Focusing on customer service
Notable too is that in February this year there was a small increase in the number of people who said residents can report needed repairs online. Some 67 per cent said this is possible for all residents (that figure stood at 63 per cent last time around). Only 10 per cent of respondents said no residents can interact with their organisation in this way, down from 16 per cent last time. It seems likely the pandemic has influenced this embracing of digital communication.
We’re seeing the sector focus more and more on customer service particularly for repairs and maintenance, and most of these organisations now have a method for self-service online reporting. This is important, as call centre models have been heavily challenged in the past 12 months and will continue to be so. With large numbers of call centre staff forced to move to remote working overnight, they have had to urgently adapt the way they operate, and some organisations have met with significant challenges.
Indeed, 16 per cent of recent respondents said staff shortages due to illness, shielding or the need to self-isolate have caused problems for the delivery of repairs and maintenance services in recent months. A quarter spoke of the challenge of social distancing in providing a responsive service; a similar number cited supply chain disruption; and 14 per cent said there has been increased demand on services given that people are staying at home for longer periods.
Understandable resident anxiety about visits by repairs staff is also an issue. As one respondent said: “Attending properties is dependent upon residents allowing access. Not all residents are willing because of the risks of Covid-19.”
It is little wonder, then, that the vast majority of those completing our survey this year said the pandemic had impacted the delivery of non-critical repairs. A quarter said that such repairs have been affected ‘to a large extent’ and 70 per cent reported they have been affected ‘to some extent’.
With social distancing and working from home wherever possible likely to remain standard practice for some time, that picture is unlikely to change imminently. Partly as a result, many respondents said their organisations plan to further refine repairs and maintenance processes.
One Leasehold Officer at a local authority spoke of plans to make “more use of tenants’ own electronic devices to digitally send pictures or video clips of repairs”. One Director of Housing Services said the organisation is “re-tendering for a responsible repairs service which will require digital integration and a customer app enabling self-service appointments”.
These developments are all part of a clearer recognition of the vital role of technology in effectively managing and delivering a repairs and maintenance service. Going forward, many organisations will inevitably revisit their technology and transformation plans with the question; ‘What would happen if there was a pandemic? The restrictions have tested the most comprehensive of Business Continuity Plans, and the pandemic will have served so many with the opportunity to build further resilience into their operating models.
Certainly 12 months ago, when we first surveyed on this topic, we never imagined the ongoing global impact of the pandemic. Now, a year on, it’s clear that many providers have adapted their ways of working on repairs and maintenance to deal with the reality of Covid-19. Let us hope that in another 12 months the environment in which staff are operating is very different, and that organisations can take forward the positive changes and improvements they have made to provide even better services for their customers.