Efficient management of repairs, as well as maintenance operatives and tradespeople, is a challenge for social housing organisations at the best of times. As we learn to live with social distancing in response to the coronavirus crisis, the way routine repairs are carried out within homes will change.
The likely result? New obstacles in making sure staff are managed effectively and safely, while continuing to achieve financial efficiency and tenant satisfaction.
To get a sense of these challenges, we recently carried out a survey with readers of Inside Housing. We would now like to share some of the findings from that survey.
The sector’s view
A total of 163 people gave us their views. Together they form a cross-section of the sector – three-quarters work at housing associations and the rest at ALMOs and councils. Those from repairs and maintenance are well represented – 35 per cent say this best describes their job function – but so too is housing management, accounting for 28 per cent of those who responded.
The pandemic has meant an increased pressure for housing teams that are working hard to support tenants while keeping staff safe, too. This has called for changes to work processes, and repairs and maintenance has been one of the top priorities. The Housing Ombudsman has instructed that work continues as much as possible, and that the backlog is tackled as routine repairs are booked again. Of those surveyed, 60 per cent say that it will change the way staff are deployed in the next year.
For more than half of respondents, such strategies will include changes to the way tenants are able to communicate maintenance problems. While 63 per cent say it is already possible for their organisation’s tenants to report repairs online, only 30 per cent told us that residents can book visits online, and just a quarter are able to reschedule appointments this way.
The survey results reveal some concern about how efficient the process of managing staff has been over the past six months – only 16 per cent say they are “very confident” the process has been as smooth as it could be, while nearly 20 per cent were not confident of efficient management.
What is clear is that the majority of organisations now use digital means to manage these processes. Almost half of respondents say the deployment of repairs and maintenance staff to tenants’ homes is managed entirely digitally, and another 47 per cent say the process is mostly digital. Only a handful say paper is still prominent.
Despite this, almost a quarter told us there is further to go with digitalisation, which is one of the most common challenges still being faced in efficiently managing maintenance staff. Also frequently cited as problematic is a siloed approach to deploying staff. Some 36 per cent of respondents say this is an issue, with inefficiencies arising if more than one person from more than one team is required to solve a problem in a tenant’s home.
“I think the principle of a customer [services] portal is a concept we’ve been talking about in the sector for quite some time, and some organisations have embraced it and got on very well with it,” comments Nathan Ollier, General Manager for Public and Field Service at Advanced.
“However, I would say that we still have a number of organisations wedded to the contact centre model. Some of that is simply because they haven’t reached the evaluation of customer portals in their transformation journey yet. Some of it is because they’ve not quite matured their thinking around the technologies required to effectively triage and report repairs.”
One repairs and maintenance director at a housing association comments: “There can sometimes be a lack of effective communication between our customer services team, technical team and contractors, which leads to jobs taking too long or too many visits.”
A finance director at another organisation adds: “Inefficient scheduling of repairs across the geographical area of operation is leading to increased travel time and lower productivity.”
This theme does not come as a surprise to Nathan Ollier. “I think a key component of efficiency [in field management] is looking at the skills and capabilities of your resources and challenging yourself as to whether that really does need two or three different people to go over a period of time, or whether we can condense those activities into one point of delivery,” he argues.
Even when a digital system is in place, it is not always present across an entire organisation. A minority of survey respondents told us that mergers pose a problem, as part of the challenge of bringing together organisations is melding their different systems for managing repairs.
“We’re certainly engaged with a number of customers who are working through the merger of two if not more organisations,” says Nathan. “That inevitably brings both challenge and opportunity as they navigate through analysing multiple operating models – probably with different systems landscapes but maybe with crossover – to develop a [field management] strategy that allows them to take the best of breed forwards.”
The survey results clearly show the potential risks of inefficient management of this sort of communication and of field staff generally. More than half say the challenges here are leading to poorer resident satisfaction; about the same speak of reduced satisfaction among staff. Just under half share concerns about the financial impact of such inefficiencies.
“We know from experience that the quality and speed of a repair impacts on customer satisfaction,” comments one repairs and maintenance director. “The quicker and better quality, then satisfaction naturally increases.”
Arranging speedy and responsive repairs may become more complicated as social distancing continues. Many respondents say this is at the forefront of their minds when thinking about how their approach will evolve.
One notes a decision to use software that enables a resident to track the engineer who is due in their home. This, along with more repairs being undertaken in-house, might help to reassure residents of how vital their safety is. Another says a text message service has been adopted to help staff to work from home.
“I think all organisations have been challenged to look long and hard at where we have an opportunity to be more resilient in the future,” concludes Nathan. “The social housing sector does a great job, but while we’ve got organisations that are still using paper [to deploy staff] and residents who aren’t booking repairs online, then there’s a way to go.”