The skills sets of today’s professionals are wider, deeper and more challenging as they deal with hard reality, writes Martin Armstrong
The world of affordable housing has changed beyond recognition. The challenge for a sector critical to the health and wellbeing of the country is to ensure staff have a skills set that continues to be current and relevant: one enabling them to provide the excellent services their customers demand and deserve. More than that, we need to be able to anticipate and be ready to meet the expectations of every segment of our customer base in tomorrow’s world too.
Core skills and competencies, such as rent collection, allocations and void management, remain as basic essentials. Of course, they do. However, today’s housing professional also needs to be an expert problem solver and solution finder, vigorous customer advocate and talented negotiator, both with and on behalf of their customers. He and she also need to be expert communicators, delivering advice on an ever-expanding range of issues.
Today’s housing professional is an expert partnership builder: not only working closely with colleagues in police, fire and rescue, health, social work and education, but building personal relationships that serve their customers well daily.
At Wheatley, where we have patch sizes of just 200 homes, we expect and support our housing professionals, not only to know their patch intimately, but to have personal, informed relationships with the people they serve.
Increasingly, we are recruiting and developing housing professionals who are commercially minded and acutely aware of the importance of maximising income, while addressing sympathetically and supportively the often desperate needs of our hard-pressed tenants and factored homeowners.
Those needs and expectations are shaping the identikit of the modern-day housing officer, and enforcing the need for housing providers of all sizes to attain a level of customer focus and service previously the domain of only the Apples, Virgins and Amazons.
New research, commissioned by Wheatley Group and the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), confirms what today’s housing providers and frontline professionals must be and do to match and exceed customers’ requirements and expectations. Interim findings of the De Montfort University study underline that the roles and remits of today’s professional are wider, deeper and much more challenging, with staff tasked to add far greater value to individuals, families and communities than ever before.
Of course, the economic downturn has been a key factor in all of this, as are Westminster’s welfare reforms. We know only too well how much hardship continues to be caused and how the supply of affordable housing continues to be squeezed.
The hard reality is that frontline housing staff are serving more customers with increasingly complex needs, many of whom live daily with anxiety, distress and fear. These complex needs require different responses from today’s housing professionals, if we are to support people to sustain their tenancy, enjoy a sense of well-being and live a life in which positive opportunities are created to counteract the pressures of daily lives.
It is in this hard reality housing officers are adding more social value than ever before.
For many, too many, the housing officer is the one constant, the one dependable, innovative problem solver they depend upon. Where other public services respond in a crisis, we are already there; responding, doing, solving.
De Montfort’s interim findings highlight a case in Scotland where a housing officer responds to a tenant contemplating suicide. Swift and compassionate action, linking police, health and family members, literally saves the day and a life. “What higher social value than that?” asks the researcher. Dramatic? Yes. Illustrative? Certainly.
At Wheatley, we are rolling out our ThinkYes culture-change programme. Launched two years ago within our biggest partner organisation, Glasgow Housing Association (GHA), this revolutionary culture-change programme properly empowers staff – frontline and support – to use their professional judgment to do the right thing for their customers, at the first point of contact. ThinkYes has reduced bureaucracy, escalation and delay and instead has supported individual staff to deliver services, tailored as their professional judgment sees it, to individual customer needs. Customer satisfaction has risen to 90%, staff satisfaction to 87%.
Learning how to work just as creatively with partner organisations across 12 local authority areas in Central Scotland is also a key attribute of our housing professionals. Our Community Improvement Partnership with police and fire, for example, ensures housing staff work in a radically new, collaborative way with key partners.
No profession, after all, can afford to stand still. Least of all housing.
• Martin Armstrong, is chief executive of Wheatley Housing Group www.wheatley-group.com