In the offices of almost every registered social landlord in Scotland there will be a ­discussion happening on how best to engage with customers and how to embrace new technology.

Richard Jennings, managing director, Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association
Richard Jennings, managing director, Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association
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In the offices of almost every registered social landlord in Scotland there will be a ­discussion happening on how best to engage with customers and how to embrace new technology. The world around us is becoming more connected and yet social mobility and social isolation remain real ­challenges in our communities.

The world around us is becoming more connected and yet social mobility and social isolation remain real ­challenges in our communities.

Our own customer survey at Castle Rock Edinvar tells us that 90 per cent of customers would choose the phone over other channels of communication. On the face of it, this could rule out a go-digital approach and potentially limit the benefits that investment in new technology could bring, benefits that would improve our performance and enable us to deliver more housing and better services. The digital challenge is not going to go away. Perhaps an alternative way to look at this is to accept that we have a responsibility to support our tenants to engage in our digitally connected world. To achieve this we need to think hard and prepare the ground for a long term programme of change.

The typical channel shift methodology deployed in the public sphere is definitely not for us. Local authorities have been going online for more than a decade and this has largely been driven by cuts to funding and the need to close offices and rationalise their footprint.

Similarly, in the private sector, one of the most commonly referenced models is online banking, driven by the cost of transactions and a reduction in banks on the high street as well as other mechanisms for accessing our money and paying for goods and services.

To get where we want to be we need a different narrative and road map and it is not just our tenants who we want to join us, our staff need to come onboard too. New technology and the potential of automation mean that we need to think about the types of roles and responsibilities housing staff will have in the future.

A potential opportunity from investment in new technology will be the creation of more skilled roles where staff use a wider range of ­information and analysis to make decisions closer to the customer. Whether this is in relation to place management, property maintenance or tenancy sustainment, the potential for better decisions and quicker actions made on the ground will reduce the need for customers to ­contact us. Our workforce must be ready, equipped and capable to take on this new approach.

Digital access also has to remain a core concern for housing associations when more than 60 per cent of our tenants are on some form of housing benefit. This is where we need to think laterally and make the business case for investment in broadband connectivity. The concept of a smart home is often presented in the form of new build, yet we need to focus on our existing stock.

What could be the lifecycle cost ­benefits of having better data on key components and environment ­factors such as humidity and ­temperature? How many unnecessary hospital admissions or escalations could we avoid by having movement sensors in the homes of older people or those with additional ­support needs? There will always be the challenge of invasion of privacy and we need to be able to sell to tenants the wider benefits that digital connectivity could bring to them if we connect their home.

The benefits for our organisation and for tenants could be enormous, enabling us to offer more rewarding roles and developing smarter ways to manage our properties and ­support our tenants.

Our road map is going to be a ­complex one, we need to build the capacity and capability of our people, develop the trust of our tenants and have support on hand to help navigate people through the digital world. It will not be a case of sticking someone else’s solution on to our opportunity.

Richard Jennings, managing director, Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association.