Supporting the most vulnerable in society is our sector’s purpose; and there is no greater time of need for those we serve.
To understand the new challenges the sector is facing, and to facilitate the sharing of information between providers, last week we hosted a video conference call, giving our social housing clients the opportunity to share their recent experience, talk through the activities their organisation is undertaking and think about the resources available in these challenging times.
To best share the learning from the session we’ve summarised the workshop into sections, looking at common challenges and some possible solutions.
What are you seeing? How are your services being impacted?
Emergency repairs only
The providers we spoke to were typically carrying out emergency repairs only. While this was not an immediate concern, there were unanswered questions in the group around the impact on the repairs service when things return to normal; how will the backlog of repairs be prioritised? How will providers reach out to customers in a meaningful way and manage expectations?
Access for compliance areas
It’s probably understandable with social distancing that the providers we spoke to were experiencing a major drop in access for compliance checks, but this remains a particular worry considering the potential duration of the lockdown.
One provider reported creating a video giving details of the additional safety measures for compliance checks, and also drafting in their workforce to do outreach on gas and electrical safety checks to reinforce their importance.
This Inside Housing article has further information on this issue.
Identifying and dealing with domestic abuse
None of the providers’ services for violence, abuse or anti-social behaviour have been impacted. All calls are still being dealt with, with any reports being taken very seriously, and landlords actively communicating that they are still there to help. One provider acknowledged that it’s difficult presently to find ways in which people could speak confidentially, something of critical importance when briefing customer-outreach teams. There was also concern that will fewer repair visits, the ability to identify domestic abuse in people’s homes is also reduced.
For further domestic abuse resources, check out the DAHA website
Reporting anti-social behaviour
A number of the providers we spoke to stated they were receiving ASB related calls about neighbours who were not observing the social distancing guidelines. In these cases, providers were having to advise customers to contact the police. Examples were also shared of some housing providers using injunctions with powers of arrest where necessary.
What else are you noticing has changed?
Universal Credit claims
Providers told us that they have seen the number of customers on Universal Credit increase nearly 4-fold, this prompted the question of whether this influx of claims has automatically categorised large parts of the customer population as suddenly and unexpectedly ‘financially vulnerable’?
Some providers reported that their income teams are working with business intelligence to understand if Universal Credit is now posing an even greater business risk. It was suggested that it could be that this impact will not be seen, or felt, until the end of April. There was a worry that some customers have also been cancelling their Direct Debits in the past few weeks.
A drop off in rent payments
With the news that repossessions and evictions are not being progressed during the coronavirus lockdown, some providers were concerned this could be perceived as effectively ‘rent-free weeks’. The providers we spoke to suggested there is an immediate need for landlords to be clear in their communications that it’s not a rent holiday; that it’s best to pay whatever you can afford, and to keep in close contact with the landlord to keep them informed of circumstance.
Money advice team links and details could potentially be added to provider websites to support customers, with signposting to organisations where customers can get further assistance.
How are providers keeping in contact with their customers?
Most of the providers we spoke to were engaging with customers using outbound communication methods. After an initial spike in inbound contact centre calls concerning payment of rent, and then later concern about repairs operatives coming into their homes, the providers we spoke to were all experiencing a drastic reduction of inbound calls since the lockdown.
With this significant reduction in inbound contact, engagement with customers is reducing in both directions – they are not requesting services and providers are less visible overall.
Which questions are providers asking when contacting customers?
The most topic covered in outbound contacts relates to physical health and wellbeing. Does the resident have enough food and medical supplies? Do they have any cold or flu symptoms?
Some providers are also asking customers if they have received their letter from the NHS to help identify the most vulnerable in health terms.
Some providers are using the outreach calls to identify at-risk groups, such as the over-70s as well as verify next of kin details. Checking key contact details and gathering email addresses and mobile telephone numbers has also been reported, so providers can increase the number of customers they can contact in a low-cost, blanket way should they need to.
One landlord is also asking if customers are willing to volunteer in their communities to support their neighbours, so they have a ready bank of volunteers to help when needed.
How are providers prioritising who to contact?
The providers we spoke to were using multiple different ‘grading’ systems. Most were prioritising known vulnerable customer populations, for example starting with sheltered or care and support customers, then moving on to general needs populations over 70 years old.
Some providers also reported contacting customers with other known vulnerabilities and customers believed to be living alone.
Discussion around identifying vulnerable groups to contact and who to prioritise naturally led to the perennial challenge in the social housing sector of data quality; this was felt to be a particular issue for organisations that have merged and may be drawing data from two or more different systems.
What about engaging with customers who are not already flagged as ‘vulnerable’?
The providers we spoke to recognised that there are some groups they simply won’t be able to contact through outbound telephone calls (partly due to limited resources), raising the question of how customers could potentially flag themselves as needing help. One provider taking part in the group suggested open and honest discussions over Facebook and setting up WhatsApp groups to understand what’s happening in communities.
What challenges have providers faced when making outbound contact?
Because it has been such a rapid change, there were some process issues raised in terms of how information was being shared with staff working from home. One suggestion for how to overcome this was by using a central survey tool instead of individual spreadsheets to control data.
For our clients who do not have the internal resource to make outbound calls, or feel their time would be better utilised responding to customers already identified as vulnerable, we are recommending adding a question to their perception surveys to understand how the pandemic and lockdown is affecting their residents and identify areas of concern. For clients who do not have a live perception survey we are also offering to set up a ‘safe and well’ check survey to contact customers at a reduced rate of £4 per completed survey. Please feel free to get in touch with us to explore either of these options if they would be helpful.
Following an outbound contact, when a customer is identified as not coping well in isolation, some providers are putting in place a callback at a frequency that suits the customer, with choices of weekly, fortnightly and monthly. The demand for this was said to been notably high.
Periodic outbound welfare calls
Another provider also mentioned the availability of outbound welfare calls. During the calls, there isn’t a script, it’s much more of a scoping call to understand the resident’s needs, update the resident with what’s going on, and to update customer records. This softer, unscripted engagement gives the landlord a flexible way to steer the conversation, so if the resident is struggling, they can offer a bespoke support plan or offer signposting. If the resident feels the call is intrusive in any way, the landlord can simply use the call for data cleansing purposes. So, the approach is always open and flexible and guided by the needs of the resident.
What new forms of support are providers offering customers?
Digital support programme
For residents identified as high welfare or isolated, one landlord has implemented telephone outreach to help residents download video chat apps and online shopping apps. Piloted last week, it’s helping residents feel more active, engaged and empowered.
Communicate services online
Several landlords publish daily updates on their website and social media channels, describing any service updates. Residents have been asked to contact the landlord only for rent enquiries or emergency repairs.
Letters with localised information
In addition to digital communication, one landlord is sending letters, complete with localised information for example local shops and deliveries available, with specific information and key contact details for anyone that needs further assistance. For others requiring assistance, they are also signposting to community meal programmes that deliver.
Meal delivery in retirement living and wider communities
One landlord offering retirement living services have stopped visitors and provided additional front-line staff to assist residents. They felt it important to close their communal dining areas but keep the kitchen staff cooking and delivering meals to residents. They will be rolling out the meal delivery service to vulnerable residents in their general needs population that may need that assistance.
Making best use of resources
One landlord is making best use of spare capacity by redirecting staff to support local partner support agencies.
Are there any good news stories out there?
One provider noted that for organisations that have asked staff with lighter workloads to redeploy to front line services, those staff may emerge from this crisis with a deeper understanding and appreciation of social housing that they can then take back into their regular roles when the crisis is over.
The immediacy of the crisis has meant implementing technology advances at pace, for example video conferencing for those working from home, and account payable teams able to run payments remotely. Changes have been required and the sector has adapted quickly with new skills, new systems, and new processes – and the result could be strengthened communities and a new appreciation of each customer, and each other.
In closing, this is clearly a challenging time for both providers and residents; with the effects likely to be felt for some time. But, by sharing challenges and solutions, and by coming together as a sector we can reduce the impact for all.
Following positive feedback on our last call we’re going to be hosted a call with providers. Contact us to watch on demand.
Wishing you, your teams, and your residents our very best wishes through these challenging times.