Interview: Resident-Landlord Communication Post-Covid: Where Should Social Landlords Be Aiming?

Kate McArdell-Broome, Head of Customer Operations at Johnnie Johnson Housing talks to Voicescape about resident communications during the pandemic.

2020 forced us all to relook at the way we live and work. And in the social housing sector, approaches have increasingly moved towards a more robust, supportive offering. But as the effects of the pandemic continue to ripple, how can social landlords ensure they are there for their residents – when it matters the most?

As a social housing provider in Northern England and having been established in 1969, we tho

ught Johnnie Johnson Housing would be well placed to answer. Here Head of Customer Operations, Kate McArdell-Broome, explains their experience of the pandemic as well as what approach they’re taking to resident communication.

Kate McArdell-Broome, Head of Customer Operations, Johnnie Johnson Housing

What was Johnnie Johnson’s priority at the start of the pandemic?

We specialise in independent living for the over 55s. We had to think about how we were going to keep in

teracting with customers who were used to having a Johnnie Johnson colleague on-site, every day, to check on their wellbeing and assist with day-to-day tasks. We needed to consider how we were going to do that efficiently, within government guidelines for residents, colleagues and contractors.

Next, we knew we needed to put appropriate measures in place to ensure our team could still work. Back in March, we started holding weekly business continuity meetings, so we felt like we were ahead of the curve when the pandemic was in full force. Those calls allow good representation from across the business, bringing different knowledge and experience together to talk about how the business can be made more effective. This was being implemented even before we knew about the full impact of Covid.

There’s been plenty of challenges over the last few months. But what is Johnnie Johnson doing to overcome them?

Our Executive Team and Business Continuity Team meet daily, which helps to highlight any operational concerns, new government guidelines and restrictions, and resident feedback. Daily ‘team huddles’ also allow our colleagues to ‘check in’ with each other, disseminating information and asking questions.

We’ve also continued to communicate with our residents. For example, front-line teams are speaking to residents, reassuring them that Johnnie Johnson is doing everything it can. We’ve also sent out a business continuity statement detailing the wellbeing support on offer, and the new procedure for compliance checks on repairs. All communication goes through our comms team to ensure consistency.

Lots of our colleagues are working from home. This has meant that some of our service offerings have changed slightly. Residents who are used to having an ILC (Independent Living Coordinator) are offered daily wellbeing calls instead.

You mentioned that communication was high on your agenda during the pandemic. Can you explain more about your approach?

We’ve taken an omni-channel approach – utilising over 30 different methods of communication including letters, texts, and phone calls. One of the biggest benefits of this is that we’ve been able to offer everyone the same level of support. We’re making an extra 2,000 calls to residents per day. Voicescape technology has helped us to scale our communications.

Our colleagues might not be on-site but they’ve been able to have much more detailed conversations. This is great for those more vulnerable residents who may be shielding and haven’t seen anybody for quite some time. Our residents know that whatever their situation, someone will be able to offer the support they need.

Voicescape hasn’t just helped us to scale but it’s also allowed us to be very focused with our communication. Residents have said they really appreciated this approach and the option is still going to be there for people long-term.

How did the pandemic impact your messaging?

We appreciated that changing circumstances – losing jobs, going on furlough – could mean that more people would require financial support and advice. We therefore promoted welfare benefits advice, using Voicescape to tailor and soften the messages for those in arrears. We were determined not just to focus on money but also wanted to have a conversation to understand how we could support residents, signposting them towards other services if required.

In terms of arrears, we wanted to offer more support. We’ve taken the opportunity to remind people: you need to talk to us and, what can we do to help? This has had a huge impact for colleagues who would normally be doing the outbound calls to get people to engage for payments purposes.

You’re having more conversations with customers and those conversations are longer. In terms of resources, how have you managed this?

In short, we wouldn’t have had the capacity to call an extra 2,000 people – in addition to the calls already being made – without automation. Voicescape enabled us to do this quickly and easily. Their technology helped us identify and engage with those who needed extra support.

We haven’t increased resource either – rather shifted and tweaked things. For example, during the early days of the pandemic, when we were only concentrating on critical tasks, we weren’t allocating properties. We didn’t furlough any colleagues, which meant we could reprioritise workload and release a bank of colleagues who were available to help with resident wellbeing and support. It was a case of modifying our processes with the help of technology.

What lessons will you take forward into the post-Covid world?

I think we’ve all realised how important it is to get to that granular level of understanding people’s circumstances. Voicescape technology has allowed us to have more in-depth conversations and understand residents’ circumstances. In short, we’ve learnt what they really need.

I’d like to think that Johnnie Johnson has always been very good at providing a range of support for residents, and we’ve tried to tailor this during Covid. I want to see this continue. Having conversations with people has enabled us to go back to basics with residents and have those important conversations about how they are, what they need, and signpost services available to them.

Looking ahead, how important is technology for the social housing sector?

So important! It’s been great at creating new channels for communication and enabling working from home. Colleagues who work out in the regions and didn’t visit headquarters as often now feel more connected and engaged.

By being digital, we’ve got a higher engagement rate across all tenure types. It makes communicating easy and hassle-free. Traditionally, we used to hold forums where 20 residents might have attended. Now, this is online, and attracts over 50 residents. We’re also hosting monthly meetings with a group of residents. After each of these, we work with Voicescape to conduct surveys. The aim is that we’ll use the feedback to make these meetings more customer-focused and responsive.

Voicescape technology has been implemented at Johnnie Johnson for several years now. In March 2020, our arrears stood at 1.13% and actually went down in May! We’ve now maintained arrears steadily at 1.13%. This has been achieved by having a ‘rent first’ culture and using technology to enable colleagues to have the conversation in the first place – which can then lead to providing support.

What approach is your social housing association taking? Join in the conversation on Twitter and LinkedIn.