The future needs a whole new way of thinking

The pandemic has challenged us all to adapt, but at Wheatley Group it is our adaptability that will see us through, writes GHA Managing Director Jehan Weerasinghe

Jehan Weerasinghe headshot

This pandemic has asked an important question of the best of us – can you adapt to a new world? However this new world or ‘new normal’ might look, it will demand a whole new way of thinking.

Because it can’t be more of the same, not anymore. At Wheatley, it’s our adaptability that will see us through.

I’ve spoken to as many housing officers as I could during lockdown and what I kept hearing was how much they missed their customers, missed being out in their communities.

That will be one of my enduring memories of lockdown – how central the role of housing officer is to people in our neighbourhoods.

Each housing officer knows their customers and is an integral part of their community. They play a real anchor role, almost as important as health workers or the emergency services.

Those relationships have become even more important since the pandemic – and have allowed us to engage with more customers in new ways.

Working from home, Glasgow Housing Association’s housing officers have made around 150,000 calls to customers since the start of lockdown.

The conversations with customers been more frequent – every day in some cases – and have ensured that those in crisis get help straight away.

Across Wheatley, almost 27,000 emergency food parcels were delivered to customers through our EatWell service. Around 4,000 individuals and families got help through our emergency response fund with everything from mobile phone top-ups to kids’ activity packs.

Conversations have been longer, too, and staff have learned things about customers’ lives they didn’t know before.

This has created a deeper bond between staff and customers.

We’ve also been able to reach out to many customers who didn’t previously engage, particularly families who pay their rent on time and who don’t demand a lot from us.

Often, these customers were surprised about the extent of the support we could provide – from emergency food parcels to fuel advice, help with welfare benefits and so much more.

Maintaining this improved engagement with families will play a key part in our next strategy.

As well as phone contact, we’ve used video conferencing technology such as Zoom and FaceTime to arrange face-to-face interviews with our advisors, as well as appeals and tribunals with the Department for Work and Pensions.

All our housing officers already have tablet computers, so they have the tools they need to support customers to get online, fill in benefit forms, get a referral to our support services, or book a repair.

This ‘office in their hands’ means housing officers can help customers more quickly with a wide range of issues.

Our staff are already very comfortable in that digital space and continue to help customers do more for themselves online, too.

More than 5000 customers have told us that the pandemic has affected their income, but housing officers have still managed to keep rent coming in.

Strong relationships mean housing officers have had those sometimes difficult conversations with customers about paying their rent, all while providing the support and outreach that is so vital.

That balance is difficult to achieve and our housing officers have done it brilliantly. That gives me great confidence for the future.

In the most difficult of circumstances, our housing officers are absolutely focused on what our customers need. We have kept our soul.

Whatever the future holds, we are in a great place because we have learned so much about ourselves and our customers over the past few months.

Our response to a changing world won’t be ‘more of the same’ because the future needs a whole new way of thinking.

Can we deliver that change in the ways we engage with and support the people who need us most? The answer, emphatically, is yes.

Blog first appeared in Inside Housing 4 September 2020.

Friday, September 04, 2020