Channel shift or channel stop?

Hopefully this will be the  first of many posts this year to make up for my almost complete lack of blogging last year (on the bright side we’ve done a lot of decorating and been to a lot of weddings!)

I’ve been involved in many discussions in the last couple of years about channel shift and everything that comes with it, in particular creating ‘self-service portals’ so good customers will never need to pick up the phone again.

But progress throughout the sector seems to be very limited so I wonder if our efforts would be better spent trying to get ahead of the game rather than get to where others were 10 years ago?

Rather than investing hours of meeting time and spending thousands with software companies to allow customers to self-serve, why not focus on removing the need for customers to request service at all? Surely that’s the dream, that there’s no need to get in touch, not being able to check your rent account at midnight in your pajamas?

Don’t call us we’ll call you, to do a property health check to service the house rather than wait for it to breakdown, to action the message we received from the intelligent components in the property, to offer the support we know you need based on the info we hold so tenancies are never breached, you get the idea.

I wonder how many calls for service could have been prevented if we shifted our mindset to proactive rather than reactive?


Make the most of membership

Last week I attended the ONE CIH conference for the second time. The conference is an opportunity for all CIH board members from the English regions, devolved nations and central Governing board to get together. Senior CIH staff also attend and the purpose is to review the previous year and think about the year coming up. It’s a great opportunity to share ideas, network with other board members and challenge one another. Ultimately, it’s about improving the services provided to CIH members and the wider role of CIH to society.

Like many membership organisations that don’t benefit from mandatory membership (like RIBA or RICS), member numbers have fallen in recent years and it is a much debated topic about how we CIH board members can tackle this. Unsurprisingly, it was a session topic at ONE CIH and I made sure I attended the discussion in the hope of finally tackling this problem.

In summary, the session centered around how we improve our communication to current and potential members. It was agreed that the membership offer is good on the whole but better marketing is needed to ensure both professionals and employers realise its benefits.

During the session, there was a lot of discussion around using peer-to-peer communication methods as these were considered to be more powerful than others. So as a regional board member, I was challenged to share why I value my CIH membership. So here goes…

I first joined CIH as a student when completing my Level 4 Certificate in Housing. Whilst I had chosen to pursue a career in housing, I hadn’t studied housing previously and as someone who enjoys studying I was keen to do this as soon as I could. I remained a student member for about 5 years as I progressed to a BSc Housing. At this point in my career, the value of CIH membership was access to courses and related information and events.

I really value studying and promote it to anybody that I can, whilst it may not always improve your technical knowledge to do a certain job, it improves other skills such as critical analysis, understanding of the bigger picture, researching good practice, making arguments for and against, etc. It can also stir an interest in lifelong learning as you realise the benefits of removing your nose from the grindstone every once in a while. For those looking to climb the career ladder, obtaining a certain level of qualification is usually a necessity.

About 2 and half years ago, I successfully applied to the CIH East Midlands student bursary scheme and as a result became a co-opted member of the board. I’d previously considered applying to join the board as I knew another colleague who had done so, but I never quite brought myself to do it. Being a board member is now the biggest benefit of my CIH membership. Through my board role, I have developed a huge support network across the housing spectrum and not just in the East Midlands. Having this network has been hugely beneficial as I can tap into their knowledge, experience and expertise, either for practical work reasons or personal development reasons. One of the brilliant things about housing is that everyone is so willing to share and support each other, something that is more important than ever in these changing and challenging times.

Board membership has also given me some fantastic opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, such as presenting at a leaders roundtable event alongside Terrie Alafat and Boris W0rrall, speaking at CIH Manchester, organising the biggest Midlands awards and networking event, hosting a policy roundtable, contributing to the new PRS qualification, and even a job opportunity.

The other side of the board member coin is that I get to give something back to the CIH and also influence their work. For those who are dissatisfied with their CIH membership, consider getting involved to effect the changes you would like to see.

Finally, being a CIH member has given me an ego and profile boost by being eligible to apply for prestigious awards, including Student of the Year (which I won) and Rising Stars (made the final three in 2014).

CIH membership is what you make of it and will mean something different to each member. I’d love to hear what you value most about your CIH membership.


The machines are coming…

but are they bringing our freedom with them?

Recently, I’ve come across quite a few articles on the idea of a Universal Basic Income or Citizens’ Income. Quite a few propose the idea as a response to a predicted rise in unemployment, due to the looming automation of many industries and jobs.

UBI is a really interesting concept and some countries/cities are already researching and even trialing it. But I find the idea of automation and the resulting lack of employment opportunities more interesting. In particular, the freedoms that it could bring for individuals to follow a dream, pursue a new direction, take a break, care for someone, retrain; ultimately to have choice and not feel trapped in any employment situation.

I won’t go in to the detail of UBI or automation, lots of others, much more expert in the topic, have already done that. I’ve pasted lots of links below if you want to find out more.

I wonder how automation might play out in the housing sector? Especially if connected to the Internet of Things; perhaps properties that pretty much repair themselves as they diagnose when a repair will be required (before it’s needed) and schedule the repair, ensuring all required materials are printed off the 3D printer and loaded in the van? Or rent accounts that are processed entirely by machines, only bringing in humans when a phone needs answering (except to take a payment) or a customer needs visiting? In an ideal world, when automation is mainsteam, processes will be cheaper to deliver and so resources can be freed up to invest in housebuilding or services that some might describe as ‘added value’.

I expect most of us are currently reviewing our processes and service offerings in the wake of budget cuts and other policy challenges, but how many of us are looking to increase the use of technology in our processes, particularly to automate them?


Interesting links, in no particular order:–introducing-the-rsa-basic-income-model/

Why fit in, when you were born to stand out?

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of being on the same billing as Terrie Alafat, Boris Worrall and Chris Hobson. We were all speaking at a leader’s roundtable event organised by the CIH East Midlands on the topic of unprecedented political change. It was a great event, very well attended with some really interesting debate during the 90 minute session. More importantly, I left the session feeling hugely encouraged; lately, housing can feel like a negative sector to be in, but the senior housing professionals around the room all spoke so passionately about their work. In particular, there was no feeling of a sector that is fracturing, everyone is still looking to work together to provide the housing their area needs.

Below are the notes from my opening pitch, titled as the young leader’s perspective (though I’m not sure how much longer I can get away with claiming to be a young leader!

As we all know, the housing sector has seen huge changes in recent years, which only seem to be increasing exponentially in their scale and number. These changes are challenging our existence and as a result we’re all agonising over who we are, what we do and why.

My perspective is that it’s vital that each housing provider is crystal clear about their vision, objectives and values and stick to them no matter what. And it’s ok for each ALMO, council and housing association to take a different approach. If that means a housing association focuses on purely commercial activity going forward, maybe that’s ok too, do they deserve to be publicly criticised? Doesn’t that just further the Government’s campaign to kill off social housing? At the very least, let’s respect each other’s choices, learn from each other’s successes and failures and focus on making sure everyone has a home they can afford.

It’s deeply ingrained in our sector to compare ourselves to other providers, to make sure we are keeping up with the Jones’s (or the Kardashian’s depending on your generation) but doing it better, faster, cheaper. And now that many of us are dabbling in commercial markets, we have even more comparisons to make.

But I think sometimes it does more harm than good to compare yourself to others, whether they are similar to you or very different. In my role managing market rent properties, I’m often asked what would a private landlord do in a given situation, so that we might follow their example, but given that there are over 2 million private landlords in the UK, there are over 2 million answers to that question! My old landlord sent us a Christmas card every year and replaced our broken boiler in one working day, but I know for sure plenty of other private landlords and even social landlords don’t operate like that!

That’s not to say that comparison is always a bad thing, I think there are definitely some key lessons to learn from private landlords and the wider commercial sector, namely the effect of being financially connected to the activity/company (through personal investment, bonuses, etc) has on innovation, culture and the service customers receive.

So maybe we could all make a late New Year’s resolution to only compare the stuff that matters, that will result in everyone having somewhere affordable to live. And if we all find a different way to achieve that, then so be it, after all, not everyone is facing the same housing crisis.

I think I’m one of a handful of people working in housing that actually sought out this career path, and part of the attraction was to have a positive impact on society and to work for an organisation with strong principles and values, and I think lots of my generation feel the same. So I’ll end by saying whatever your chosen vision and values are, stick to them, don’t let others inside and outside the sector, or the Government, distract or deter you, we’re already facing plenty of change, let’s not create any more than we need to.

To own or to rent

As it’s a new year, it seems appropriate to write a new blog post. My first in a while, actually.

My absence from the blogosphere is mainly a result of becoming a homeowner for the first time. Yes, I’ve finally achieved that Great British aspiration of owning bricks and mortar, I’m sure David Cameron is thrilled.

Unlike most, I’m a big advocate of the private rented sector and didn’t rush into the expense, restriction and responsibility of owner occupation.

For 10 years, I’ve lived in the PRS, first in student housing, then young professional shared housing, then non-shared. I’ve been fortunate to have an awesome landlord, and I mean really awesome. He sent us Christmas cards, reduced the rent when times were hard, replaced our broken boiler in one working day, let us decorate, didn’t charge fees, never increased the rent, provided furniture, gave us a rolling tenancy that lasted 6 years in the end. The list goes on.

This is how renting should be and both private and social landlords could learn a lot from my old landlord. If renting did look like this for the majority, perhaps I wouldn’t have been told about a 1000 times that rent is dead money. I was always happy to pay for the lack of repair responsibility and flexibility to move if needed. Besides, isn’t mortgage interest dead money or am I missing something?!

And finding a house to rent was so much easier than finding one to buy. This may come as a shock to those in the south, but there are some very desirable parts of Sheffield and property gets snapped up. Over the last 12 months, we’ve endured 20+ viewings, using our allotted 15 minutes to decide if we should spend our life savings, before the next of about 20 others came to do the same thing. We’ve offered over the asking price, sometimes by a £1000, sometimes £2000, one time a lot more, only to be out bid.

Meanwhile, friends of ours that had bought a couple of years earlier were enjoying the rising house prices and recalling how it wasn’t that competitive when they were buying. It was very tempting to give up the search or settle for whatever we could get our hands on, just so the ordeal would be over and we could finally say this woodchip wallpaper is all ours.

But we held out and got what we were looking for, albeit we had to offer over the asking price. But being a home owner isn’t enough is it? We have to be the owner of a perfect home, so despite many conversations that we would make do with the current tired decor and steadily improve one room at a time, we’ve spent the last three months pulling down a wall, replacing a roof, plastering and fitting a new kitchen. I was so happy the day we had a functioning kitchen sink and the days of doing the washing up in the bathroom sink were over!

I’m so grateful for everything our landlord did for us, renting from him gave us time to save up a 15% deposit and not rely on Government schemes, the bank of Dad or having to stretch ourselves to buy with a 5% deposit and be burdened with a huge monthly mortgage repayment. I know others are in a very different boat though. Wouldn’t it be great if the Government focused on providing a housing market that provides the different solutions we need during the different phases of our lives, rather than just pushing people to burden themselves with home ownership as quickly as possible?

Anyway, I’ve got woodchip to strip :)


Creative kids

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of working with our Community Development team to run activities for our youth group on the subject of the housing crisis. During three days, they would learn all about the crisis and explore what it means to them in various creative ways, include writing stories, creating poetry bunting, putting themselves in the shoes of Cathy from Cathy Come Home and inventing new super heroes. On the final day, they would see an outdoor theatre version of David Walliam’s Mr Stink.

Day two was where I came in. I’m a member of my organisation’s Creativity Club which uses creative problem solving skills to solve problems for others in the organisation. We spent an afternoon using three of these techniques: boundary examination, reversal and  super heroes and this blog is a little record of what the young people cam e up with them.

Boundary examination involves playing with, exploring and testing the problem definition. The problem I gave the group was ‘How do we solve the housing crisis?’ and this is what hey come up with during the exercise:

How we solve housing crisis
A way Me Fix House Problem
If we can She Answer Home Dilemma
Solving Us Resolve Shelter Issue
Should He Method Flat Obstacle
Could I Crack Bungalow Upset
Can You Make better Mansion Stressful
Must Them Mend Cottage Shortage
Possible Government Problematic Caravan Sadness
If Nigel Mills MP Prevent Tent Annoyed
Successfully The Queen stop Motorhome Drama
Sustainably The Country People Pricey
David Cameron Street Money
They Town

Is it possible that the country could solve the housing crisisSo you can see that by replacing key words in the definition, the nature of the problem and therefore the solution changes, try to solve the mansion shortage is very different to the Queen sustainable resolving the people problem. But I was very impressed by their understanding of how complex the issue is, what the keys features are and how it is probably made up of lots of interconnected problems. As a group we settled on two new problem definitions:

  • Should the housing crisis be fixed

We then moved on to reversal, or as I call it, negative brainstorming. In this exercise we took the problem and went mad thinking up ideas to make it even worse. We then reverse the bad ideas and hopefully they become great solutions! Here are some of the things they came up with:

Negative Positive
A house costs a gazillion pounds Make the world bigger – more places to build houses
We earn £1 a year Build houses out of rubbish
Everyone is on the waiting list Recyclable houses
Crime increases Magically appearing houses
People are scared and go into hiding Houses grow out of the ground
Riots Derelict houses magically transform when you step inside
Move to another country Everyone earns loads
Move to Mars Tree houses
Only one child per family Portable houses
Population dies out Voldemort dies
Food stamps Eco-friendly houses
Nuclear bomb to remove the problem Mobile living
People steal houses Let the crisis solve itself – like evolution
People kill others for their house Money for the homeless
Everyone turns into vampires Houses cost £1
Kill people as they get old Get used to living in another way – small, basic homes
Everyone carries weapons Living in old factories
Rich and poor people swap houses Small houses – straw and wood
Purge the population Free mansions
Take over another country that has room Old people adopt homeless people
Moon crashes into earth Rent out spare rooms
Houses float away House swaps
Ocean full of ships full of people Donate second homes to charity
Aliens invade and take the houses we have left Communal housing
Queen moves abroad Divide large houses into smaller ones
We take over Buckingham Palace Make our island bigger
People kill the Government Floating houses
Lawless state Skyscrapers all the way into space
All trees cut down to build houses, run out of oxygen Tardis houses
Finger nails pulled out if you buy a house Create another realm
Home owners turn into zombies Vacuum packed houses, buy at supermarket
Have to adopt a child if you own a home More money from the Government
Live in bunkers World peace – destroy all bombs
Whole world at war Live at Hogwarts
Voldemort returns David Cameron build the houses
All house blown up Move into no. 10
A protective shield over the countryside Same size houses for everyone
People that pay rent are abducted Move into Parliament
Just one home per family
More homeless shelters – help them find work
House bombs
Join all planets to earth
People live in space
Make money by selling things like bombs
Everyone builds their own house and helps their neighbours
Countries share info on how to solve the housing crisis
Print houses
Use barns for houses
Flat pack houses
Self-building houses
Aliens give us their planet with houses on it
Push a button on a box and it turns into a house

As you can see, some of the ideas were quite ridiculous (some of those are my suggestions!) but that’s the point, creativity is all about wacky ideas, the trick then is to make them useful, then it becomes innovation J

So finally, we pretended to be superheroes and villains and how we could use their powers to tackle our problem. Some of the ideas were:

  • Iron Man could build a gadget that builds houses
  • Iron man is famous so he could promote things for us
  • Black Widow could spy on rich people to see if they have more than one house
  • Black Widow could use her ability to extract information from the Government to see what they plan on doing to solve the housing crisis
  • Spiderman could use his web to drop houses into the right place
  • Antman has a suit that makes him the size of an ant, give everyone this suit so they would need smaller places to live
  • Antman is strong, he can hold ten times his weight, he can build more houses
  • Magneto could scare the Government into building more houses
  • Magneto could collect all the metal and build houses from it
  • Poison Ivy could grow houses from nature
  • Joker could hold the Government to ransom to build more houses
  • Batman has morals (this is possibly my favourite!)
  • Batman could make criminals build houses

We then had a go at creating our own housing superheroes:

  • Hot Head – makes bricks in his belly, can dry cement super fast, fast hands and feet
  • House Girl – has a belt that shoots out houses
  • Magic house hands – shoots out houses from their finger tips
  • Captain housing woman – can turn anything into a house, destroys bad houses

It was a really good few days, and we had a great time at Mr Stink, even though it poured it down for half an hour, the story had some really good messages in it about homeless people. Lots of the above ideas are completely bonkers but hopefully, like me, you can see some a hint of something that could work within the craziness! Young people are definitely an untapped resource with a completely different perspective on the world and we will certainly be doing more sessions like these. I’m also hoping to run a Creativity Club session on how we respond to that Channel 4 news report, I think we’ll need some super powers if we’re going to crack that nut!