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Holly Rafique, Head of Digital at #techmums, discusses the importance of encouraging mums to embrace digital skills and get involved in digital inclusion programmes. There are countless organisations and initiatives aimed at achieving this, ranging from addressing the gender imbalance when selecting further education, through to making it easier for women to return to work after a career break. These are all commendable activities, and yet the figures don’t seem to be changing. In a recent report by PwC, only 27 per cent of young women said that they would consider a career in technology and only three per cent said that technology was their first choice of career. The reality is that women fill only 17 per cent of all the jobs in technology. Some of that is just a matter of time, so we should have patience to see the results of better inclusivity and awareness in school children, but in part it seems that society is treating the symptoms rather than addressing the underlying problem; women and girls do not see where they fit into the technology sector. There remains the perception of a white male playing computer games; even when we know the stereotype isn’t the truth, it is still hard to dispel it. At #techmums, we want to change this; we want to rewrite the narrative to ask “how can we bring technology into more women’s lives?” By reframing the problem this way, we can immediately widen our audience to include all women and all households. We are not insisting that women abandon other industries and passions but, instead, we are encouraging them to think about how they can use new technologies creatively to enhance what they are already passionate about. Embracing digital literacy For many of us, the internet is an integral and pervasive part of our lives in modern society. We rely on it to support and enhance our lives in an increasing number of subtle ways. It allows us to work remotely and flexibly, promoting a better work-life balance and making a career a more feasible possibility. We stay in touch with family, friends and colleagues who might be abroad or outside our immediate locale. For those of us with communication difficulties, it gives us an alternative to the dreaded phone call. We can monitor our expenditure and are not restricted to the products and prices in our local neighbourhoods. Digital literacy is now as important a skill for this generation of children as the ability to read and write. They don’t even recognise these devices as computers any more; internet connectivity is as natural to their generation as free-flowing water and electricity is to ours. When we turn on the tap, we expect there to be water, when we turn on a light switch we expect there to be light, when our children turn on a device they expect it to connect to the internet. The internet has opened up our worlds and, with the amount of time we spend using technology, you would expect everyone’s trust and confidence in it to be pretty high, not to mention it leading to equal opportunities for everyone. Except it’s not. It is a sad truth that far too many households are still struggling to engage with technology. Recent data privacy scandals, hoaxes and media hype have lead to fear rather than enthusiasm. Furthermore, most people see their role in technology as being consumers, not creators, subsequently feeling at the mercy of technology. At #techmums, we believe there is one person in the household who can change all this but who is too-often overlooked: mum. Our mission at #techmums is to empower women, their families and communities through technology. The average mum usually puts her children first and is only engaged by technology initiatives in terms of getting her children engaged. We work to change that and show every mum that technology is also for her and that she can benefit so much from having an understanding of technology. The confidence conundrum Many mums suffer from a loss of confidence after having children; no matter how many books you have read or classes you have attended, there is nothing that can quite destroy your confidence like your own tiny little baby who will not stop crying no matter what you do. Then as they grow and you hit new parental challenges, you increasingly feel that you have no idea what you’re doing; you are constantly bombarded with conflicting advice on the ‘right’ parenting approach so it’s not surprising that a large proportion of mums feel powerless. For those mums who were working before having children, they are likely to have missed the introduction of all-pervasive technology in the workplace and now feel that they can’t catch up. These days children pick up digital skills very quickly, with a large number of mums already feeling that their children know far more about technology than they do. Parents want to protect their family from online dangers but they lack the skills to do so and they know it; they become so terrified that a knee-jerk reaction of restricting access to technology seems to be the only option. Challenging the patronising rhetoric Patronised by a world that uses phrases such as ‘mumpreneur’, ‘mom jeans’ and “it’s so easy even your mum could do it”, the whole image of a mum is not dynamic, exciting or intelligent. Hard-working and frazzled certainly, but mums are rarely portrayed as capable and connected. We’ve seen at first hand how a woman’s whole attitude and posture changes when she discovers that she is far more knowledgeable and capable than she originally thought. When you take all these issues together, it’s easy to see why many women have a negative attitude to technology and don’t embrace digital solutions in their home. Digital parenting The beauty of upskilling mothers is that you touch at least two people’s lives – the mum and the child. Children increasingly need access to technology for their homework; they can quickly be left behind if their home is negative towards the use of technology. In addition, parents hold a lot of weight around children’s aspirations and attitudes. Children need their parents to act as their digital guides; someone whom they can trust to teach them to navigate the online world. A child needs to know that their concerns will be met with an understanding attitude and an informed response. Despite family dynamics moving towards a better balance, in many families the mother is still the parent that children interact with the most. Mums tend to organise extra-curricular activities, playdates and camps, and if they don’t understand the benefits of technology then it’s far less likely that they will arrange technology-based activities for their children. Future jobs will almost all require an element of digital awareness, so when parents engage with technology they are furthering their children’s social mobility and career aspirations. Spreading the knowledge Empowering women in technology clearly has a positive impact on the community through increased diversity in the workforce. Not only are diverse teams generally more successful but they are necessary to tackle any unconscious bias in solutions (particularly in artificial intelligence) and to ensure products meet the needs of all members of society. Many products are designed by all-male teams so that the different needs of women are unconsciously missed. Beyond the obvious benefits to communities, educating mothers will also lead to a more sensible community response to potential threats. A lack of understanding leads to fear and hysteria, particularly when the sensationalised news headlines are the main source of information. Incidents such as the recent ‘Momo hoax’, supposedly challenging children to self-harm, and fears over computer game addiction can be far better handled when the women in the community have confidence in their own understanding of technology and its associated risks. #techmums are connecting with mums through a number of digital outreach programmes. In 2018 we launched #techmumsTV in partnership with Home-Start UK and Facebook as a live-streamed chat show to demystify and normalise discussion of technology. The key concept of #techmumsTV was to celebrate young mothers, how they are using technology in their everyday lives, how they are running businesses from their phones and to positively tell their stories, with the other aspect of #techmumsTV being to upskill viewers about online safety, financial technology and increasing knowledge around the technology sector. By using social media and Home-Start centres, we were able to reach demographics of mums who are particularly hard to engage with through other methods. Our new initiative for 2019 is the #techmumsclub, an informal gathering of 20 mums where they are introduced to a wide range of topics from blogging and web design to app design and coding. We currently have five clubs running at various host partner’s across the country and have two more launching after Easter. We work with the 20 mums across a 10-week period, with sessions lasting two hours, usually within the school day. We support partners with facilitator training and provide all course materials and online support throughout the programme. #techmums is also working with the University of Leeds, FutureLearn and Black Tech UK to produce a series of online courses to bring 21st-century workplace digital skills to those who don’t usually engage in online working. By giving mums the foundation digital skills that they are missing, we can help them to pursue their passions and become the positive role models that their children will need as they venture into their digital future. We are confident that these three programmes will bring technology to more women and in turn get more women into technology. Holly Rafique is Head of Digital at #techmums. If you'd like to share your housing sector experience, all you need to do is get in touch at
Sarah Johnstone has been a neighbourhood coordinator at Thirteen Group for over eight years. Here she gives a snapshot of her day and describes how the lone working device she uses helps her to feel safe when working on her own in Middlesbrough. To try and describe a typical day is difficult because one of the things I like about my job is that no two days are the same. One day I’ll be out inspecting properties, another I’ll be interviewing families who’ve applied for a new home and another day I could be responding to ASB complaints. Although my job is very rewarding, there’s no denying that it can sometimes be tough, and on occasions I find myself faced with challenging behaviour where I need to be reactive and think quickly on my feet. Thankfully, these instances are rare, but it’s on days like those I’m reassured that I go out on every visit with a range of specialised security products. We use a key fob-style device with built-in GPS from Orbis Protect. This is attached to our staff lanyards and slots into a moulded ID badge. We activate the ‘amber’ function on this device every time we visit a customer and this information can be used to identify our location. In the rare event we need to activate the SOS function, the call is monitored and recorded, and this information will be passed to the emergency services if necessary. Thankfully, I don’t need to use it often, but it does give me peace of mind. Early morning A typical day will start at 8am. I arrive in the office, grab a coffee and catch up on emails and paperwork. I’ll then head out to visit customers in some of the 350 properties I look after in Middlesbrough. Before I leave, I’ll familiarise myself with whom I’m visiting, check their details on the system and see if there are any reasons why they shouldn’t be visited alone, in which case I’ll ask a colleague to come along with me. Even if we go out in pairs, we both make sure we use our devices. While I’m visiting customers it’s also a good opportunity for me keep an eye open for any neighbourhood issues such as fly-tipping, minor damage to properties and graffiti. Mid-morning We get 100s of applications for our properties. I get so much satisfaction from helping people who really need a home, find one. I enjoy showing prospective customers around our properties, but for my own safety I always have my device with me and switched on. I’ll normally go back to the office at noon for a spot of lunch which also gives me the chance to catch up with some of my colleagues. Early afternoon One part of the job we thankfully don’t have to do often is carry out evictions; we will only seek legal action as a last resort. We provide a wide range of tailored tenancy support services for customers and only if all attempts to help have been exhausted will we take this action. If it is necessary, I work alongside a fantastic team of professionals including the local police, partners and other colleagues to help make sure this goes as smoothly as possible. Once again, my device is essential, and I will have already alerted Orbis before I arrive, activating the SOS function so I can speak to the call handler and inform them of what I am doing and ask them to keep the line open. They will monitor the call, and if anything escalates where my safety is compromised, they are ready to help and, again, will contact the emergency services and provide them with all the required information. Late afternoon and the end of the day Towards the end of the day, I might have an interview with a customer to discuss a tenancy issue, in one of our office meeting rooms. Where I am, all our rooms have CCTV and panic alarms, plus I can use my device during interviews too. It’s also useful for walking to and from my car and I like the fact I can activate it if I feel vulnerable, speak to someone and tell them when I am safely inside my vehicle. Peace of mind Over my eight-year career as a neighbourhood co-ordinator, I do think that being a lone worker has become safer than ever. Orbis’s discrete alarms really offer peace of mind and the alarm-receiving centre is so valuable. Knowing there’s someone at the end of the device to listen, able to locate me using GPS and can get the emergency services to me if needed, feels very comforting as a lone worker. I’m passionate about safety, and I regularly attend training sessions for colleagues, sharing my experience and showing them how to use these safety products.  Being a lone worker has the potential to be challenging, but it’s encouraging to know that Thirteen ensures there are support systems in place for my safety and wellbeing. Sarah Johnstone is a neighbourhood coordinator at Thirteen Group. If you'd like to share your housing sector experience, all you need to do is get in touch at
Welcome to the Insights blog from Housing Technology Recruitment. From time to time we will be sharing our insights into the latest job trends and skills based on our experience in the recruiting process. To kick things off we’ve listed the top five increasingly popular job roles in technology. The tech industry is one of the fastest moving and most dynamic sectors in the UK. The emergence of newer technologies including artificial intelligence (AI) and self-service business intelligence (BI) means that tech specialists are in high demand and this is especially true in the housing sector. It's safe to say that there has never been a better time to get a job in tech but what are the most sought-after specialisms in the tech sector? At Housing Technology Recruitment we see first-hand what tech experience recruiters are increasingly looking for and we have narrowed them down to these five: 1. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning Housing providers are increasingly looking at artificial intelligence to streamline processes and reduce costs, a prime example being chat-bots. The need for professionals to design and develop these applications is growing as housing providers are already transforming their systems to meet the demands of the digital future. 2. Cyber security Almost all organisations have a presence on the internet, including housing providers, which means they are all at constant risk of cyber attacks and data breaches. Ransomware has rapidly emerged as one of the most serious threats facing housing providers making cyber security specialists a top priority when recruiting. 3. Project management Housing providers are increasingly embracing digital transformation which is increasing the number of projects being worked on in IT departments and therefore project managers are crucial to manage these rapid changes. 4. Business intelligence (BI) and data management Technology departments are also in need of business intelligence teams which are key for analysing data and using the results to improve services. Again, this is vital when an organisation is delivering a digital transformation programme. 5. Cloud computing Cloud-computing adoption has been increasing rapidly with many industries opting for cloud migration in order to reduce any issues with their technology platforms. A huge number of housing providers are adopting cloud-based systems and cloud skills are currently in high demand. What other job specialisms do you think are in high demand? Feel free to share this post and let us know @housingtechjobs .
It may come as no surprise that women are still significantly underrepresented in the technology workforce. According to a recent study by PwC, only 15% of people working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) roles in the UK are female and only 5% of leadership positions in the technology industry are held by women. Why is there still such a gender imbalance and what can we do to address it? During last month’s Housing Technology 2019 conference, we sat down for a discussion about women in tech chaired by Holly Rafique (Head of Digital at #techmums) with Kathryn Downs (Director of Technology & Transformation at Midland Heart) and Joanna Sedley-Burke (Managing Director at Sovereign Business Integration Group) in the first in our new series of Housing Technology in Focus videos. We posed important questions including: How is the sector is doing in terms of numbers of women within IT teams? What initiatives do you think employers could implement to get more women into tech teams? Encouragement is really important for women to get into technology, but is there a right and a wrong way to encourage more women? Do you have any tips or advice for women who want to get into tech? You can watch the full video below. Please like, share and subscribe for more videos in the Housing Technology in Focus series.
David Walker, Head of Property at Hyperoptic, takes us through a typical day at work. I wake up in ‘the project,’ which is the pet name for my flat in Notting Hill, currently being subjected to extension and refurbishment. The first priority is a strong black coffee and I am quickly on my regular walking commute to my company headquarters, which are close to Hammersmith station. Hyperoptic is the UK’s largest gigabit broadband provider and delivers the country’s fastest broadband speeds, of up to 1Gbps (1,000 megabits per second), which is at least 20 times faster than the UK average. We work with property owners, developers and professionals, designing and installing our dedicated fibre infrastructure to new buildings and existing developments. We work with 150+ developers and are a trusted partner of many housing providers, including A2Dominion, Hyde Group, Catalyst, Genesis Housing and Notting Hill Housing Trust. We’re also working with 50 councils across the UK to supply connectivity to their social housing stock. During my 25-minute walk, I always keep an eye out for new hoardings and cranes along the way. It’s always good to get in early so spotting a new development can become a good opportunity for my sales colleagues. I am in the office by 9am and I head straight to the coffee counter at the local WeWork office, which is next to my company headquarters. The sales and marketing team have recently relocated here as we’ve outgrown the office space next door. Once I have had my second caffeine fix, I plug in my laptop at one of the hot-desks and quickly scan my emails, being sure to highlight any urgent enquiries or client/team support that needs addressing. My first meeting is with our new chief technology and information officer, Pascal Koster. He is part of a new executive team, which our CEO appointed to ensure that we are all well supported as the company grows. The meeting went well – Pascal was particularly impressed with the smart home projects we’re working on and the future-proofing that we can enable for clients in the 5G arena for new builds and regeneration areas. I then head out for a light lunch with a key developer client of mine. We’ve been working together for over three years and have built an excellent relationship. He offers some insights into both the UK and Spanish markets where he is active. The conversation is on a wide range of topics from Led Zeppelin and schooling through to an Openreach deployment of new ducting infrastructure and the opportunities arising from Brexit. He is genuinely excited by the dampening of market sentiment and the prospect of securing more sites to feed his business. The penny has finally dropped for developers; they simply can’t build units without day-one connectivity and still maintain customer satisfaction. Developers want to protect their five-star ratings for customer satisfaction, and if a customer has broadband straight away they’re less likely to go around looking at any scuff marks on ceilings or squeaky hinges. We’re the only broadband provider in the country that measures itself on day-one connectivity; we have achieved over 96 per cent success over the last three years. After my meeting with Pascal, I head to a new client meeting in the City. It looks good – there are three new projects which, although relatively small, can offer Hyperoptic an opportunity to work with a new AV consultant and a world-class architect, in particular because we thrive on expanding our knowledge of the day-two systems (i.e. what gets connected onto our infrastructure). The ‘proptech’ market has changed hugely since we started in 2011 – most people now understand the language of ‘smart buildings’ and ‘smart homes’. The pace of technology continues unabated and at the heart is our new infrastructure, which will serve it in its many future guises. I am seeing developers, owners and managers to find some new and cutting-edge integrated systems and apps that have the power to revolutionise lives, such as remote monitoring for dementia patients. I head back to the office for the regular weekly sales and marketing meeting. There is exciting news for the planning of the next financial year with more team members, more marketing and the hybrid vigour that three new board members are already bringing to the Hyperoptic brand. 2018 was a very busy year and we grew massively. We now power over half a million homes and businesses across the UK with our full-fibre service, and we are on track to pass two million homes by 2021. Over 160,000 social housing properties have access, or are about to be connected, to our full-fibre network. David Walker is Head of Property at Hyperoptic. If you'd like to share your housing sector experience, all you need to do is get in touch at 
Phil Moss, Chief Technology Officer, takes us through a typical day at Procurement for Housing. I’m more of an early morning person, so my day starts around 6am when I make a quick coffee and leave my home in Lancashire. Depending on my schedule, I’ll either turn left and drive to our office in Manchester where our software development team is based – they are the ‘techies’ working on the software behind our procurement frameworks. But if I’m meeting the people who use our technology – PfH’s sales team and account managers – then I turn right and head to our main office in Warrington. Where ever I am, everything stops at 10.30am. The technology team (that’s six of us) takes part in a daily ‘scrum’ call where everyone across all of our sites answers three questions: we want to know what they did yesterday; what their plans are for today; and what blockers they’re facing. Today’s scrum focused on automating categorisation and how we can ensure that lowest-level transactional data is routinely classified to detect if a member is spending too much on a certain product. As the largest spend aggregator in the UK social housing sector, PfH collects a lot of this transactional data. We manage over a million invoices a year – that’s £250 million of spending. Our aim is to use this unique position to provide housing-specific insights to landlords. Technology, in particular machine learning, is a key part of achieving this. Machine learning is a type of artificial intelligence. AI uses computer programmes to think and learn like humans and machine learning is one of those programmes. It’s all about identifying patterns in historical data – algorithms learn those patterns and then forecast future trends. Historically, the housing sector hasn’t been great at managing data or categorising products – and this has led to a delay in the adoption of AI and smart analytics. There is very little granular detail in the sector, so it’s been hard to introduce machine learning for predictive analysis, or to compare spending data with public data sets to see if a housing provider is paying too much for, for example, kitchen refurbishments. The scrum meeting today focused on tackling this problem. Since I began at PfH around a year ago, I’ve used technology to put data at the heart of everything we do. Every single line of pricing, transactional and CRM information goes into our data warehouse where it is used for analysis and reporting. On a monthly basis, this data warehouse examines 300,000 lines of spending data from more than 900 housing providers. For the last six months, our team has been refining the quality of this data and developing technologies, bespoke to the social housing sector, which we can use to categorise information and provide members with intuition around their procurement spending. This data analysis was taken to a new level when PfH bought Valueworks. The system was specially designed for the social housing sector and it provides a collaborative, real-time view across all spending data so that housing providers can more effectively track prices, control costs and improve quality. The software enables us to group our members’ transactional data into specific programmes of work and then identify whether they are spending too much on certain products compared with their peers, whether they are purchasing several types of one product unnecessarily or whether there are better value alternatives available. After today’s scrum meeting, I meet with PfH’s six-strong account management team who liaise directly with our members on a day-to-day basis. One of the digital initiatives we’ve introduced recently is VFM reporting. This analytics service gives members insight into their spending over a particular period, highlighting saving opportunities. Reports are created using data dissected by our Microsoft PowerBI software and account managers present the reports to members. I’m meeting the team to take them through the latest capabilities of the system. Today, we talk about how the reports can tackle ‘product drift’, when an organisation spends less on the core products that PfH has negotiated reduced rates for, leading to larger bills. I also explained that VfM reports can pinpoint patterns such as a member that is spending more on a particular product compared with its expenditure last year. After lunch at my desk, I rush across the M62 to a meeting at Liverpool University’s School of Electrical Engineering, Electronics and Computer Science. PfH runs a knowledge transfer partnership (KTP) with the university to explore how machine learning can help housing providers’ procurement activities and I’m meeting our KTP associate, Dr David Hamilton. KTPs help businesses like PfH to innovate by linking them with research organisations like Liverpool University. They enable companies to bring in the latest skills (David has a PhD in distributed algorithms and machine learning is his specialist area) to deliver a specific, strategic innovation project. For us, that innovation project is showing housing providers the potential of their data and helping them to manage and use it in the right way. Our KTP is coming to an end and today I’m speaking to David about the next steps, particularly around using predictive analysis to learn from asset management invoice data and how we can link this data to price indices to show housing providers the best time to buy certain products. Back in Warrington, I meet Steve Malone, PfH’s managing director. We are discussing the latest smart procurement technologies to use with our members. Data from technologies such as IoT thermostats, window sensors or smart boiler parts is already recognising ‘failure in advance’ and this could help housing providers switch from reactive repairs to planned maintenance. Machine learning could be used to recommend comparison products, such as a boiler that is cheaper, has a longer warranty and a smaller carbon footprint. Housing providers could also use ‘emotional AI’ to analyse social media mentions about suppliers and combine this with data on contract performance, legal disputes or redundancies to build risk profiles. My day finishes around 5.30pm when I head home. If there is enough daylight remaining, I might jump on the bike and enjoy the Lancashire countryside before an early night. In reality, I probably spend much of the evening negotiating with my two children to convince them it’s bedtime! Phil Moss is the chief technology officer for Procurement for Housing. If you'd like to share your housing sector experience, all you need to do is get in touch at
George Schaar, Head of Research & Development at Stratis Security, talks to us about his 20 year career in security. I’ve worked in security for more than 20 years, protecting the homes of celebrities and the rich as well as developing technology to secure homes and housing estates from Ipswich to Ireland. For the past three years, I’ve been working with our specialist team from our technology innovation base in Suffolk. There really is a melting pot of the latest smart homes and internet of things solutions here, with other companies such as Facebook, Cisco and Nokia also on the same site. My current focus is progressing the development of a secure app which allows clients to monitor camera surveillance in their properties remotely. Clients can also get alarms alerting them on their phones if windows or doors have been broken or tampered with. Fingerprint and facial recognition Our solutions include fingerprint identification technology, which is nonintrusive, fast and efficient and can secure large areas over many levels. For example, entrances and exit points to lifts and stairwells, through to individual rooms, cupboards and flats. Stratis has also developed facial recognition for entry systems, with our cameras scanning the iris and matching faces from a prestored database of images. Used in conjunction with video surveillance, we have significantly tightened security and improved accountability at a major residential block in Ipswich, where residents now show their faces at the front entrance to gain entry. I never thought I’d be implementing technology that first inspired me from Blade Runner in the early 80s!   We have also helped combat a range of issues at two blocks of flats in Ipswich, including rats in ground floor bin-stores as a result of fly-tipping, as well as graffiti and non-residents, who would gather outside and in reception areas, gaining access to the blocks and moving freely around the building. In one of the blocks, we installed facial recognition cameras and key fobs, with card access to lifts and stairwells, making it possible to prohibit access as well as track individuals and only allow access to designated areas.   Social housing applications For social housing providers, our technologies have many applications, such as if a tenant has lost or forgotten their key, or for vulnerable residents in extra-care schemes or sheltered accommodation, allowing their relatives, friends or carers to gain access. We were at the CIH conference in Manchester earlier this year and are now talking with a range of housing providers about how to deploy our solutions as part of their business transformation programmes and their wider smart home and internet of things strategies.   Lasers No longer being the exclusive province of science fiction, long-range lasers are an effective and flexible way to monitor and protect your property. Lasers can be set up as an invisible fence around an office, for example, or in areas that are targeted for high-value materials, such as a church roof or to protect copper piping. Any tampering to the laser triggers an alert, which is sent back as a high-quality audio file that can be monitored remotely.   Destruction day My team and I are currently working towards ISO accreditations. With the impact of the Grenfell tragedy, we have also developed fire safety and reinforced doors. At the time of writing, we are arranging a ‘destruction day’ on September 26 at our base in Martlesham Heath in Suffolk where we have challenged the 4,000 staff at Adastral Park (home also of BT’s innovation centre) and invited them to break through our reinforced doors with sledge hammers, angle grinders and cordless drills. So confident are we of the resilience of our reinforced doors, we have also invited Britain’s strongest man, Eddie Hall, along to pit his strength against our doors. George Schaar is the head of research and development at Stratis Security  
Work is certainly varied for Jenny Shorter, a senior consultant at IT services firm Sovereign Business Integration Group, who revisits a typical week at work. I’ve seen a great deal of change in the housing sector. Mostly, it now requires a far more commercially-minded approach than it did when I first joined the sector in the 1990s. I know that I have to be far more timely in my pitches to clients and in responding to their requests for support and always mindful of the return to be gained and how quickly this will be realised. Overseeing two main housing client accounts as well as a range of other business-critical implementations means that much of my time is spent client-side or working with suppliers on the client’s behalf, and while mobile working can mean being on the go a lot of the time, I really like the opportunity to be hands-on. Tower Hamlets Community Housing and East End Homes, two of my on-going client accounts, are both well-established London-based housing providers that have longstanding relationships with Sovereign, where we manage their IT provision including support for their housing management systems. I recently visited Orchard’s offices in Newcastle, immersing myself in their products and meeting new and existing contacts to deepen my understanding of their products and who to go to in order to troubleshoot or fact-find for my clients. Managing suppliers for housing clients It makes sense to have a close relationship with the suppliers to our market in order to broaden my understanding of their vision, product pipeline and so on; it’s a great way for us to help our clients to get the very most out of the relationship with the supplier as well as benchmark their products against the competition. It can also help with any troubleshooting issues, playing the role of the ‘honest broker’ to help to move things along and keep lines of communication open on both sides. My job is to step in with technology suppliers wherever I’m needed, either on behalf of our client or the Sovereign implementation team (some of whom are wholly client-side), either negotiating the sale, arranging product demonstrations or project managing the implementation itself (for example, just last week I was working on a new Promaster asset management software implementation for a client). The project management role is full on and typically involves setting up meetings to agree the way forward or fine-tune the client roadmap, procuring the product, booking implementation resources, training staff who will use the product, and then chasing any issues that need to be escalated. I’ve just finished a four-hour session with Golding Homes after running a requirements gathering exercise with the customer services team there. The switch from an inner London housing provider to a Kent-based one resulted in very different requirements, no doubt due to the different demographic groups each serves, but they each had interesting suggestions about things that they currently do manually that could be automated. It’s great to work with an organisation that recognises that there is work to do with the culture within the organisation as part of a digital transformation project. Any organisation can buy new software and implement it, but if your people don’t have the right mindset or aren’t supported to have the right mindset, the service won’t improve and no return on investment will be achieved. Consultant with a housing background Working with housing providers, in common with any other industry, it’s a great help to have directly relevant industry experience. Some people will embrace change, while for others, there’s a vested interest in being wary. I’m not a standard IT consultant but instead someone who has worked in the housing sector for more than 14 years. It puts me in a strong position because clients are assured that I know their world, their challenges and speak their language. It can really help to get over some of the hurdles that are often faced when implementing change. As well as keeping an eye on our clients’ progress, I am also keen to ensure that Sovereign is hitting the mark. I’ve been working on a project recently that involves reviewing a client’s IT lifecycle. It has provided me with enormous insight into our processes and procedures and how we can continue to improve these. Working in the housing sector As I look back over 20 years of working in the housing sector, there are two key ‘takeaways’ for me: Firstly, the social housing sector is so much more budget-driven than it ever was, but I always make sure my clients are aware that cheap can be more expensive in the long run. It’s great that we’ve moved away from a ‘cost-focused’ decision model, but I always like to make sure my clients make the right decision considering the whole of their organisational needs and plan for future investment. What you think looks good on paper today could turn out to be more expensive to implement in the long run. If for some reason, it doesn’t go according to plan, you are likely to spend a great deal more putting it right. Secondly, the upside is that customers are really driving the impetus for so much change in the housing sector, especially when it comes to technology. If you can’t communicate with your customers effectively, or be responsive when they need repairs, maintenance and so on, this just costs the organisation, in the long run. Housing providers have woken up to the fact that there is more choice for tenants and so, if there’s a better service to be had, some tenants could potentially go elsewhere. They don’t always have to take what’s on their doorstep. Jenny Shorter is a senior consultant for housing IT services at Sovereign Business Integration Group.
Mark Elias, IT Infrastructure Manager, takes us through a typical day at Coastal Housing. If I’m feeling lazy, my day will start around 8am with black coffee and a mailbox of backup and maintenance notifications. If I’m not feeling lazy, I’ll slope in around 9am after being good and going to the gym, by which time the notifications will have been attended to by our lead support analyst, Mat Giles, who will also have changed the tapes in our LTO rack. Yes, tapes. Mercifully, we are in the process of moving to cloud backup as part of our transition to becoming fully-hosted with a managed service provider (which if you came to my talk at the Housing Technology 2018, you will have heard all about…). Once we’re both happy with the overnight tasks, Mat and I usually discuss any interesting Freshservice support tickets. Although this helpdesk application is ITIL-aligned, Coastal is a ‘systems thinking’ organisation, therefore we have a duty to look at the demand on our service through Vanguard’s revealing spectacles, and this drives us to handle tickets in a specific way (if you want to hear more about this, please get in touch). By now, the rest of the team will be in, and what a team it is. I feel very lucky to share my day with such dedicated and talented people (cringe-worthy but true). Amy Kelly works with Mat as a support analyst, Kathryn Banfield as an infrastructure analyst and Rhian Waygood as a business analyst, and joining her in the business analysts’ circle are Kevin Hedges and Pete Warren, and then Shane Griffiths works alongside us all as the head of IT; note the absence of hierarchical phrasing: we do genuinely work alongside one another. Being a pretentious sort, I love to write aphorisms and when I coined ‘a team ascends to excellence through democratic influence’, I felt truly moved to think of our team and how we evidence democratic influence every day: listening to each other in gatherings, allowing everyone to suggest, to feedback, to question and to challenge in safety. It really works. With my review of Freshservice over and until any tickets come my way, I’ll chat with whoever might need a conversation before starting their day proper, and then move on to Asana, the application in which we manage and collaborate on all IT strategy projects and tasks, picking up on where I left things the day before. Asana helps us achieve complete visibility of all aspects of strategic delivery, from current progress on known work, through to future potential evolutions and (how to phrase it?) diversions! It’s key for an IT team to have both oversight and evidence of existing workloads at their fingertips. Everything must be visible and reportable. We strive to pour as much data and thinking as we can into the application: pipeline work, knowledge sharing, live-meeting captures, conference blogging, professional development reflections, interesting technology articles and so on. Both Freshservice and Asana have transformed how we work, and how the business engages with us, especially as demand on our ‘ability to implement’ increases. More and more, we are seeing the potential for decisions on products to be made outside the IT team, often with a quick meeting and a credit card, only then for the real work of integration to fall to IT afterwards. By being transparent about our availability, we help the business achieve what matters in a realistic and timely manner. If I haven’t emailed or spoken to our MSP project manager yet, it’s very likely I will have a question or update to provide by now. We have a conference call every Monday morning and while this sets us up nicely for the week’s tasks, other things will often happen or priorities rotate, so keeping on top of fluctuating obstacles and objectives is both important and fun. By the time this article is in print, we should have migrated our Hyper-V server estate to VMware using Zerto and have a substantial number of staff using Horizon View on laptops full-time, which coincides nicely with Coastal’s ambitious office re-design project, enabling staff to work anywhere while disruptive works are carried out. Several coffees later (I’m trying to cut down, again), I’ll dip into HipChat, an instant-messaging app implemented by Rhian. We try hard not to email each other, so IM allows us to waffle, gossip, ask and help without saturating Exchange. When we aren’t having private conversations, we’ll chat in specific shared rooms, keeping subjects tightly organised. At this point, readers might be thinking ‘Why not use Teams or Skype?’. We don’t have Office 365 on our horizon just yet because it’s very attractive to us to look beyond the behemoths to help us achieve our objectives, and HipChat fits perfectly with that philosophy. Maybe it’s something to do with having Techhub on our doorstep; the prospect of working with start-ups and off-radar innovators to help realise Coastal-tailored aims, versus settling for generic, cookie-cutter platforms, has great appeal. I met with Techhub’s manager for lunch recently and we discussed the importance of looking to blockchain as an enabler of trustless transactions and of individuals owning their own data – very exciting areas to consider. By now it’ll be lunchtime and if I haven’t been pulled into or arranged a gathering myself in the morning (which is rare), I’ll probably be in one at some point during the afternoon, so as I walk around Swansea city centre I’ll be thinking in advance of what clever things I can say. Or if I don’t go out, I’ll hop onto one of the kitchen benches and browse LinkedIn or post poems to Twitter while munching on something unhealthy. If I have time, I’ll reread passages from the excellent and highly-recommended book ‘What Poetry Brings to Business’. When I have time I arrange one-to-one meetings with colleagues across the business, especially those I either don’t know very well or perform some esoteric housing role I should know more about. If I have one arranged, I’ll revisit my hoard of coaching materials and pick out an exercise or conversation strategy to explore in the session. It’s extremely important for IT people to have healthy interpersonal skills; being able to communicate, listen, process and perceive without being dependent on prompt closure, or unambiguous apprehension of a situation, can allow, in time, for a true unearthing of what is really going on. Simply having conversations, while being alert to what is happening beyond the exchange of words, helps develop that capability. I will most likely have had technical conversations with team members throughout the day, as I pull in their expertise and they pull in mine. Everyone has their own projects and it’s great to get involved a little in each. Kathryn, to pick one project for example, is busy deploying Aerohive wi-fi across our schemes and drop-ins; Mat and Amy are busy deploying 2FA-protected VDI desktops across a range of mobile devices while simultaneously managing Freshservice; Rhian is busy implementing PanConnect and maintaining QlikView, and has recently completed another phenomenally successful rent increases/ year-end procedure; Kevin is busy embedding systems thinking; Pete is busy interrogating and reporting on our data; and Shane is busy managing budgets, strategies, contracts and us. Being part of all this great work is brilliant. Towards the end of the day, I’ll re-read any important emails I’ve sent and updates I’ve made to any projects, drink more coffee and think about what’s happening tomorrow. Mark Elias is the IT infrastructure manager at Coastal Housing
Nicola Brown, Sales Director at ROCC, chats to us about her 20 year career in the housing sector. I find talking to housing providers about revolutionising the repairs service with ROCC exciting; I’ve been in the social housing sector for the last 20 years and I still start each day with enthusiasm at the prospect of discussing innovations and new ways of working with clients. I enjoy working in the housing sector; more and more work, post-Grenfell, is about the detail of regulations. ROCC does detail and data incredibly well. We keep the details of every job, transaction line detail, as well as stock records and job costings, which can be really powerful in terms of compliance. The significant savings we make with clients, which we have seen reinvested into communities, is really heart-warming. Core to ROCC’s philosophy is putting something back into our local and wider communities. We support various projects including Brighton Housing Trust in their ‘First Base’ initiative, which offers support to the homeless community; we support this by giving time, fundraising and work experience. Career beginnings I completed my law degree at Durham in 1996. I then went through what was a unique scheme with Pareto Law in Altrincham, which focused on sales recruitment, bringing recruitment and in-work training together in a package for their clients. I then joined Raven Computers in Bradford in 1997. Raven are a ‘Microsoft house’. I learnt so much about hardware; I could build a computer and I also learnt about software, licensing, financial management systems, the internet and web-hosting services. First and foremost, my strengths were sales. I made my first ‘solution’ sale, when someone gave me a problem and I had to fix it; a mobile working solution in a refrigerated, operational environment, which was a challenge back in 1997! Starting at ROCC In 1998, I saw an advert for pre-sales support with ROCC at its Rochdale office. I got the job and was out doing software demos with the now managing director of ROCC, Chris Potter. My skills were more commercially focused than the technical side. I became national accounts manager for clients ROCC continues to work with today. I became senior account manager and was later promoted to Sales Director. Career highlights The changes in the housing sector over the past few years have been enormous; it’s hardly recognisable to the old industry 20 years ago. Everyone is more tech savvy, not least with the internet of things and greater commercialisation of IT. Winning large-scale contracts which bring real benefits to our customers has been a highlight. I have learnt a lot about bringing existing systems together, as well as fulfilling tenders from the start to completion of the process. I really enjoy networking, meeting new people and discussing their challenges and developing new ideas and ways of working. It’s really satisfying to see a solution introduced into an organisation which improves the way people view their jobs and allows them to focus on different aspects of the role. Outside work I juggle full-time working with family life and wouldn’t be able to do it without the support of family and friends. I have two energetic children, aged ten and six, who keep both my husband Lloyd and I incredibly busy. When I do get time to myself, I enjoy reading and am loving the current gin-bar culture! I have always volunteered; aged 23, I was the youngest member of the board of visitors at HMP Leeds. My legal background made me passionate about social injustice and I am proud to have volunteered for eight years. Since then, my volunteering roles have revolved largely around family life with the NCT and, of course, the PTA, with the odd spot of fundraising with clients such as the firewalk with First Choice Homes Oldham for TOG Mind. Life is certainly not routine or dull! Nicola Brown is the sales director at ROCC.  
To underpin long-term sustainability, support growth and build resilience against an increasingly difficult operating environment, Thrive Homes has implemented a game-changing transformation of their service model in partnership with Campbell Tickell. The case for change started with a desire to create a service model that engenders self-reliance, improves services and reduces costs. And a model which explores what could be learned from commercial service provision. In defining the case for change the Thrive Board and Executive recognised that only a full system change would deliver the necessary scale of transformation within the timescale required. The target service model is of low-cost housing provision where rental income provides great value via low-touch digital access for the majority of customer interactions, with staff resources increasingly focused on carefully targeted sustainment and intervention offers. A reset in the relationship with customers is required to create new mutual expectations and address the negative behaviours that drive-up costs.  This reset requires fresh thinking about how the relationship with customers is framed with extensive changes to what customers see and experience as part of a demand reduction strategy. It is equally important to consider organisational design and cultural and behavioural change. Whilst this scale and interdependency of the changes obviously represented a high degree of risk to the organisation, there was a recognition that only by building a new service model from the ground up could the greatest benefits for customers and Thrive be realised. From a Blueprint prepared by CT consultants working within the organisation, and endorsed by the Thrive Board in July 2016, a programme of transformation is already realising the vision: The Thrive Deal: A concise set of Offer and Ask statements replace layers of policy, handbooks and leaflets, and are explicit in setting out the meaning of tenancy terms and conditions, whist also straightforwardly demonstrating compliance with consumer standards.  These Offer and Ask statements redress the balance of tenant responsibilities and demand on the service, by, for example, making clear that tenants must resolve low-level ASB issues such as noise nuisance, and by clarifying the range of repairs that are the responsibility of the customer. A set of charges are applied for delivering services that fall outside the core offer or are the tenant’s responsibility and for recovering the costs of rectification work. A straightforward customer journey mapping approach, led by staff, translates the Offer and Ask statements into new business processes. Going Digital: Improving on a previous low-level digital presence, customers can book and manage appointments directly for a range of Easyfix repairs (potentially 40% of demand) through the myThrive App. New customer sign-up will be managed through a bespoke self-service portal, with an application gateway that requires nominees to submit proof of identity and affordability, and an induction gateway that ensures they are fully aware of their responsibilities as tenants. In this way the expectations of new customers are actively shaped beginning with the first point of contact. Scheduling the work of all field teams through the mobile working platform, combined with multiskilling (inspections) will enable the deployment of a flexible and efficient ’call-off’ style delivery model. Further improvements to service and reductions in cost-to-serve are planned as our model matures. Home Plan: puts the customer centre stage in the management of their home. From undertaking simple repairs to understanding what constitutes careless damage, a refreshed Home Standard manages the expectations of new customers. Using photographic inventory management, adopted from the private sector, and being piloted with new customers, over a period all customers will be on a rolling four-year cycle of inspections (aligning with an 8-year fixed-term tenancy cycle for new customers). This evidence-based approach will inform both component renewal decisions and tenancy interventions and will shape customer expectations of the service. Organisational Design: A bold and simplified staffing structure was required to best support the profound changes in service delivery mechanisms. This simpler model maximises empowerment at all levels and supports the new approach to customer journeys. A programme of cultural change supports adaptation to new ways of working and responds to new levels of expectation. Roles are more generic, generating savings from the greater flexibility this provides. Thrive has already realised an 18% reduction in headcount and year on year savings of £247k from the new model and will deliver further savings arising from operational efficiencies and reducing demand. The approach is scalable and so responds well to growth opportunities. Measuring what Matters: Thrive has radically simplified the way it measures its effectiveness and customer contentment, gone are the how quickly did we do it type measures, that create perverse incentives and restrict customer choice, replaced with measuring a choose the time that suites you and we will get the job done approach. In measuring contentment, customers are simply asked “was the service you received – good or not good enough?” Realisation and Outcomes: The Thrive Deal business case defines a target operational model with associated return on investment and performance outcomes. Thrive will fully realise this vision over the next three years and a Value Realisation Framework ensures the Board can track outcomes. By transforming in totality its offer to customers and what it asks in return, its delivery model and organisational design, Thrive Homes is now positioned to sustain itself, grow quickly, and meet the ongoing challenges of the operating environment. Whilst the outcomes are tailored to Thrive Homes, the Blueprint for this approach is transferable and could work for others. What lessons did we learn along the way? The importance of: Commitment on what is inevitably a very demanding journey The value of a trusting, collaborative relationship between client and consultants that enables ambitious ideas to become reality Flexibility on the journey when things don’t work as originally envisaged Securing and maintaining Board support and strategic leadership to take the bold steps, in full understanding of the benefits and risks. Authors: Elspeth Mackenzie, Chief Executive, Thrive Homes ; Alistair Sharpe-Neal, Associate, Campbell Tickell and Jon Slade, Senior Consultant, Campbell Tickell
The housing sector is undergoing significant changes, having to develop new solutions for housing and homelessness issues, catering for the regulatory and welfare reforms, managing demand which is greater than supply and now emergency health and safety reviews. These challenges are having a direct impact on traditional operating procedures. When solving these issues, the housing sector relies on a highly-talented workforce to identify the problems, assess their impacts, and design new operating practices, create solid project plans and deliver change. HR plays a pivotal role in managing talent, engaging the workforce and running the talent supply. In order to carry out their day-to-day role, HR teams typically rely on sophisticated systems to handle much of the drudgery, such as transactions, calculations, alerts, approvals and reporting, so they’re free to focus on the areas that add real value. But ask your HR team if they feel supported and have enough time to carry out the workload they have been tasked with, the answer is almost certain to be a resounding “No!”. So what went wrong and how can you fix it? When you and your colleagues went through the procurement process, you carefully assessed the capabilities of different HR systems and selected the solution that was most aligned to your current and future business requirements. Clever HR systems are a reality, they do exist, and they are capable of taking the pain out of your job. However, by the time you get to week one of your implementation, your product knowledge is usually out of date. These systems are clever because they are in continuous development. When you go through an implementation of a new HR system, you design the build with everything you need in order to go live. All those additional benefits you are going to gain, all those new features you saw in demonstrations, you get to apply them, click your fingers and make your life easier. Well, it’s not quite that simple. It’s a long and challenging process. Think back to the end of your last implementation; how many other things had you planned to adopt after go live, yet how many of those did you actually achieve? The fact is that life gets in the way; we are all very busy people. After an exhausting implementation, when you get to go live, your HR team deserves a period of ‘back to normal’ but the demands of HR and payroll never disappear. Instead of training, your team is back to the grind. The HR team will have to discover the new functionality, they will also have to embed the new processes and support organisation-wide changes. In addition, your system supplier will also release new functionalities, often several times a year. Some organisations will employ a system administrator who is dedicated to continuing the configuration and roll-out of the system’s new features. Others will create ‘super users’ within HR and payroll who are upskilled to be able to configure new features. So why aren’t you fully benefiting from your HR system? There are three common causes: Since the last recession, we have seen a decline in system administrator roles. This may have fixed a short-term budget problem but it’s consequently costing organisations money because they are not maximising their return on investment. Super users are brilliant but they’re already in a full-time role and have implemented many changes over recent years (such as legislation reform, pension changes, talent management, employee engagement and handling data). When do these super users get the time to review new system features and implement them? The answer is that they don’t. People leave organisations for all sorts of reasons. It’s an unfortunate reality that you lose system expertise through attrition. That knowledge is often lost, either through inability or through organisational unwillingness. Do organisations stop evolving because they have lost HR system knowledge or because super users have busy workloads? Of course not; they can’t. They must change to sustain revenue targets and growth. What happens when changes affect your workforce? Changes come thick and fast; terms and conditions, new ways of calculating pay, new pension rules and so on. They are not optional and they all require their implementation by strict deadlines. If you don’t have the system expertise to configure the changes in your HR system, the HR team will end up manually processing the changes outside your system. Now you are in the dreaded ‘chicken and egg’ HR management situation. Your job is even busier because you are managing the employee-related changes manually, reducing the time available to configure your clever HR system to automate the processing for you. As you are processing manually, you also need to add further checks to eliminate any risk of human error. This becomes a vicious circle. When you selected your HR system, how many functional requirements did you identify – 50, 100, 200, or more? And how many supporting services requirements did you identify – 10, 15, 20? So how do you get the best from your HR system? If employing a dedicated system administrator or a super user with ring-fenced admin time isn’t commercially viable, here are two ways to solve your problem: Invest in an internal upgrade process. Bring together representatives from HR, recruitment, learning and development, payroll, and people managers. Give them time to review the release documentation then meet up and agree a combined approach. Secure resources and build your implementation plan while making sure you allocate a realistic amount of time to the configuration. You may need internal communications to reach all of your colleagues, make sure everyone knows what is happening, when, why and how this affects them. Talk to your software supplier. They can provide HR and payroll industry experts who will help you to get the most out of your system and work with you to introduce best practice, building operationally efficient processing, saving you time and improving accuracy. The chicken and egg HR management situation can be resolved, but it takes self-reflection, determination and clarity of purpose. Author: Julie Lock is the service development director at MHR.
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