Digital Housing Week: How coronavirus is affecting housing

Throughout this week, Inside Housing magazine has been providing a series of webinars offering debate, learning and innovative thinking on how housing providers are responding to present-day challenges and preparing for future demands.

One of the webinars focused on the ways in which Covid-19 has accelerated the move to agile working for housing associations (HAs) and council staff, and how housing providers can tackle the  mental health and wellbeing issues experienced by staff and residents.

Responding to the new normal

Anita Khan, from Settle Housing Association in Hertfordshire explained how her HA responded to lockdown by mobilising its continuity plan. Settle’s first responsibility is to engage with and support its customers, and once the plan was enacted, agile behaviour took root.

Anita described how automated contacts with HA customers enabled it to identify which people were in isolation or shielding. At the same time, methods of enforcement had to change, as the UK government banned evictions. Anita explained that once the HA stopped sending messages warning customers of enforcement of the rules on rent payments, the residents started to engage more positively with it.

Working practices at Settle also changed substantially, with a move away from a face-to-face culture towards remote working. Anita described the process of change HA staff experienced, from relief at not having to make long commutes, followed by fatigue from too many video conferences, and more recently recalibrating to a situation that works.

Agile working in the age of coronavirus

Tony Morrison, an agile working consultant, described the measures taken by Newham Council  to modernise the way the local authority worked. He explained that in 2019, Newham got a new leadership team, and deployed a plan to make the first investment in IT for eight years. The aim was to make sure everyone was mobile by default, and to pivot a local authority with 14.5 million pieces of paper towards a paperless organisation. The plan was already under way when the lockdown was imposed.

Immediately, the council had to adapt to the new situation. Around three thousand members of staff didn’t have effective ways of working from home, and so the council identified who most needed assistance, and delivered laptops and mobile devices to these 500 individuals.

At same time, the council deployed Office 365 and migrated Skype for Business, and enabled staff to communicate with customers using Zoom.

Newham has now rolled out a further 2000 devices to staff, and it’s clear that the lockdown experience has demonstrated the possibilities of remote working.

The council is already looking to the post-pandemic period when it might not require so much expensive office space. Tony explained that now would not be the right time to consider disposal of offices because so many other organisations are in the same position. Instead, Newham is looking at alternative uses for its property estate, including cohabiting with other organisations, pop-up spaces and conversion to affordable housing.

Housing on the frontline of a mental health crisis

There’s now little doubt that the coronavirus pandemic is having a significant effect on mental health. With the loss of lives and livelihoods, and the growing demands for support from already overburdened health services, the fallout from the pandemic is likely to be on an unprecedented scale.

During the Inside Housing webinar, consultant psychiatrist Raj Persaud talked about the unique role housing can play in tackling mental health issues among staff and residents.

He noted that housing staff may be among the first to identify signs of mental illness among residents, because fewer people have been attending GP surgeries during the pandemic.

He suggested that housing staff in this position should raise such issues with community mental health teams. He also highlighted the importance of contacting NHS services by letter. Because letters are legal documents, health professionals are more likely to pay attention to issues raised in this way.

Raj highlighted a key issue housing staff can focus on when dealing with people who have mental health problems:

“Too often, the aim has been to concentrate on the causes of mental illness, but that misses out on the coping skills people have used in the past. The right skills can make a person super resilient, and so it’s always useful to engage in conversation about coping skills people have used for previous life events.”

All of the speakers in the webinar stressed the importance of the human factor in tackling the challenges raised by the coronavirus pandemic. Raj Persaud noted that, in the absence of the water cooler, the pub or the staff room, physical locations have to be recreated virtually. Doing this may feel clunky at first, but even if things don’t feel right, housing staff and others should persist until they find a method that suits them, and enables people to feel they are less isolated.

Final thoughts

One thing is certain: post-Covid will be very different from pre-Covid. But this webinar demonstrated that housing providers are embracing the fluidity of this situation. In an age of thinking differently, those who consider alternative solutions to the problems of the present may be better equipped for the challenges of the future.


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