The coronavirus crisis has made a great many things harder (or even impossible), but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the years working with our customers it’s that every challenge is also an opportunity.
When lockdown came, face to face meet-ups were halted, workshops couldn’t go ahead and our annual Customer Conference had to be cancelled. It could have spelled dark days for customer involvement activity, but neither we nor our customers were going to let that happen.
As early adopters of Together with Tenants we have long been advocates of meaningful customer involvement and believe that this is not something which can take a back seat during difficult times. Forced to think differently, we tried new ways of reaching people to make sure they knew we were still here and listening.
From the beginning of lockdown our Regional Housing Officers and Housing Outreach Workers, usually busy out in housing schemes, were making calls to all of our tenants and shared owners to check that they were able to lockdown safely (and shield if necessary). As well as thinking about their homes, staff also helped customers to register for priority supermarket services and arrange for home deliveries of prescriptions. Checking in with everyone meant that we could identify those most at risk of isolation or worsening mental health due to lockdown, and stay in touch throughout by phone, text, emails and video-calls.
We turned our attention to making sure that we were still providing our services to the high standards our customers have come to expect. While in-home routine repairs were put on hold until it was safe, we weren’t going to be dragging our feet in other areas.
When our offices closed for lockdown, our IT team sprang into action to make sure that our Customer Services team were set up and able to respond from home so we were always available to people who needed us. This was supported by our online portal MyAdvance that (as well as giving customers another way to get in touch) allowed them to access digital copies of rent statements and other account information, meaning they didn’t need to worry about how many pairs of hands an envelope had been passed through.
With in-person meetings off the table, the Advance Customer Partnership had its first virtual meeting with customers joining from around the country. As Chris, a shared owner in Worcestershire said “It’s different but it’s exciting! It’s a shame we can’t all meet, but it’s a good opportunity to look at new ways to do things.” True to form, they held us accountable for how we were supporting customers through this time and highlighted the possible impact on people’s wellbeing.
As an organisation that specialises in working with adults with learning disabilities and mental health conditions, this was a risk that we were acutely aware of, and we were pleased to be able to share what we were doing to help and to hear their great ideas for how to do more.
Making use of Facebook live our staff volunteered to run wellbeing sessions, from Qigong with Dharma and yoga with Sally, to a cup of tea and a chat with Max. Our YouTube channel shared videos about staying healthy and reassurances from our Chief Executive about how Advance was responding to coronavirus, while our website hosted accessible information on the latest rules and advice. Our Instagram profile has been full to the brim of crafts and activities put together by our staff and customers.
Opportunities for customers to have their voices heard have gone digital too, with interview panels for new staff, peer reviews, workshops, editorial groups and the Advance Collective all making use of technology to bring people from across the country together in a safe and socially distanced way.
While moving activities online has a number of benefits, it’s been important for us to remember that a significant proportion of our customers aren’t confident using the internet. Coronavirus has presented many challenges, but it’s also been an opportunity for us to encourage our customers to get online, support them to learn digital skills and provide safe spaces for them to practice using them.
Looking forward, we think that a more digital approach is here to stay. We know that this doesn’t work for everyone and shouldn’t be a replacement for seeing people face to face, so as we explore new ways of using technology we’ll also be pleased to host more events and see familiar faces again when it’s safe to do so.
Advance are one of over 130 housing associations that have adopted the Together with Tenants charter – making seven commitments designed to build stronger relationships between residents and their housing association landlords.