In our most recent Tech Leadership Forum, we spoke with IT leaders within the housing sector to hear their thoughts on coping through Covid and what the future looks like for this rapidly evolving marketplace.
Harnessing the New Normal
It’s hard to believe that it’s almost been six months since lockdown first reached the UK, and yet the business world has changed so rapidly. At times, thinking about working practices before the era of remote working and video calls feels like a distant memory!
For many of our IT leaders working within the housing sector, Covid was an apt test of business continuity. For well-prepared companies, the forced move to digital was not an issue as the tools required were already in place, but those who weren’t ready have had to spare no expense to catch up with their more technologically advanced competitors over recent months.
With the initial jump now made, we have landed firmly in the ‘new normal’. Uptake of communication tools like Teams has been highly successful, especially in companies who had not received universal buy-in before the crisis. Take-up has been quick and effective, and through add-ons such as Teams Voice, businesses have also been able to increase accessibility and inclusion for deaf employees and clients. Other adapted services specific to the housing sector have been highly beneficial, even as lockdown lifts – for example, one of our attendees hailed a new virtual resident visiting tool as a highly useful development that’s here to stay.
One of the key shifts affecting all industries is the rise of flexible working. The consensus is that people enjoy working from home, but it does also pose problems – within our participants’ teams, there were concerns of people overworking and suffering from burnout due to feeling guilty about their productivity levels while working remotely.
Mental health support
Fortunately, the response to this has been to increase investment in mental health and employee wellbeing. Internal and external support has improved across the board, with one attendee noting how much the relationship between the executive board and the general staff has been improved by weekly mental health broadcasts.
Whereas beforehand, a lot of senior managers and decision makers did not ‘get along’ with digital tools and were unwilling to learn, being forced to adapt has undoubtedly increased understanding of what is possible through technology. As people learn to use new digital tools at home, IT teams have found that self-learning has shot up – they are no longer as heavily involved with day-to-day queries, and as such are freed up to focus on bigger projects as leaders look to drive change through tech. In one participant’s words, ‘geeks are the new heroes’!
For IT leaders, the most beneficial consequence of Covid has been increased alignment with senior business leaders. Projects that were pushed back or deprioritised in previous years have now been allowed to resurface, with progression moving at a much faster pace due to organisations being less risk-adverse – we now know that things won’t fall apart if we move quickly. IT leaders are gaining a reputation as thought leaders and business partners, and have generally seen higher engagement and buy-in as a result of people having already seen the practical benefits of technology first-hand.
The End of an Era?
One of the biggest concerns within the housing sector is changes to housing management systems. Leading provider Capita has recently escalated their new pricing model which effectively prices out smaller companies by increasing pressure to expand their portfolios. Unfortunately, given the fact that many digital transformation programmes rely on workshops and consumer research, it has been difficult for some smaller companies to achieve rapid change remotely.
But can the ‘big 6’ hold their throne? Traditionally, software companies like Capita have had a monopoly over the housing market, offering the same (often sub-par) solutions which are prone to being overpromised and underdelivered. As one participant asserted, ‘the world of the big monolithic systems is over.’ We’ve started to see better system integration in general, and rapid growth from smaller competitors who are more digitally minded; these disruptive new companies have already begun to break down a historically captive market and cause companies like Capita to scramble to retain their market share.
Is the Narrative Shift Here to Stay?
As one participant said, ‘it’s not about how do we go back, but how do we go forward?’ Whereas earlier this year, businesses had no choice but to adapt, the difficult situation faced by many today is how to balance this new mixed model, taking what we’ve learned and imagining its place in future business plans.
In the so-dubbed ‘courageous Covid-zone’, businesses were forced to make significant changes and transformations at pace, but what happens when the pandemic dies down? Some IT leaders are concerned that the ‘corporate treacle’ has already begun to set in again; business are prone to returning to the safe comfort zone that they have operated in for decades. In short, the technological progress made over the past few months is at risk of being dropped just as quickly as it was implemented if executive boards don’t commit.
Changing Culture and Collaboration
To our attendees, at least, there is no question as to whether new technology should stay. In the modern workplace, the Microsoft suite is a necessary expense – why not utilise everything on offer to adapt the business any enable higher productivity? Leadership must also recognise the changes that have occurred over the past few months and pivot accordingly. ‘Accidental visibility’ from walking around the office and interacting with teams is currently limited, so leaders must recognise the opportunity technology provides and utilise it to set an example for best practice. Whether through facilitating internal activities and knowledge-sharing, catching up with teams over video call, or increasing their personal social media presence, senior decision makers need to accept the proof – that technology works – and begin to embrace a more efficient, more connected, and more caring future under the guidance of their IT departments.
Compared to other industries like hospitality and the consumer market, the housing sector is still relatively in the foothills of using technology to improve daily processes. By learning from others’ successes and failures, it’s time for business leaders to choose collaboration over competition and create a new standard within the industry that will remain far beyond the current crisis.