An introduction to the series.
With Fresh Perspectives, I hope to bring talent from across property, housing and technology together.
This series doesn’t focus on the loudest or most senior voices in these sectors. Rather, I seek out leaders with a new perspective. Those on the front line of big change in business.
They challenge the status quo. Transform attitudes. Process. Operations and customer service.
I hope that you get as much as I learn from it. That you - the reader - consider these fresh perspectives and how they might be applied to your own organisation.
An introduction to my guest - Jay Mistry, Service Design Manager, Richmond Housing Partnership (RHP).
Jay’s diverse career and accomplishments make him the ideal Fresh Perspectives guest. Early in his career, he secured illustrious opportunities within The British Red Cross and Oxfam, before channelling his learnings and passion for innovation into housing.
Today, Jay leads a number of innovation initiatives for RHP, like RHP's smart home/IoT trials to better use real time data in managing homes.
He's also passionate about modern methods of construction and is co-founder of the National Housing Federation's (NHF) Building Better Project.
In this interview, we discuss:
- RHP's spirit of innovation and creativity, including how Jay is shaping the housing provider's purpose architecture.
- How RHP and Jay are implementing a #YourWorkYourWay initiative at RHP - and how COVID-19 has accelerated it.
- Some of Jay's efforts in conducting smart home/ IoT trials for RHP, to streamline various aspects of housing maintenance.
- Jay's work on the Building Better project and why he believes modern methods of construction are critical to the sector's future.
- The sources Jay draws inspiration from when conducting week-long innovation sprints to tackle operational challenges.
Shariq: Jay, your work within housing innovation for RHP involves getting the spirit of innovation and creativity embraced across the organisation. How did you set out to accomplish this? And what are some of the results?
Jay: I’d say that at RHP, we have a bit of a grasp on the culture of innovation. We’ve topped the Dolphin Index, that Mark Brown runs, for a number of years now. The culture’s there, and the employees at RHP are really keen to get involved in such projects. What we found however, is the enthusiasm and drive to be innovative wasn’t always matching up with the results. We’ve had some great partnerships with the likes of L&G, working on modular homes. With Tesla, looking at integrating battery power packs in homes. But what we’ve realised is that we need to be more rooted in the problem - in what we want to fix using innovative methods. So the biggest challenge we’ve had in transitioning from the term innovation itself to taking more of a service design approach.
Shariq: Could you tell me more about that transition from innovation to service design?
Jay: So I think we had an action bias before - for good reason - we want to get things done. But, we’re now spending more time sitting in the problem, gathering a stronger understanding of what we want to fix. I’ll give you the example of a couple initiatives. Flexible working is really important to us, and even before Coronavirus, we were developing this #YourWorkYourWay initiative. When COVID-19 hit, we were looking at approaches that would work best for everyone. We conducted 30 interviews with employees across the business and developed some key profiles and working styles.
Unsurprisingly, we saw a range of profiles - those of us who never want to see the office again, who absolutely love working from home. Those whose home environment isn’t suited to working there. Those who’d like the flexibility of both. We got rich depth of insight from a variety of work styles which we need to weave into our flexible offering. It got us asking questions like - if you want to go to Greece on holiday for 2 weeks, and in the 3rd week you want to work from there, how can we enable it? Phase 1 of this project has been preparing the office environment for an entirely optional return in September. Phase 2, which we hope to commence in January next year, will look at turbocharging people’s specific ways of working. We’ve been able to do this because we weren’t afraid of really resting within the problem and taking the time to understand user experiences.
Shariq: I’d love to know how Phase 2 works out and some specific turbocharged measures, but obviously, I’ll wait until that kicks in.
Jay: The ultimate ambition is that every role can be done remotely. Customer facing roles are experiencing the biggest challenge there. But it’s surfaced a lot of communication issues - which is really good - because they existed before but they’ve been made more acute now. It’s surfaced more meaty projects for us to develop.
"So I think we had an action bias before - for good reason - we want to get things done. But, we’re now spending more time sitting in the problem, gathering a stronger understanding of what we want to fix.
Shariq: Speaking of meaty projects, you've been pioneering smart home and IoT trials to help RHP streamline aspects of housing, maintenance and management. At Plentific, we’re very passionate about a similar confluence of tech and innovation in managing and maintaining homes. So I'd love to get some more insight from you into these trials that you've been doing.
Jay: We looked at a few. We explored Switchee, which is a smart thermostat. We looked at condensation, humidity and temperature sensors. We explored a ‘wonder wall’ - a smart thermostat. We looked at Amazon Alexa. The trials were small, which was effective for our understanding. So between 20-30 homes. We got these products inside homes and got feedback on them. As you’ll know all too well at Plentific, in the housing sector we’re passionate about understanding the state of our buildings - the condition they’re in, how they’re performing. We do a stock condition survey every few years but the second surveyor site goes quickly out of date and we then rely on our customers to tell us there’s an issue. We then do cyclical works to resolve these. It’s not very scientific, bearing in mind that our stock is our major asset, second only to the service we provide our customers. So these trials are important because I don’t believe such approaches should be optional - they should be essential for the modern housing association.
Shariq: What are some of the challenges you’ve run into?
Jay: Phase 1 was useful for us to show the value in having real time data in our homes to better optimise processes. The challenge we’ve had, going into Phase 2 of these trials, is how quickly such technology becomes a legacy system. These products are great, many hard to fault, but we’re looking at a more plug and play approach - so we can change the tech and keep the system. Or that the system integrates into our CRM for insights. The other important area of focus, which was not so much of a problem with Switchee, is remembering that these products are going into our customers’ homes. If you look at at Nest, or Hive, they’re designed for homeowners so they look nice and fit well into your space. Products for landlords don’t look as pretty. They don’t integrate as well. So in phase 1 we conducted focus groups with tenants on what roles they saw smart tech performing in their homes. Understand how we can use it not just to save us money - which will ultimately benefit the tenant because we manage their homes better - but also what they wanted it to look like. How can we improve how they feel about it in our emphasis on improving service levels for them.
Shariq: From managing homes to building them. Let’s talk a little bit about Building Better. Helping Housing Associations embrace modern methods of construction. The project’s recently been featured in Inside Housing too. Could you tell me more about the journey you’ve had with that what you envision the goal to be?
Jay: It’s been quite a ride. When I take my mind back two years ago to the summer of 2018, on the fourth month of this programme with the National Housing Federation (NHF), we thought we were about ready to wrap it up and go back to our busy day jobs. It could’ve easily died its death. But because of the commitment of Trina, the current project director, Tracy, Tommy, Tim and myself, we managed to scrape an hour here or there to keep going until April of 2019 and raise enough funds. We’d managed to raise £50-60k by then and get a full time project director on board. To see it take off from there - from begging housing associations to be a part of it - to now, where we’ve got between 10 and 12 committee members, people knocking on our doors, local authorities wanting to join us. It’s fantastic. We’ve recently signed a deal with a procurement platform on this journey to modern methods of construction and it feels like there’s no turning back now. It was our ultimate aim to sign a deal with a manufacturer, with a consortium of housing associations driving that deal. We’re very very close to that.
The next step is to execute this vision. Deliver not just a certain volume of homes, but drive the market with all our research and design around that tenants actually need. Design with empathy. Design homes that adapt to their needs and don’t compromise on quality.
"70% of new homes have defects in them that tenants have to deal with. We learned that - over 60 years on an average property - construction constitutes just 14% of the total cost of a home, 1% the design and the rest is long term maintenance."
70% of new homes have defects in them that tenants have to of deal with. We learned that - over 60 years on an average property - construction constitutes just 14% of the total cost of a home, 1% the design and the rest is long term maintenance. We want to design homes that are better quality, using precision engineering and manufacturing techniques but also capture the kind of data that, for example. BMW is able to on its cars. The potential is early days, yes, but to have rich dynamic data on homes isn’t possible with traditional construction. Think of it as us essentially being at the first iPhone right now with manufactured homes. If we commit to it, in the next 10 years, we’ll have a flagship modular home thanks to that iterative process. There’s no shortcut, we just need to be brave and iterate.
Traditional construction, I feel, has reached a ceiling where it can't iterate or improve anymore. And we're paying more for an inferior product because of this skills crisis - the average age of a bricklayer is 53. So what I love about Building Better is the commitment these housing associations have shown to take a leap of faith but a very sensible, measured leap of faith. Because of our scale, and because of our drive, we'll be able to influence the market to really design the homes we need. And the more we do, the more we scale, and the closer we’ll get to those 300,000 homes.
Shariq: I’m very inspired by this and I can’t wait to see it reach its absolute zenith. You were a key part of PropertyLab - Plentific’s first innovation lab - focused on building the future of sector compliance. But as you indicated, the goal is for such innovation to translate into so much more than the product or prototype you get at the end of it. It’s about actually using insights and conversations to realise transformational change within the sector. I want to understand from you, when you’re innovating with RHP or focused on Building Better, where do you draw your inspiration from? Any authors, frameworks or companies you turn to who are paving the way for this?
Jay: I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to fall in love with the problem. Don’t start with ideas. Listen to people. That way of thinking for me was a real lightbulb moment. I draw a lot of my inspiration from that. In my most recent role as a service design manager for RHP, I’ve been dipping in and out of the ‘Design Thinking Playbook’. It’s helped me understand and cluster working styles for the #YourWorkYourWay project. I’ve used it to get more of the employee profiles we created as part of this initiative. Primary and secondary personas. It’s helped me condense and synthesise the insight and bring out key themes. The other, and this is a less obvious recommendation is a book a friend recommended to me called Living Enlightenment.
"I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to fall in love with the problem. Don’t start with ideas. Listen to people. That way of thinking for me was a real lightbulb moment. I draw a lot of my inspiration from that."
It’s about of facing your fears and addressing pain as part of progress. It talks about the 10% conscious and the 90% subconscious. And it says a lot of corporate life. The book touches upon how how to be a leader and how to kind of tap into that 90% to really purge oneself of what they’re not addressing as part of a personal/ professional divide in their lives. At a time when the personal and professional are blending together more than ever before, it really speaks to me and I’d recommend to anyone who wants a better understanding of how to be their best and lead effectively.
Shariq: Actually, this brings me to my last question really nicely. We discussed how two aspects of our lives are melding together and as a result, organisations are forced to rethink their approach not just to the future of work, as we touched upon, but also service delivery. How have you navigated that in your most recent role with RHP as Service Design Manager?
Jay: We’ve had the opportunity to step back in this crucial time and re-evaluate certain approaches. We’ve focused on redesigning our bank account system. We want to modernise it now and make it more efficient and user friendly for customers to make frictionless payments. We spoke to customers, gathered insights, learnt that the payment cycles they’re most accustomed to don’t correspond to the way we structure our payments weekly. We learned that most of our customers use PayPal - and rather than developing a similar solution, we’re looking to integrate it. With the support of the leading lights groups, we’ve managed to refine other aspects of service delivery too, simply by getting more tenants involved in the process over feedback and insight sessions.
On the operations side, we've just finished a week long sprint with another group, looking at the invoice process. In most housing associations, invoices and payments don’t always run smoothly and sometimes get delayed. So we just spent a bit of time speaking to administrators and the payments team and now we've got some really clear recommendations take forward.
"We've just finished a week long sprint, looking at the invoice process. In most housing associations, invoices and payments don’t always run smoothly and sometimes get delayed. Now we've got some really clear recommendations take forward."
Higher up in the organisation, David Done, our Chief Executive, is really driving the change required at a time like this. One of the projects that’s come to me is to look at our purpose architecture again. So being brave enough to say - is our purpose what we think it is? Does it change in unprecedented times? We’ve brought together 15 customers to ask them really broad questions about the value their landlord brings.
What I’m most excited about is how all of this will come together to further our purpose architecture, our service delivery and our goal to put customers at the heart of what we do. It’ll help us shape a service over the next few years that really listens to customers, listens with empathy and builds a service around their needs.
RHP Group is an innovative housing organisation, driven by an ambition to be one of the best service providers in the UK. Formed in 2000, RHP currently owns and manages around 10,000 homes across West London.
Stay tuned for the next interview in the series. And if you’d like to recommend a young leader for me to sit down and have a chat with, do let me know below.