Fresh Perspectives with Sophia Howells

By Shariq Kochhar - October 30, 2019

Read my interview with Sophia Howells - Head of Housing Services at B3Living. In Edition #5 of Fresh Perspectives.

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 lines 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 - Sophia Howells.

Sophia has an eclectic background comprising research, campaign management and policy. As Head of Housing Services at B3Living, her day-to-day involves an oversight of all housing management functions - including income and neighbourhood management, estate services, independent living and leaseholder management.

Prior to this, she managed the Operations team at Co-op Homes (a subsidiary of RHP group), providing agency managed services to co-ops based in and around London.

In this interview, we discuss:

  • How housing organisations can be more technologically-driven in supporting older residents.
  • How residents can be better empowered to self-serve when it comes to essential repairs and maintenance.
  • How to strike a balance between tenant self-sufficiency and aiding the most vulnerable of residents.
  • Quick technological wins the sector can move towards with respect to communication and repairs.
  • Why affordable housing as a sector will serve an important role towards well-being in the future. 

The interview.

Shariq: Afternoon Sophia! Let me start by asking: what was your journey into housing like?

Sophia: I worked for a private company for a year after I graduated with a politics degree. I just never found any purpose in the work, if that makes sense. And it was quite hard to motivate myself to get going every day. So I took some time out. I’m lucky enough to have parents who were happy to let me quit and come home for a bit - just spend a few months applying for jobs that I actually wanted in the not-for-profit sector. I had a degree in politics, so I applied for a political party that I'm affiliated with as well, along with some other charity jobs. Housing happened to be one of the things that was advertised. Specifically a graduate scheme with Richmond Housing Partnership (RHP).

That one year on the graduate scheme was an eye-opener. I just went around working with every area of the business. And I loved it. I didn't know what to expect if I'm honest, but I really enjoyed it. So basically I fell into housing kind of by accident and happily so.

Shariq: You've got quite an eclectic background. Research, campaign management, a bit of policy. Would you say that your journey prior to housing has helped inform some of the work you do today?

Sophia: Definitely. I think people always say what on earth do you do with a politics degree but actually a lot of it is built around social policy. What governments implement, how it affects affect people, the homes they live in. Working in an MP’s office, you hear about day-to-day issues and many of them are centred on social landlords. The progress that still needs to be made. That takes up an awful lot of an MP’s time, which was a useful insight. 

Shariq: During your work as a retirement housing manager, did you see any opportunities for the role that technology could play in helping older people lead safer, more independent lives in their dotage? 

Sophia: Yes, definitely. So I think RHP ultimately wants to be technologically-driven in supporting our older residents. Some years ago that would’ve proven costly. Now it’s easier to start small for big change. For example - having a tablet in their home where they can check in every morning, instead of the traditional option (still used to date) which is to have someone physically knock on their door in the morning and check if they're okay, essentially.

Now you can push a button or tap a screen that reports back to a remote-based scheme worker. There's loads of different devices we foresee utilising to help with communication, service, requests, reports. However, I believe retirement housing is still in the very early days of technological adoption. In my new role, I now oversee retirement housing and the teams I work with are starting to explore using it strategically. What can we do that's less people-heavy, for a start?

Shariq: So I've got a question about Co-op homes, if you don't mind. The repairs teams were part of your operational management there. What were the biggest challenges that you observed?

Sophia: So, Co-op homes was a slightly unusual set up. We had 300 properties that we owned and managed in a typical social landlord sense. We also managed properties on behalf of co-operatives where we oversee social landlords in their own right, but they each had their own ways of working and we often had to run things by them before we could sign them off. In a way they were delegating the housing management aspect to us.

So one of the big challenges was actually getting the Co-op management committees to agree to a tradesperson we recommended. Not everyone approached it from the most objective viewpoint. So, that was probably the most difficult thing, but also, a lot of properties had not been invested in at all so there was a huge backlog of work that needed doing. These ongoing issues with repairs kept happening over and over again. What you ended up doing was something far more reactive and costly in the long term. Probably one of the most frustrating things.

There was also an empowerment issue. People should be empowered to change light bulbs, change toilet seats, et cetera. So I think also just helping tenants take a bit more ownership was, was a bit of a struggle too.

Shariq: You bring up a very good point. I want to talk more about that. So the empowering aspect of it, the tendency to self-serve. What would be an ideal approach to that? Should it be behavioral or should it be systems-led?

Sophia: I think a combination of the two probably, and I mean there's a big movement in the industry, away from call centres and towards, like you said, self-serve methods of raising repairs. So people should be able to log on to something, say what the issue is, select an appointment time. A two-hour window and that’s it. Someone turns up when they say they will.

Obviously not everyone has the infrastructure to do that and we are still working on it at B3 Living. I think tenants expect it now because that's the service they get from other companies. Unfortunately it isn't always the way in housing.

But I can see a big change coming to housing as a sector. It's encouraging tenants to be more self-sufficient. And certainly there's a lot of pressure from the government for us to do that. Obviously the 1% rent reduction has had an impact on actually what resources we have in order to deliver that service. But I think it's going to be a change over time and certainly I wouldn't want to suddenly pull away a load of services from people. And also there's a balance to be struck. You know, we are housing vulnerable people. Not everyone, but there's a significant proportion of our tenants who are vulnerable and some people can't do certain things for themselves. So there's a balance to be struck.

Shariq: So you touched briefly on B3Living. Would you mind me asking you what your day to day involves as the head of housing services at B3Living?

Sophia: There isn't really an average day if I'm honest. I oversee the neighbourhood officers and also the retirement housing team, as I mentioned earlier. Then there’s the income team - so rent collection. Also the caretaking teams - that's both cleaning and grounds maintenance in house. I also manage leasehold and lettings so it’s quite a broad spread of services that my role covers.

Shariq: Wow. Operationally speaking, there is a lot that rests on your plate. What are the opportunities you see to transform certain functions as they are now? 

Sophia: I certainly think we need to use technology much more. There's a lot out there, but I think as I mentioned earlier, people expect us to be on par with Amazon. And we're just not, we're about 10 years behind. So I think utilising technology better, certainly with things like reporting repairs, but also for just measuring and maintaining. Pre-empting when a boiler is expected to break down. I think there’s a huge move towards digital and technological integration that housing has only just started to scratch the surface of. So certainly, utilising the speed and precision it affords means that we could target resources in places they're actually needed as opposed to guessing. 

Encouraging people to utilise digital services to get in touch with us as well. I mean, it costs more to take a phone call than it does to deal with an email or something that's been logged on a website. So I think those are two really obvious quick wins that we as an industry need to move towards more. People are, but I think at the moment it's only people with quite significant budgets or who just happened to have forward thinking leaders in their teams. 

"I think there’s a huge move towards digital and technological integration that housing has only just started to scratch the surface of. So certainly, utilising the speed and precision it affords means that we could target resources in places they're actually needed as opposed to guessing."

Sophia Howells, Head of Housing Services, B3Living

 

Shariq: What do you think are the obvious barriers towards getting those quick wins or getting some degree of technological implementation and why is it not happening? Why is it not being adopted on a bigger scale?

Sophia: I'm going to give you a very blunt and honest answer here. So one is money ultimately, but two - I think housing as an industry has a lot of people who have worked here for a very long time, who do things the way they've always been done. It's not to say there aren't a lot of great, innovative people in housing. But I think the sector has been quite closed for quite a long time.

When I interact with someone who's from a local authority background, they tend to be very different from someone who is reasonably new to housing or has worked elsewhere and come into housing. So I think there's, amongst people who've been in housing for a long time, an insular view that’s focused on what they're doing, but that doesn’t consider looking at best practice and what's going on in the bigger world. Yes, that was my blunt answer.

Shariq: Do you have an idyllic vision for the future role of the housing sector in the UK? 

Sophia: I think we're probably leading the way in building the most homes as a sector, or certainly heading that way. And I think more and more in this housing crisis, society's leaning on us too to provide habitable properties.

Commercial builders are not interested in actually providing a lot of good quality, affordable housing. So I think as an industry we're very heavily relied upon to supply not only housing stock, but also to support to a lot of people. Whether that is vouchers for food banks, stepping in when social services can’t and dealing with ASB - almost a function of low-level policing.

So as a sector I think we are really essential for people's wellbeing, not just providing them with a good quality, affordable home. I think probably that it's going to become more and more ubiquitous. So we have to upskill people to deal with those things and that the more they realise we've got people with those skills, the more functions like social services step back. In an ideal world we would work with support services. Everyone would be adequately funded to provide the support that is desperately needed by people in the community. And, and we'd all fill the spaces that another leaves equally, but I think society is going to be more and more reliant on housing as a sector to do that.

"I think as an industry we're very heavily relied upon to supply not only housing stock, but also to support to a lot of people. Whether that is vouchers for food banks, stepping in when social services can’t and dealing with ASB - almost a function of low-level policing."

Sophia Howells, Head of Housing Services, B3Living

 

Shariq: I actually want to move into my final question on that note. Have you read anything recently that really resonated with you?

Sophia: So I'm actually just half way through the followup to the Handmaid's Tale. I love Margaret Atwood. She's one of my absolute favorites. Sector related - I'm always reading Inside Housing. They ran an excellent piece recently on how people expect a landlord to be today. It confirmed a lot of what you would expect - which is that we have a lot left to learn and do as a sector. And that we can't keep expecting our tenants to adjust to a lesser service than they would get from a private company who they choose to acquire a service from.

Shariq: Excellent. Well Sophia, this has been informative and insightful. Thank you so much.


Key Takeaways:

  1. We can combat housing's insular view towards transformation by introducing best practice and a broader view of technological implementation in other sectors.
  2. Society is going to become more and more reliant on housing as a sector - to provide more social services functions and the right approach to up-skilling can empower the housing professional of the future.
  3. Transformation does not need to be isolated to housing providers with larger budgets only. Smaller providers are showcasing how it can be used to both lower operational costs and offer tenants a better service.
  4. A combination of behavioural nudges and systems-led initiatives can improve both the adoption and speed at which self-serve methods of maintenance are brought into the sector.
  5. The 1% rent reduction has had an impact on resources available in the sector to deliver essential services - which has forced providers to think creatively about utilising digitisation to achieve quick wins. The results speak for themselves.

Talk to Me:

Stay tuned for the next interview in the series. And if you’d like to recommend a young leader in housing for me to sit down and have a chat with, do let me know below.

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