Fresh Perspectives with Tom Way: Innovation, smart homes and breaking barriers.
Read my interview with Tom Way, Innovation Manager at L&Q. In Edition #2 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 - Tom Way
Tom is a young innovation specialist at L&Q - one of the UK’s largest housing providers and developers. His day-to-day involves managing a team of innovators to develop new solutions in response to business problems and customer insight. He leads on L&Q's strategic approach to smart homes - to deliver an enhanced service to residents using innovation and technology. His efforts today are poised to usher in next generation customer experience in housing.
In this interview, we discuss:
- The importance of smart homes for housing associations - how this can lay the foundation for the future of affordable housing.
- What he envisions as the 3 beautiful basics every affordable home needs.
- The biggest operational challenges in housing today. And the big opportunities that innovation can enable.
- How digital transformation will offer residents a more personalised service.
- The role of a housing association many years into the future.
In late August, Tom and I met at Plentific’s London Bridge office to discuss what housing means to him, and his vision of its future.
Shariq: Afternoon Tom! Let’s start with "why?" Why Housing? What was your journey to the sector like?
Tom: I’ll start with my journey into the sector. I studied at the University of Kent, like you. While I was at university, I interned with an inner-London MP as a caseworker, which meant dealing with constituent concerns about a range of things.
A large part of that focused on housing - in terms of the quality of housing, the availability of it. I became aware of the way that housing is managed and provided in the U.K - and in London.
Then, as I completed my degree, and was looking for a job, it became clear to me that I have to do something in line with my values. My mum and dad both worked in public services, and my dad still works for the Metropolitan Police. So, it's always been important to me that my work is directed towards something good. I saw an opportunity come up with a graduate programme at Richmond Housing Partnership (RHP). I went for it - and was selected. And I was very pleased about that. I had a great first year in RHP. It had a graduate scheme where it invested in this one person, one person per year, to spend time in each department in the business, getting a real understanding of what everybody does and how a housing association operates. It gave me a really good grounding in the sector.
I didn’t just walk around shadowing people for a year - I was given the opportunity to be involved directly with business improvement schemes. At the end of that year, I became manager for a Tenancy Sustainment Service. At the same time, I was focussing my efforts on welfare reform projects. So, when universal credit and the bedroom tax became part of the narrative, I played an active role in preparing the organisation for those changes.
In June last year, I moved to L&Q because I wanted to stretch myself. I saw working in a different, larger and more complex organisation as a great opportunity to do that.
Shariq: Tell me about L&Q's Smart Home strategy. I came across the idea in one of your LinkedIn pieces - about smashing government time scales, and the idea that innovation can actually be rapid - that implementation doesn’t have to be as time-consuming with the right approach.
Tom: I think a lot of it is about being ready for what the future will bring for housing - and for people. We’re focused on getting our homes ready for the future. With social housing being the largest aspect of L&Q’s operations, we are asking how many of our future customers and residents will be impacted by the housing shortage? There may be more vulnerable people, they will be older, may have mental and physical health conditions, and we need to be prepared to think about what homes need to be like - in order to serve the needs of those people.
So, when I think about smart homes, it's more about what a functional home looks like in the future, rather than something that's necessarily automated or technology-driven.
It's not just about putting something in there for the sake of it. It's got to be purposeful, and it's almost got to be tailored to the needs of individuals. So, if I think about a smart home, I'm more likely to think of something which is ready to be smart than a home which is automatically “smart”.
Sorry, what was the other part of your question? There was something else in there, which I thought about…
Shariq: About government timescales?
Tom: This was it. I think part of what we do in innovation - and change and transformation - at L&Q, is that we prepare the business for initiatives which will be necessary in the future as well. I believe housing associations are going to have to think about other initiatives - which may or may not be led by the government.
We need to think about what our climate change strategies are, for example. There is an expectation that new homes will need to be net zero carbon in the future. Also, in order for the UK to meet its carbon reduction targets, it's likely that in the future there will be a policy that there will be a requirement to retrofit our homes to make sure that they are producing less carbon, as well.
I see part of the work that we do is actually getting us ready for that. What I mean is, we are simplifying and streamlining our existing business, meaning we can do what we need to do, keeping it simple and reducing the cost of our operation so that we're able to absorb or tackle the future risks, or the future opportunities, whatever they will be. We're able to address those risks and opportunities in an effective and proactive way.
We are asking how many of our future customers and residents will be impacted by the housing shortage? There may be more vulnerable people, they will be older, may have mental and physical health conditions, and we need to be prepared to think about what homes need to be like - in order to serve the needs of those people.
Shariq: That's excellent. My next question - according to you, what are some of the biggest operational challenges in housing and also, therefore, the biggest opportunities? You can answer this from an innovation perspective if you like.
Tom: So I've talked about the operating costs of housing associations and organisations - which I think is the biggest challenge. And I believe it's through tech and innovation that we will lower that cost. And connected to that cost, I think, is the relatively slow rate of production of homes.
Some of the work that my colleagues are doing in terms of making a shift to offsite construction is addressing this for a start. But, in terms of operations, I think it's very much about enabling self service and enabling prediction and prevention, which is a shift from having a bunch of people sitting in a building waiting for something to go wrong.
Shariq: So predictive, rather than reactive?
Tom: Yes, so spotting problems early, even before they happen, is an opportunity enabled by technology. Enabling people to self-serve is another. And I’ve seen first-hand what a difference it can make. There are organisations where 70% of transactions are taking place online. And there's some organisations in our industry where there are none.
It's one of those things which serves the business as well as serves the customer, I believe. So the customer is able to access the services anytime, any place using any device, which is obviously great for them. But we're also able to release capacity for our people to do work which truly adds value. This is a trend that's radically shaped other industries.
So I've talked about the operating costs of housing associations and organisations - which I think is the biggest challenge. And I believe it's through tech and innovation that we will lower that cost.
Shariq: Brilliant. So you write about innovative business practices, disruption, and we've discussed a little bit about how it connects to digital transformation. Is there anything else that's particularly exciting to you within digital transformation of the sector?
Tom: So, a couple of things. I think digital transformation makes work much more enjoyable. By eliminating transactional activity, you’re actually putting more ability in people's hands to do meaningful work. I think it gives people more job satisfaction than being part of manual processes.
It’s also about delivering a better, faster and lower cost service to people. Something exciting that I'm working on at the moment. A smart voice assistant for people who want to contact us. With this initiative I’m hoping to accelerate the creation of a digital experience which matches that of other, more advanced industries. We've got older or vulnerable people living in homes who aren't able to use a tablet or mobile or laptop or desktop, but might be able to speak to something.
There are many residents in social and private housing for whom English isn't a first language. So we’d like to develop a really intelligent voice remove barriers for people.
Elsewhere, we’ve already chatted a little bit about off site construction and creating that sort of repeatability in a home. I think that's really interesting. And it goes alongside the digitisation of buildings through BIM (Building Information Modelling).
Shariq: What, according to you, will be the role that housing organisations play in the future? 10, 20, even 30 years from now?
Tom: My ideal vision for a future housing community - particularly with affordable housing - is for everyone to have a home. I think it is absolutely essential and almost a travesty that we're still talking about in 2019. So, yes, communities where everyone has a home they can afford. I’m really proud to be working for an organisation, or rather having worked for two organisations, that are building homes of all types to address every housing need.
I also realise this is a simple vision - but it has to start with the beautiful basics. If you give them a place to live, make rent affordable and look after their repairs, you've laid the foundation to ensure it will be a home. A home that thrives.
If we look at trends in society, we're finding more and more people are suffering with anxiety, depression and loneliness. At the same time, our property market makes the future of ownership even more uncertain. A common trend among millennials is that they're very anxious as a generation. And surely part of that comes with not having stable housing. I’d like to see us get to grips with understanding the impact that housing communities have on the psychology of people who live there, so that we can confidently build and manage successful communities going forward.
As for my own plans and role within shaping the future of housing? For me, it's about continuing to do what we're doing, but earning the right to still do it in the future. So, simplify and streamline our business, try and do the basics brilliantly, earn the trust of residents.
Shariq: One thing that I'd like to leave on. Have you read or watched anything lately that really resonated with you?
Tom: Yes, I’ve recently read ‘The Lean Startup’ by Eric Reiss. In my view this is essential reading for anyone involved in strategic decision making at work, or indeed anyone with a desire to set up their own business.
My boss has also got me reading about Scrum as a method of working with teams, my introduction to Scrum was ‘Scrum: The Art of doing Twice the Work in Half the Time’ by Jeff Sutherland. A lot of the content resonated with me and I’d recommend it to anyone working in a team who wants to increase their output.
I thank Tom again for his time and hand him a copy of a book I have been reading lately as we depart. His views and experiences have helped me better understand the role of innovation in housing.
- The ideal role of innovation should not be fuelled by tech. And instead led by the fundamental desire to simplify people’s lives and reduce anxiety at every step.
- A common trend among millennials is anxiety at not having stable housing, but innovation can create opportunities to deliver more homes, more affordably to more young people
- A smart home should be one where good design offers simplicity to both the provider and the resident, with provisions for upgrades built into the framework of these homes
- If you can reduce operational costs to better absorb and tackle future risks, it creates better opportunities for future initiatives - and resources to address them in a proactive manner.
- Digital transformation makes work much more enjoyable. By eliminating transactional activity, you enable motivated housing teams to do more meaningful work in the communities they’re building .
Talk to Me:
Stay tuned for the next 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.