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After the pandemic

David Tovey reports on how Covid-19 has changed life for ateb staff and residents.

It is now six months since I last stepped foot in our offices in Haverfordwest, whilst I have not seen a colleague in person in that time apart from on a Teams call. Does this mean I have been any less effective in my role and how well have the team continued to deliver the service to our customers?

Despite the offices being closed due to the pandemic, we have not shut ourselves off from our customers but in fact sourced new and different ways to engage with them. We decided quite quickly after lockdown commenced that we would not consider staff returning to the office to work until at least late September or early October and even then, it would probably only be limited staff.

What did we do first? Our customer services staff are now unable to see customers in person so we quickly developed a strategy to channel shift customers to pay their rent online, report a repair through Facebook, send a text to contact a staff member, use email to report a complaint etc.  We still received over 5,000 calls since lockdown, but the shift helped prevent staff being inundated with calls and customers feeling distanced as they could not communicate with us. Whilst the use of social media etc is not new, many our customers still used traditional methods to engage with us, so it was a significant change for several of them.

Another drawback with our systems was the fact that staff could not transfer calls to colleagues so needed to take messages, send emails, pass on mobile numbers etc. At the start of August, we went live with a new Telephony system where communication is fully integrated through MS Teams in addition to offering customers video/telephone appointments with staff which can be booked through our website.

Although homeworking was a facility some staff had previously used it was only on a limited basis, so most staff did not have any dedicated space, resources etc. All staff undertook a homeworking assessment to identify what they needed to work safely at home and health surveys were conducted to put in place any additional resources that maybe required. Despite their home becoming their office we have received many positives about the current way of working such as no commute to work, good work life balance, better productivity, less distractions. This is not to say there isn’t a down side to the current way of life as there has been little or no face to face social interaction, feelings of isolation etc but our aim is to take the best of all systems and improve the working day for all staff to feel valued and listened to.

Lockdown meant certain staff roles were not able to fulfil their duties, so we instantly put a new welfare team together to provide a proactive service for our customers. Staff switched from the engagement programme, digital support, mill bay homes, people services etc to playing a key role in the welfare team, as an immediate response to the lockdown.  We closed several activities and started building up a pool of local organisations who would help our customers.

At the same time, we started phoning our customers undertaking over 6,000 calls, firstly to those we perceived as being most vulnerable, with the initial aim of ensuring they were able to get food and medication. The process exposed to us a huge need amongst our customers for reassurance, regular contact, a friendly voice, ‘someone who showed they cared’.  Customers asked and talked about a myriad of different things.

Some of these queries generated a lot of work, liaising with other members of ateb staff, liaising with new, and/or established partnering organisations, volunteer groups, community councillors, shops, pubs and cafes, to try and satisfy some of the needs.  Some of the needs were complex and some were exacerbated by borderline, or more thorough, mental health issues.  It became quite clear, very quickly, that many customers were benefitting from our weekly and fortnightly calls, sometimes lasting the best part of an hour.

These calls obviously led to referrals to many different specialist services but provided many of our vulnerable and more isolated customers with the peace of mind that their landlord was there for them in a crisis. This did provide us with the opportunity to contact many customers who we would not normally have done so but now we are linking them into our customer forums as we move to do these digitally to maintain safe systems.

We also saw an opportunity to develop the service especially using digital technology to train and upskill customers with our support for the new normal and completed a funding application with the Big Lottery to source a community welfare assistant for a 10-month period. The project started in August and we will be working in areas of the county where it has been identified that customers wish to work together to build stronger communities, and/or develop online support groups and have already started to as a result of actions emanating from the pandemic.

The allocation of empty properties was put on hold for several months until early July although we did complete 23 emergency lets. We did carry out work on these properties to get them ready to let, and used the time to develop You Tube videos for customers to be able to view the interior and exterior of the home along with instructions on how to use essential functions such as the gas boiler, the consumer unit etc. We will be developing these guides as part of our normal processes as we move forward, along with other areas such as checking certain systems within the home before reporting a repair.

Our income collection team would normally have served on average over 30 notices seeking possession per month and processed two to three court applications, but due to the guidance issued by Welsh Government those avenues have not been available. We were already in the process of moving away from utilising legal action apart from where we felt it was the last resort, so the last few months have demonstrated to us that we can still successfully collect rent from customers by engaging in different ways through more personal phone calls, text messages, social media platforms etc.

Over the first 16 weeks of the new financial year we had collected over 99 per cent of our rent due. Our rent policy is now being reviewed to capture our new way of working together with rebuilding our rent processes within our housing management systems to allow staff greater autonomy when managing customer accounts to be able to take into account the individual issues customers face on a day to day basis. As the Pembrokeshire economy is heavily reliant on the tourist industry we feel there is still a financial spike to hit the area, especially when the furlough scheme comes to an end, so being able to support our customers will be of even more paramount in the autumn/winter.

On the maintenance side we are only carrying out external planned works at present and this is unlikely to change until the New Year. Only emergency repair works are being done on a day to day basis, but all repair enquires are being risk assessed on an individual basis. We undertook over 1,300 jobs which meant that we have completed a number that technically were not emergencies but if left unattended could have developed into emergencies further down the line.

We are hopeful that by doing this we have not only protected life and property but may also have lessened the impact of the backlog of non-urgent repairs. We completed around 600 gas safety checks so managed to keep on top of our compliance cases although there are a number coming up for renewal in the next two months. Coupled with the backlog of routine day to day repairs this is one area of the business that faces the greatest uphill task to try and return to some form of normal practice.

Ateb will always aim to deliver the right service outcomes, efficiently with great customer experience for the people and communities of West Wales and will use the Covid 19 experiences to shape and develop our two-year strategic plan in the way our customers and our staff have informed us.

David Tovey is customer services manager at ateb

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