2023: Time to work smarter – a briefing from Occupi and HQN JANUARY 2023
Neil Forrest and Maryam Qurashi
About the authors: Neil Forrest is the Chief Commercial Officer at Pivigo, the company behind Occupi. He works with housing associations to help them adopt artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies. Neil is passionate about the positive impact that AI and predictive analytics can bring to the housing sector and has helped local authorities and independent providers to successfully adopt a more data driven approach. Maryam Qurashi is Product Manager for Occupi, providing income intelligence for housing teams. She works closely with Income teams in housing to ensure the product gives them the insights they need and has the features to help them be efficient and highly productive. Maryam completed her PhD in Physical Chemistry at Imperial College London in 2015. She is passionate and curious about data ethics, the philosophy of data and the enormous potential of data science to benefit and enhance society. If you want to talk to us about working SMART, and how Occupi will help your teams and tenants, we’d love to hear from you. And if you have any challenges regarding income collection that have not been addressed in this article, or would like to discuss technological innovation in social housing in general, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with our CCO Neil Forrest at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Introduction For many social housing professionals in the UK, 2023 promises to be the year when their long-anticipated fears culminate. A tipping point where barely managed issues finally become unmanageable, forcing both housing associations and tenants to make tough decisions.
While there are certainly grounds for these concerns, here at Occupi we believe there is also reason to be hopeful. Challenges await income teams in 2023, but technological solutions are becoming increasingly viable, and promise to relieve pressure on IC teams, create greater opportunities to provide timely support for vulnerable tenants, deliver efficiencies in income collection and performance improvements to many aspects of the income collection process in social housing.
Through research with income officers and RIEN (Rent Income Excellence Network), interviews with sector advisors, and communications with industry professionals and regulatory bodies, we have identified the main issues faced by income teams coming into 2023.
The rental increase cap of 7% (which is likely to be adopted by all housing associations, as shown by the HQN rent increases and pay awards survey)
Growing caseloads for already overworked income officers
Cutbacks on preventative arrears measures
Morale issues among income teams
Increasing arrears balances for housing associations.
Pains vs gains: How issues in housing associations are impacting income teams When we’ve discussed job satisfaction with income teams, including income officers and income managers, we routinely hear the same comments resurface. Income teams are truly passionate about helping all tenants manage their financial situation and plan for their future, as well as managing debt for their housing association and bringing down their total arrears. However, they are prevented from reaching their potential and achieving their objectives due to the same key issues.
Pain 1: Technical arrears The first issue we’ve identified is the widespread inclusion of ‘false positive cases’ in income officers’ caseloads, often classed as technical arrears. From our research with income teams, it’s been shown that technical arrears cases make up 30%-40% of an income officer’s caseload. While these cases are usually quickly identified by the income officers as not requiring action, they still need to be managed and ticked off in order for their caseloads to be considered as complete. In a period where an increasing number of tenants have complex financial issues that require the focused attention of income professionals, repetitive admin tasks such as these can quickly become debilitating to an income officer’s ability to provide support to those in need.
Pain 2: Unmanageable caseloads The problem of technical arrears cases being prioritised also compounds another of the most prominent issues faced by income teams, that being the increasingly unmanageable size of caseloads. Income teams have seen an average 50% increase in their caseloads in the last 2 years, showing that the knock-on economic effects of COVID-19 combined with the current cost-of-living crisis and soaring inflation rates is having the impact most experts expected; far more people are unable to pay their rents, leading to a greater number of arrears cases to be managed. Unfortunately, this rise in arrears cases is not being matched by an increase in the number of income officers in most patches. Instead, income teams have reached the point where they are unable to complete their weekly caseloads, meaning that cases are forced to roll over into subsequent weeks, leading to a snowball effect.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the higher-than-expected rent increase cap of 7%, which most housing associations have said they will use, will push even more tenants into a position where they are unable to pay their rent or repayment plans. As such, the situation regarding caseload sizes is only expected to get worse in 2023. In fact, the impact is already being felt by many, and RIEN is already aware of an increase in loan sharks and money lending on social housing estates.
Pain 3: Lack of preventative measures The final concern we’ve identified as being vitally important to address relates to the lack of preventative measures in the industry (although, of course, there are still other concerns in the industry, and further research will likely uncover additional challenges). From our independent research with income teams, we’ve found that most income officers spend 75% or more of their time on income collection. That is, they work reactively rather than proactively. The fault cannot be placed on the income teams or leadership; the reality is that with the mounting caseloads plagued by technical arrears cases, there isn’t the time to implement preventative strategies. On top of this, cost-effective and easily implementable solutions have historically been few and far between, leaving many housing associations hesitant to risk making their situation worse by adopting costly and time-consuming preventative strategies.
With these industry pains in mind, it’s easy to see how income teams’ job satisfaction has been affected. Where once income teams would be hopeful about the impact they could make on their tenants’ lives and the arrears within their organisation, now they are struggling to even check-in with all the tenants in their patch and are often finding that their caseloads contain a huge number of false positive cases. While they would love to protect their tenants’ futures by implementing proactive strategies and preventative measures, when are they supposed to do this?
What a brighter 2023 would look like
As stated at the outset of this report, we believe that the mounting concerns towards 2023 felt by many in the industry is only one way to see things. 2023 can also be a year of opportunity, growth and modernisation. As long as we can identify the procedural and resource-related changes that need to be made to combat the issues outlined above, and action these changes in a swift and cost-effective manner, we could see a huge amount of progress this year. Just as the hardships of the pandemic spurred on many industries to make radical changes, so too can the current hardships facing the social housing sector inspire innovation.
Research with income officers and income managers suggests that the following changes need to be made:
Reduce pressure on staff: A consistent theme of the discussions we’ve had with sector professionals is that staff, particularly income officers, are facing extreme pressure to meet deadlines, keep up with caseloads, and reduce overall arrears. In previous years, this has been barely manageable, however expecting such results in the current system is increasingly untenable without identifying ways to work smarter. This gives rise to a high degree of stress-related absences and illness in the sector, which ultimately leads to low retention within income teams, and it is challenging to refill those roles
Caseload reduction to allow for properly managed arrears: As mentioned previously, caseloads are spiralling at a rate that housing associations are unable to keep up with. We’ve already identified areas in which caseloads could be reduced (ie, in regard to technical arrears), and making steps towards this end would have a big impact on income teams. Currently, income officers are spending roughly a third of their time dealing with false positive cases, rather than managing the arrears of tenants in need. By reducing caseloads to only the most pertinent cases, income officers will be able to apply their talents where they are most needed, which will lead to better managed arrears cases across the board
Integrated, updated systems: To help income teams focus their efforts where they have the most value, many income officers have suggested that more integrated systems should be employed. Currently, most housing associations use multiple systems to track debts, tenants’ payments, contact with tenants, KPIs, and more. By unifying these systems, income teams have suggested that less time will be wasted, meaning that more time can be spent on helping tenants in need and recouping their housing association’s arrears
Creating efficiencies for collection: This point links back to the pain of technical arrears cases being prevalent in most income officers’ caseloads. To combat this, many have suggested that prioritising caseloads in a more efficient manner, automating the process by which technical arrears are identified and removed from caseloads, and greater use of automation in general would have a profound effect. Income officers’ time is best spent helping tenants with complex financial issues, not trawling through erroneous cases in their caseloads
5 Cost-effective preventative strategies to allow for better tenant care: Finally, there has been an overwhelming call to shift from reactive to proactive, preventive arrears strategies, with a particular focus on those which employ updated technology. However, from our discussions with sector advisors and leadership individuals in housing associations, it’s clear that available funding is low. As such, whatever preventative measures are used must be shown to have value in a cost-benefit analysis. Should such strategies be employed, however, then the service provided to tenants would dramatically increase, and thousands could be saved from ever falling into arrears in the first place.
Looking back at the ‘gains’ discussed earlier in this piece – the desire for income teams to improve the lives of those in need, help tenants plan for their futures, and recover significant debt for their housing associations (results which have been corroborated by Occupi’s research with income officers) – it’s clear to see that by addressing these five points in 2023, many of the concerns housing associations have for the upcoming year can be abated or nullified entirely.
The only option for most housing associations over the last few years has been to work harder and hope that things will improve. However, with income teams working past their limit and arrears cases only growing, this optimistic approach has not worked. Hope is not a strategy as they say, never more true than in income collection. Instead, we argue that solving the issues in the social housing industry isn’t a case of working hard, but working SMART.
In short, SMART stands for:
Staff satisfaction: Currently income teams are overworked, stressed, and pressured to meet unattainable KPIs. By streamlining their caseloads and using AI to automate the prioritisation of tenant interactions, this will allow teams to get back to making a positive impact on people’s lives
Managed arrears: With income teams able to focus on the cases that really matter, housing associations arrears will be better understood, and managed. The cost-of- living crisis is inevitable, but you can ensure your team will be best equipped to weather the storm, intervene early and limit additional arrears
AI at the core: Income teams are specialists at dealing with complex tenant relations, and we should let them focus on that. Artificial intelligence can analyse, sort and review cases faster and better than any person can. AI spots patterns and trends and can even identify tenants who show signs of falling into arrears before it happens Reduced effort: Working smarter means removing all technical arrears cases from income officers’ caseloads, prioritising the remaining cases based on the urgency of each tenants’ debt, and even identify potentially problematic cases before they fall into arrears. According to income teams who are using AI technology, this has resulted in a up to a 40% reduction in workload, and a much more organised approach
Tenant wellbeing: Teams using AI technologies can identify tenants in difficulty earlier, offer better support, and have more options at their disposal. Early intervention leads to better outcomes, with tenants exiting arrears much faster. Experience tells us that once arrears debts grow past a certain point, the time and resources needed to support a tenant and help them recover is much greater. Some tenants remain in arrears for months if not years if intervention and support come too late. Income teams have always talked about being more preventative, not reactive, and now they finally can. Income collection is a tricky balance between collection and empathy, so it’s no surprise that technological innovation in this area has been slow to materialise. There’s a quote from The Matrix (of all places) that sums it up nicely: “Never send a human to do a machine’s job”. Machines can analyse, sort and review cases faster than any person can. But they can’t empathise, understand context, support emotionally and recommend actions to help ensure tenant wellbeing. So let’s allow your teams to do what humans do best, and leave the legwork to the machines. Our prediction for 2023 is that those housing associations who recognise they must work SMART will see the most benefit in these incredibly tough times; both in terms of income team and tenant satisfaction, as well as arrears management.
You can download a copy of the report here.