video Podcast Episode 7

Russell Thompson from Thirteen Group

This week, we're talking with Russell Thompson, Chairman of Direct Works and Executive Director of Assets at Thirteen Group. We talk about the Direct Works, how Thirteen Group adapted to COVID and the technologies with potential to reduce CDM and disrepair in social housing.

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Podcast Transcript

Alastair:
Hello, and welcome to another Switchee Podcast. I'm Alastair Thorpe from Switchee and I'm joined today by Russell Thompson, who I can introduce with two big titles, Executive Director of Assets at Thirteen Group and the Chair of the Direct Works Group. Now I'm going to start off Russell by just asking you a quick question that I try to ask everybody in this sector - why housing?

Russell:
Yeah, that's a good question, Alastair to be fair. I think why housing - just going back to the start of my career - it's because I started with a local authority as an Apprentice Joiner all those years ago. Many years ago and I was very fortunate at the time, joining a local authority when it had lots of different arms, in terms of the types of work that they did. The variation of work. It's a great grounding in terms of social housing and housing in particular. And I think it sort of got me more and more curious about how much more there was to this particular sector, given that we were only one part of it in terms of delivering repairs and maintenance and those kinds of things.

So, yeah, that's where I started unfortunately in 1979. I can remember the day now. Many, many moons ago - I look back with some fond memories about the kinds of work that we used to do, the customers that we met and the sort of relationships with customers that we developed over the years with delivering those services to people day in, day out. So yeah, fond memories, seems like a long, long time ago now. But I can remember my first day like it was yesterday, funnily enough.

Alastair
Fantastic. And I guess fast-forwarding to now, you've taken over this position as Chair of Direct Works. I think we're all really keen to understand, what your plans are there, what you guys have been up to over the last few months, and what's coming up? What's exciting?

Russell:
Yeah. I think it's been an exciting change to be fair. I feel a big level of responsibility, taking over from somebody like Keith Simpson. That's a big task and I feel honoured to take over the role as chair. I guess the first thing really to say is that we've changed the name for the Direct Works Forum to just Direct Works. We've done a bit of a rebranding exercise and that's gone down really, really well with members. We've been out and surveyed members to get a real feel for what they feel around the Direct Works. And we've had some fantastic survey results come back and some comments from people about the benefits they see from the direct works. We did an NPS (Net Promoter Score) position statement from that survey. It's at 74, which is probably about world-class to be fair, so it's fantastic.

And I think that's all down to Keith and Rodney. As I said, they've been involved with the Direct Works from a long, long time back. Obviously when Keith set it up. So I think it's just phenomenal that people are so, so bought into the whole concept of the seminars and now obviously the webinars that we're doing. So yeah, it's just fantastic. So it gives us a really good solid platform in which to take the Direct Works forward. As I said, we've changed the name. We've got some new branding, we've got a new website coming up at the end of October, which will be more interactive for members as well. The steering group now meets once a month, obviously given where we are in terms of COVID. And we're able to communicate I think a lot more freely through IT, et cetera. It's given us more chances to connect. And I think on the back of that, I think that's really allowed us to move things at quite a pace, so that's been a real benefit.

We've introduced some subgroups to the Direct Works as well. So we're talking about the retrofit of housing stock. We're talking about customer engagement around carbon literacy and decarbonization. And we're also going to be looking at joining the disruption innovators network as well, which I think will be very interesting for our members. We've also been talking to the building sector as well around some qualifications for the sector. So we started some work on that and we'll be taking that forward through into the new year. We're also thinking about developing strategic partnerships across the sector. And again, we're just looking at the criteria and how those strategic partnerships will work. Obviously, we're going to continue to delivering webinars and I think seminars because as you know, we normally have those. It's going to prove really difficult at this time. So we're thinking now we can hold those seminars, obviously virtual, but put more of a lengthier seminar on during that particular day.

So yeah, I think COVID has tested us as far as the Direct Works is concerned, but nonetheless, I think we're responding to that. I think really the last part is about increasing our social media presence as well. We started some more work on LinkedIn. So yeah, it's all positive - we've just been running it but I think it's a slow and measured approach. And obviously bringing our members along with us, getting their feedback on how they'd like to see the Direct Work develop over the coming months and years, really.

Alastair:
Very interesting and exciting. I've certainly always thought, as an outsider, from a supplier's perspective, it's such a great group of people that are all kind of pulling in a similar direction and it's a testament to Keith and Rodney and those guys but it's something that, I'm sure, you can continue. The way that I think about that group of people, and I might be stealing some words from somebody else here, but they're a great resource. It is a great resource of knowledge and a great resource for potentially solving some of these problems or not necessarily just problems, but things that need to happen and changes that are happening within housing. You mentioned there about the deep retrofit side of things - what a great thing to use all of the direct labour organizations in the housing sector to do that well and then be able to take those learnings to the private sector. Are there any plans in terms of using direct works as a resource in the future, either as a technical community or almost as a labour force?

Russell:
Yeah. I mean we are a labour force and in our own individual organizations, but I think you're right. I think that's always been the strength of the Direct Works as it was - the fact that it's been such a fantastic opportunity to network and speak to like-minded people to get that sort of feedback on what their thoughts are and how they've tackled issues. And we've seen lots of that over the years when people have come and presented back on what they've learned from certain processes. Maybe it's new technology and the likes. It becomes a bit of a hotbed. I think that people want to talk about that, which is great. And you can see that during the evening before the seminar people get into some real deep conversations about their sort of trials and tribulations, which is great, isn't it?

Alastair:
It's good to know you're not in that sort of fix on your own and there are other people that have been there, seen it and done it.

Duncan:
Yeah, I think it's going to give them more opportunity to do more of that. There is more for us to do, but I think that's more about how we collaborate, to be honest with you. I think just coming together like we did four times a year was absolutely brilliant, but then you probably lose some of that connectivity when people walk away. So I think COVID, and the way we're connecting now through IT, will give us more of an instant connectivity in that sort of consistent approach as well. So people aren't going to be waiting sort of three months before they meet up again and hopefully, we'll help each other in terms of understanding how we can roll that out. I think we want to be careful as the steering group, myself and Mike Wilson, who's the treasury and administrator, with the Direct Works. We want to be doing it with people rather than to them. So obviously we will welcome as much information and feedback as we can get from members because it is their organization at the end of the day.

And so it needs to be a mutual benefit there, not just in terms of a collaborative approach, but really I think as a joined-up voice towards how we move the sector. And I guess the agenda, where we're concerned is Direct Works and how we can move that forward, I guess.

Alastair:
That's great. We can't have a discussion like this without talking about Thirteen Group as well. So, the topic on everybody's lips has been COVID over the last few months, I think kind of interested to hear how you guys fared as an organization. Any tips or tactics or strategies that you used and in addition to that is what's the plan moving forward? We're staring down the barrel of localized lockdowns, maybe national lockdown again. Help! What are we all meant to do?

Russell:
I think we're probably no different to a lot of people you've already spoken with, Alastair. We probably have similar feedback around how we dealt with it. March seems like a long time ago now, because we seem to have gotten into this rhythm the way we're doing things and we're in a good position, really. I think from an agile working point of view, we were always working towards this point, anyway. It's just that COVID has accelerated that position. We got into a very, very quick rhythm once we left the office. Obviously, it's just regular meetings, regular contact, keeping in touch with people. Doing a lot more teams and zoom things really and feeling like you're never away from the computer.

But that's really helped in terms of understanding what we need to do, how we need to do it. Keeping the board involved, making sure that people got the PPE, all the usual stuff. No doubt lots of people have said that lots of times. We're not unique in that position. But I think we've been able to mobilize ourselves very, very quickly. And again, it always amazes me. I'm probably sat two hours from our base and still amazed thinking about this plethora of different services that are going on and being delivered. And I'm sat here in my home and everything is still happening - which I think is just phenomenal really. I know it shouldn't amaze me, but it always does amaze me the fact that the services are still being delivered and I think our frontline staff have just done a phenomenal job. I think they've been absolutely amazing. I can't praise them enough for the way that they've embraced what's needed to be done.

And the fact that they got out there and delivered those core services. Some of the comments and feedback from customers has been absolutely fantastic. We really appreciate what they've done. So I think from our perspective we've moved away from the office. There are some essential services that remained at the office for obvious reasons but generally, we've got 700 plus people working from home. So we've provided people with desks and chairs. Carried out the HSE assessments and things like that. Just to make sure that people are safe working from home as well. It's important that that's the case. Obviously, speaking to people directly and people's mental health and wellbeing, I think has been really important. There's been a little bit of relief because kids have gone back to school. So I think some people got a little bit more time to think about it, but yeah, I think we've seen our people a little bit more relaxed about that situation and rightfully so. I understand that. I think the big thing that we found is it helps us to accelerate the use of technology, not just the fact that we can talk to each other like we are now.

I know you said you're in Southwest London and I'm up here in the east side of Yorkshire, but it's making us think differently as well and helping us in thinking about how technology can help us to do things, knowing that we can't go on-site. So, for argument's sake, we've trialled a system called SightCall which is a system that allows us to send a text through to the customer. They can open the link and then we can use their camera, we can video things on-site without being in the property, which is really helping us to realize that, you know, we don't necessarily need to go to that property and see the customer. So I think it's things like that that have really helped us with the transition.

I think it's also helped us realize exactly what we do need to do. So, some things we could probably do less of and some things we need to do more of. So I think that that's given us a really good perspective, in terms of where we are as a business. Board meetings have all been virtual and we've been holding lots of webinars, which I think the board have enjoyed because it's given them a real taste, a real feel, for how the business has been moved during this time and those things that we're still planning to do in the future, maybe in the next 3, 6 or 12 months. Obviously, we can still keep that contact with the board.

Another really good one, I think we recently had an IDA (an in-depth assessment) with the regulator which was all virtual. So that was different. Our last one obviously was on site a few years back. That was a different experience, but it felt like it went well. I guess we will see what the overall result was, but it really felt like a good process.

Alastair:
Yeah, I think just with regards to the remote independent assessment, that sounds sort of interesting and new. If there are any viewers who are about to embark on a similar thing, have you got any advice for them or anything to look out for and how to navigate that one.

Russell:
Yeah, I think it's just being aware of the fact you're in a virtual environment. And the fact that you're talking face-to-face and for some people, we'll have notes as well. I think it's just overall preparation and making sure you have everything around you and making sure the setting is right. Making sure you're well prepared is the best advice. I know lots and lots of colleagues that have been through the process before and will know what the regime is. But I think you do need to think about having the right space - making sure it's in a quiet room and distractions packed away because you need to be on the ball in terms of ensuring that you can give the right response at the right time. I think it's all those things really. So it's just thinking about that virtual environment for me - that would be my top tip or takeaway.

Alastair:
Okay, thank you for that. I also just wanted to pick up on something that you were talking about with regards to the continuation of services that you provide. Within the housing sector, there's a huge amount of good that's being done and the day-to-day services can sometimes be forgotten about. But overwhelmingly, I’ve heard from contractors, residents, but also lots of housing providers that there's this realization that every part of the chain - people care. So you think “gosh! How do all of these services continue under such problematic conditions?” and it's basically because the people that are providing them actually care about the job that they're doing and the people that they're doing it for. And it's quite humbling to hear that time and time again. There's a theme there.

And something that I’m sure you guys did and I’ve heard a lot of providers doing, is refocusing certain people that may normally be doing a job that's now not possible at the moment because of the lockdown and repositioning them into outreach to residents. Just checking that everybody's okay. That's massively important and really interesting. I know other organizations that have done that and the housing sector has.

Russell:
Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. I mean obviously, we've had people that have been unable to carry out their day-to-day role - we've used that resource to contact customers. Helping people that might be in a difficult financial position and well-being issues as well. You're absolutely right - I think it's been all hands to pump really. People have really mucked in and I think what's really opened my eyes is the fact that our frontline staff have really gotten their heads around the technology. I remember having a meeting recently where one of our union representatives actually sat in his van with Teams on his phone and you just look at him thinking, yeah, you know - you get it! You know exactly what you're doing, you've joined the meeting with no fuss whatsoever and you just got on with it. At first, I had a bit of a double-take thinking "what's going on here", but the reality is it yeah having him joining in the meeting was absolutely brilliant. I think that we've all gone on this journey, we'll continue to learn on this journey, but yeah, I do agree with what you're saying. I think the staff have been fantastic in the way they've been embraced what's needed to be done. And I think in terms of meeting those customer expectations I’m probably going more than the extra mile at times which is again it's been phenomenal.

Alastair:
So, the other thing I wanted to speak to you about - we're obviously a tech business at Switchee - we love all things technology. I'm interested to hear how you think the housing sector is getting on with technology, what do you think either Thirteen Group or the housing sector at large is going to be doing to try to bring in some of the advancements into either day-to-day operations or within your properties. Where do you think you're at as a business or as a market, with regards to technology adoption?

Russell:
I think we're moving at a slow pace with technology, to be honest with you. I think there's an argument that people are talking about - do we put technology in if it's the whole VHS vs the Betamax discussion. I think we had a discussion this morning about renewables. A lot of the renewables have been around for a long while and they are tried and tested. I think some of that argument will be dismissed as we move forward. But thinking about your area particularly with Switchee - some of the technology that's there in terms of understanding how a house is actually being run, how it is been lived in, I think that is some really, really good data. We've already looked at implementing the internet of things within one of our pilot properties where we've been running a retrofit pilot and what we've actually done is put sensors on virtually everything. The reason we've done that is because we want to know how the home is going to perform. And not just because we're interested in the bricks and mortar, but we're interested in it from a customer's perspective.

You know, you want to run that home as economically as you can, but we want to put more cash back into the customer's pocket. So it makes sense on both fronts that the home is doing what it's supposed to be doing and the technology is doing what it's supposed to be doing. The heating is operating how it should be operating and at the right times et cetera. So we've taken that approach and taking that a little bit further, we can actually switch electricity and water off within that actual property. We'll also be able to send information back and actually take action. So if somebody, for argument's sake, says they've got a leak, we could switch the water off there and then - obviously reducing any damage and disrepair that happens on the back of that leak.

So I think the other issue for me is it's great having that technology but you've got to deal with the data. So we're working with an exception only, so we know what the parameters are. So we deal with the exceptions that come back to us around those parameters. But I think the issue is and I think this is the problem for me, is that we talk about it. We do lots of pilots. I think the technology's there. We need to mainstream this stuff, to be honest with you. We need to get this business as usual. We're never going to do it, we're going to talk about it and talk about it.

So I’m thinking back in terms of what we're doing at Thirteen with that and what we have done is we've instigated a holistic stock condition survey. What we're doing with that stock condition, I mean Savills is carrying out that piece of work for us, but we're asking them to build in the internet of things within our homes as well. So we're getting some apportion of the cost within that stock condition survey, that allows us to mainstream that kit. It allows us then to take that forward in some volumes rather than always just being on the edge of it. So I think that's important for us. I think it's important for the sector as well because sooner or later we have to break the back of this. Otherwise, we're going to be constantly just tamping around and playing around with the edges which I’m not sure is doing anybody any good.

Alastair:
Yeah, and you know as an IoT technology company servicing predominantly the housing sector everything that you've said there, I can concur with. There's Pilot-itis - a term that we've used from time to time. And I guess the other thing is trying to normalize this. We know from being involved in this for years and years - using technology that actually existed already but just a slightly different way. It's not that new and rocket science-y anymore. So it's tried and tested from that perspective, but we find that the challenge is finding this additional budget pot for something that doesn't exist already in your budgets.

And I really like that idea Russell that you know, you can add this in sort of pre-identify that there's going to be a cost to doing it. Factoring that into the plan of the stock condition survey and what you're planning to do at the end of it because otherwise it would just be a bolt-on and somebody's got to find some budget this year and next year. In our experience that doesn't really happen. In our experience, we've seen where housing providers are able to package this up. Either with other measures like electrification of heat stuff or a boiler replacement program in yesteryear or a voids program or something like that. Unless you can package it up with something else, it's all about putting out a procurement of it, because then it's budgeted and people know what's happening. There's a contractor to fulfil it and it sits within business as usual.

Russell
Yeah, I think we're on the cusp actually, I really do. I’m hopeful that we'll see this mainstream. And I think if we don't as a sector, I’m sure as an organization Thirteen will do that for sure. We've got an internal project called “the home of 2030” and I’m sure all of us will see technology over the next 10 years develop to another level. I think what we're doing is just giving our customers more choice about, you know, what they want from their home how they want their home to operate and I think that a bit like everybody wants the internet, everybody's going to want whatever's there in terms of technology because everybody wants the latest phone, they want to be up to date with what's going on. So I don't see that being anything different in our own home. I think we'll need to embrace it a lot quicker to understand what it gives us and I think the sooner we can mainstream that. I think the less we're talking about it and the more we're using what it actually does. That's the important thing that gets us to improve the quality of our homes and improve the environment that our customers are living in as well.

Alastair
Fantastic. Russell, we're going to have to leave it there. We've run out of time, but really interesting to hear more about Direct Works, how Thirteen Group have been dealing with the problems that we're all facing, at the moment and your ideas on how to normalize this technology that can be so useful. We just have to make it fit with the current way of doing things in the current budget process. So thank you so much.

Russell:
Thanks Alastair. Appreciate it.

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