Robotics – the future of housing

Rob Bryan of Vantage discusses harnessing the power of robotic process automation in social housing

Housing associations are fast finding how to harness artificial intelligence to streamline processes and reduce costs. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is evolving as the new go-to tool in the bid to improve customer experience and unlock staff time. RPA offers a new way to create efficiency in asset management, where the sector has seen R&M spend reducing and improvements in contract management and internal maintenance service operations. This is an idea tool to drive further efficiencies without compromising on service.

What is RPA?

RPA is where you automate business tasks using software “robots” that imitate the operations and processes traditionally performed by people. It’s particularly suited to high volume activities in an organisation, that don’t require human decision-making or qualitative appraisal thinking. The software robots mimic the tasks completed by humans using existing systems and applications in your organisation. They have the ability to interpret, trigger responses and communicate with systems. The technology is being used widely in other industries, particularly in HR and manufacturing.

RPA in housing?

RPA is ideally suited to the housing sector, particularly in business areas such as asset management, finance, HR and contact centres. As the sector is in a continuous state of flux, merging and amalgamating, there is a perfect opportunity to review what processes and systems can be transformed by new technologies. Many providers find themselves in a situation with multiple software systems and processes that need to be knitted together or having to select one set of systems over the other. Introducing RPA at this stage will enable you to think more widely about how to select systems based on customer need and business process driven decision making. The advice is to start by identifying well-defined, simple, high volume, repeatable processes for automation. For example, accounts reconciliation, payroll and accounts payable are all tasks that can be automated. The robot can take an invoice that is emailed to you, open the email, open the attachment, scan the invoice document for key information, add that to your system, cross reference with purchase order numbers and process it for payment.

RPA in asset management

RPA is ideally suited within property management functions in areas such as asset management, compliance, repairs, servicing and maintenance. Even organisations who are in the midst of a wider transformation programme can benefit as RPA offers interim solutions, improving processes that free up staff time to work on the wider transformation work. There is no need to put a hold on all improvements while you wait for new systems to be implemented, which can often take years to embed. RPA can be up and running within a matter of weeks with relatively low investment. Our clients are currently exploring processes to onboard new tenants, including streamlining mortgage applications, creating new tenancy records and integration with housing management systems and council systems. Many of these processes are completed manually, with frequent errors occurring. Similarly, compliance functions have seen the benefits of robotics, reducing the new to manually key in information or tag fire safety and electrical certificates. Russell Thompson, executive director of property services at Thirteen Group explains more: “Like many housing associations Thirteen are constantly looking at ways of improving customer experience, value for money and our customer offer. The use of AI and Robotic Process Automation will provide a new approach that can provide efficiency and savings in everyday tasks allowing staff then to concentrate on the overall customer experience. “We are already considering the uses within our property management functions, in areas such as asset management, facilities management, repairs, servicing and maintenance. The associated benefits are efficiency and consistency of our approach, realigning our people resources to improving our customer experience and offer, data analytics and trends that can help predicting breakdowns, repair cycles and therefore moving from a reactive approach to a more proactive approach.”

What benefits can you expect from using RPA?

As you would expect, automation offers many benefits, but it’s not just about operational efficiency. It also helps contribute to a happier workforce, that is focused on higher value tasks, that are not only more satisfying but add more value to your organisation. A happier workforce is more likely to stay at an organisation, retaining talent in the company and creating a culture where people want to come and work. As employees are freed up from the mundane tasks such as processing invoices, they are able to work directly with customers, helping them find homes, engaging them in tenant involvement schemes and solving property issues. The benefits of an RPA strategy include improved accuracy, reduced data entry and process errors, and a much-reduced processing time. The automation process can be running 24/7 in the background and requires minimal intervention. David Bolton, property services director at Yorkshire Housing looked to the future: “As the sector continues on its journey of transformation and innovation, technologies such as these will become even more central in the future to how we operate as businesses and crucially provide services to our customers and allow them to interact with us.”

Preparing for the implementation of RPA

As with any business change, it is vital to prepare and review processes before introducing new technology. Many digital projects fail to reap the intended benefits due to poor planning. Housing providers must have the right implementation strategy in place in order to see the benefits that RPA can offer. The key to success lies in aligning automation with your change programmes and getting the buy in from the teams involved. What is particularly appealing with this technology is the ability to hit the ground running at a fairly low cost and see it in action before making further investment or committing to any roll out plan. Many clients start with discovery days, mapping out which processes are ripe for automating, and which need reviewing and improving before automation can be considered. Often, processes are not streamlined and have many stages which are unnecessary and repetitive. We have discovered that an organisation that is open to robotic process automation benefits from a culture shift whereby staff feel empowered to challenge the status quo and offer up solutions for improvements.

Rob Bryan is operations director at Vantage