When we talk about culture in the context of the workplace we are talking about how we work. Doing digital participation is a change to how we work, and therefore a change to our culture. Frontline services are still working towards the same objectives and outcomes, but they are using digital as the enabler to help tenants. It is not a one-off piece of work, it needs to be nurtured and supported throughout the organisation to make it a success.
As part of our work with the housing sector we realised early on in the project that unless the senior management team understood the value of this work, and were bought into it, it was not likely to succeed. The leadership and direction needs to be supported from the top, especially in organisations with multiple different departments and layers of management. For example, A DM who works in financial inclusion may struggle to embed organisation-wide digital participation if the housing services manager is creating resistance. Frontline staff in housing services are likely to take the lead from their direct line manager.
Many people hold their owns fears around digital, and many of the fears can be well founded, creating a culture of resistance. There are, however, easy wins to help address these fears. Some of the most common fears that we’ve encountered have included:
- Increasing vulnerability: There can be resistance to getting some people online as they may easily become victims to online scams, especially if they already have underlying vulnerabilities. There are risks to being online, as there are risks to almost everything we do in the physical world. We learn how to mitigate these risks and protect ourselves rather than never leaving our own homes. Once staff feel confident about staying safe online and understand how to protect themselves, they will be in a better position to overcome the ‘risk’ barrier. Of course, digital might not be for everyone, but being able to make more informed decisions will ensure that everyone who can benefit from being online is given the opportunity.
- Losing the human touch: many staff, quite rightly, pointed out that digital cannot be a substitution for basic human contact for those who need it most. We completely agree. Digital is an enabler to help increase different forms of contact and communication, but we don’t promote it as the only option – it’s complimentary. Staff need to be reassured that human interaction remains vitally important and that digital won’t replace this.
- Efficiency Savings: in most of our DC surgeries we’ve heard staff talk about their anxieties about their organisations going digital to make efficiency savings and reduce the need for paid staff doing jobs that could otherwise be automated. There is a really strong argument that any savings made through online interventions frees up staff to invest more quality time with those who really need it the most, but this needs to be effectively communicated to staff.
Digital isn’t traditionally seen as something that is core to individual job roles – it’s seen more as an IT or wider role thing and staff see it as in addition to their core role rather than intrinsic to it. Also, buy in from managers who see their staff teams already at full capacity can be a challenge. The Digital Motivator model has worked well with this – we motivate down and agitate up, to ensure that the message is out there that digital can make life easier rather than more complicated.
Debs Allan, Linstone Housing
When motivation fails: reflections from a Digital Motivator
Resistance may be futile (according to the Borg, anyway) but when resistance causes futility, it’s nothing short of frustrating!
The world we live in is now a digital one, there’s no escaping or denying it. It’s why I’m writing this blog. It’s (hopefully) why you’re reading it. It is certainly how it’s being written/typed and I would wager it is probably (hopefully) how it is being read. For those of us too young (ahem!) to remember the excitement of adding channel 4, or finding a new FM radio station after painstakingly twiddling a knob, it might seem odd to imagine there was ever anything other than digital tv or radio, and yet here we are.
Digital or online services were an inevitable development of the Digital Revolution, with the ability even to access these services through our digital TVs. It is, however, a scary digital world out there and there are some scary statistics about people in Social Housing not having “Essential Digital Skills".
Flashy new websites and Apps have been popping up from Housing Associations and Local Authorities across the country, and our Board Members wanted the same. All whistles and bells, fully interactive, with logins for clients and a portal (and hardware) for staff and contractors to be Agile Workers. Improving Comms and Marketing, and all the while driving efficiencies, and delivering value for money, high quality services.
If we want to develop our digital services, what would be the point if our clients don’t, can’t, or won’t use them? And who better to help and engage with our clients than the Housing Officers, and Housing Assistants, who support clients from application stage right through their tenancies?
A Digital Strategist’s dream, I would have thought, what could possibly go wrong?
- “That just sounds like more work for us/my team”
- “Our clients don’t want to engage with us in that way”
- “It’s not my job to teach people how to use computers”
- “Engagement with clients is mostly negative so why would they listen to us about this?”
This became part of the daily dialogue about the project and the loudest opposition came, surprisingly, from the Housing Services Manager.
All the positive benefits of the project (efficiencies and reduced processing time for staff, driving better services for clients) started to diminish. Decisions about the needs and wishes of not only our clients, but also our staff, who were not even given the chance to volunteer, were taken by others.
This did not deter us though and we went ahead training as many Digital Champions as we could. But surely this meant that as Digital Motivator I had failed (spectacularly some might say) to deliver by failing to convince the doubters of the obvious benefits, or was my audience just too tough? Is it true that the majority of interactions between Housing Services staff and their clients are negative in the most part, and if so, should we not as an organisation be looking for ways to change this (urgently) and can this project not help with that?
Ultimately, my Digital Motivator experience has taught me, that while Leaders and Managers support the idea of digital development, they want it handed to their staff as a complete concept, and they wildly underestimate the input required from both staff and clients to make a project like this work.
Anonymous Digital Motivator
My efforts always fell short of what was needed due to various reasons for example, budget provision, lack of time and support from people to really drive it forward, lack of knowledge on our housing management system and its capabilities to do what we want. It always fell off.
Emma McConnachie, Orkney Housing Association
In February 2020 we undertook a ‘snapshot week’ with our participating housing organisations, the aim of which was to measure their reach and impact. In addition to gathering some quantitative information, we were able to better understand the needs of frontline staff and how they were being supported by their organisation.
Some frontline staff suggested that they’d benefit from more support at an organisational level, having more ‘buy-in’ and time to develop their role as a Digital Champion (DC). An embedded DC shouldn’t need extra time to fulfill their role as digital is an enabler, or extra skill, that they can use to pursue their day-to-day support of tenants. However, the culture within the organization needs to be supportive of this approach and dedicate some time to learning and development activities to support DCs.
“Continued communication on the importance of digital inclusion.”
“Continuing promotion of digital champions in organisations.”
“Not really support but time is a factor in providing help to others in a digital champion role.”
Another enabling factor to support the culture required is the development of workforce essential digital skills. A skilled and confident workforce will be more likely to succeed in their role as a Digital Champion. Before any work with tenants begins, staff should be supported to develop their own skills first, which will help improve confidence and reduce resistance.
“I really just need to improve my own skills as i think that would help boost my confidence. I rarely use the internet at home. I don't do any online shopping or use social media. Assisting a tenant to do an online shop was as much of a learning curve for me as it was for my tenant!”
“Case studies/examples of success stories and how other housing officers and staff have helped tenants.”
“Events where we could meet other digital champions.”