Marcus Sprott started his new role as Tenant Engagement Officer with Habinteg Housing Association just before the lockdown went into effect. He has found ways to make the most of a challenging situation, helped himself and others break out of their tech comfort zones, and remains optimistic about the future of tenant participation. Now that’s some #NextLevelTP!
I took up the new post of Tenant Engagement Officer with Habinteg Housing Association just two and a half months before lockdown. Then, like so many others, I entered this strange, uncharted world full of new phrases such as social distancing, shielding, and zoom. I found myself checking the news daily for updates as the global pandemic accelerated, leaving no community untouched.
I belong to a team that includes experienced Housing, Maintenance, Development, Support Staff, Community Assistants, Community Involvement Officers, and Good Relations Officers. During the lockdown, we have developed a range of innovative methods to engage and support tenants. This has included a weekly call-back scheme to support vulnerable tenants, a new Community Resources Directory, sign-posting vulnerable tenants to support services, weekly family-friendly quizzes and coffee catch-ups via Zoom, and the development and distribution of activity packs for all ages.
We quickly identified our most vulnerable tenants and developed a call back scheme, providing a wonderful opportunity for my colleagues and me to contact tenants who we would probably not have had cause to otherwise. Strong community links were developed in local schemes to ensure the most vulnerable and isolated were reached and referred to support services.
During the lockdown, I have developed a greater understanding of what it means to be isolated, with little contact with others outside my own home. In the months to come, and eventually, when restrictions are eased, I will be more empathetic towards tenants who are isolated and better understand the issues facing those who have little family or community support.
Colleagues had provided me with the names of tenants who had either previously been involved in Tenant Participation (TP) or had expressed an interest. Some of the contact info was recent, some was considerably older but worth exploring. An unforeseen advantage of lockdown was that it provided me with the opportunity, and time, to phone more tenants. I have now developed an up to date Interested Tenant Register (ITR), containing the names of tenants interested in TP, ranging in levels of involvement from local panels and scrutiny, to the occasional survey.
When I phoned tenants about the ITR and TP, they would often bring up other issues that needed to be relayed to my colleagues. Another unforeseen advantage of the lockdown was that, as a result of passing on non-TP related matters, I had increased contact with Housing Officers, and other staff, creating a rapport with colleagues I had previously had little contact with.
Using Zoom has also opened up new opportunities that might not have occurred to me before. I was still finding my way around the new digital world when I realized that although I had participated in a lot of Zoom meetings, I had not yet hosted any myself. To remedy this, I contacted a tenant who had said she would be interested in TP but thought that her agoraphobia would prevent her from getting involved. Since I had not hosted an online meeting, I asked if she would be willing for me to host one with her to learn the ropes. She agreed, and we met via Zoom the following day. It was a very positive engagement, so much so, that she has decided to join her local panel, using Zoom to begin with, but with aspirations to join face to face once she gets to know the others.
Although it was the great saviour at the start of lockdown, I have recently heard the new term “Zoom fatigue”. Discussions with tenants and colleagues would support a growing hunger for getting back to face to face contact. When I speak to my TP colleagues, we agree that Zoom will never replace in-person meetings, but we also recognise that it has become an essential tool in the toolbox to engage tenants.
I am now meeting with local panels and the resident’s forum and putting them in touch with tenants from other schemes to discuss common interests, all via Zoom. Zoom will be with us for some time yet whether we like it or not, but at least it provides us with the opportunity to continue to engage with tenants, despite lockdown.
While we continue to take every precaution to protect our tenants, staff, and their families and friends, I remain optimistic about the future. TP is as important as ever, maybe even more so, and I look forward to supporting our tenants to prepare for a different landscape than we recognized before lockdown.