Late last year I attended a talk from Melissa Sterry, a Design Scientist. She was challenging the received wisdom that we would all live a lot longer in the future. “How can we say this?” she said. “When everything around us is changing so rapidly?” She went on to explain the complex global disruption caused by events such as climate change and proposed that there were few guarantees about anything anymore.
A full two months before most of us had heard of COVID-19, Melissa gave the example of new diseases emerging with strains capable of igniting pandemics. The message was clear – the world we think we know can quickly disappear.
Endless column inches have already been filled with speculation about what a ‘new normal’ looks like. In reality none of us know what a post-pandemic operating environment looks like. However there are some areas of challenge and opportunity that we must begin to consider.
The most immediate is the way we work. The virus has kickstarted the world’s largest workplace experiment – with remote working advancing as much in a few weeks as it has in the previous ten years. Right now there are lots of CEOs looking at our empty offices and wondering what their purpose was.
Is it too fanciful to imagine a future where housing association offices simply cease to exist, with people relocated to work in the communities they are employed to serve? I expect that we will gravitate back to our offices over time, so should take this opportunity to question whether that’s the sensible thing to do.
People are already valuing new arrangements with a poll for transport consultants SYSTRA finding that more of us expect to work from home saving money on commute time and cost, and striking a better work-life balance. 67% of people say they believe virtual meetings will replace some or all future business trips or meetings. The longer that people go without spending their time and money on fuel and transport the more resistant they will be to returning to it.
Arguably the more challenging questions emerge when looking at community and customer service.
YouGov have reported that only 9% of us want to return to life as normal with 40% of people saying they feel a stronger sense of community than before lockdown.
People have begun supporting and caring for one another to an unprecedented extent, with community led groups popping up to address needs in ways that housing associations simply can’t. Rather than organisations, it is neighbours that have shown themselves to be the most useful support network in a physically distanced world.
Now then is an ideal time to revisit our purpose and reflect on the non value adding activities that our organisations are involved in. It is hard to imagine right now, but even bigger challenges lie ahead. The economic fallout of this crisis will hit most of us, but we know from past experience that those on benefits or in the lowest paid employment will be hit hardest. We’ve woken up to the fact that those who work in supermarkets and the caring professions are the backbone of our society, so we need to reconsider how our organisations can better support them. This means thinking beyond ‘housing’ and requires a need for the whole system to work together, through health, housing, employment and social care.
Also now is a time to reflect on the built home itself. The sector has toyed with the concept of live/work environments and multi use spaces over the past 10 years. Starting now we need to design new homes for a work from anywhere culture and adapt lettings policies for existing ones. The idea of having a spare room for working – previously a luxury – could now be a basic requirement.
Lockdown has highlighted the importance of open space and how valuable it is to people for their sense of well-being. The unequal access to it has been revealed through the stories of tenants without access to any private outdoor space — be it a balcony, patio or garden. This isn’t an easy problem to solve – if you build bigger outside space it means less internal space and few developers are amenable to that. How we design homes that promote the health, resilience and wellbeing of communities is a question we must answer.
There’s no way to completely prepare for the future of housing. Nor indeed can we solve every problem. The best we can hope to do is to stay up to date on current trends, encourage local solutions and community led innovation – and prepare our people for frequently changing environments.
Above all though we should never assume we can survive the future with the same thinking that enabled us to survive the past.
This Post Was Originally Published in Inside Housing