Our Appliances Framework partner AO Business discusses a highlight of Digital Housing Week: how we can create a ‘new normal’ for communities moving forward.

Piers French, Head of Supported Living at AO Business


The Covid-19 pandemic has forced huge changes into all our lives, including the mass migration to online shopping and an increasing reliance on digital communication. Many of these changes move the social housing sector forward and create opportunity within the uncertainty, but now we must plan for a ‘new normal.’

Online has been a lifeline for many people throughout lockdown, with demand for smartphones, tablets and laptops soaring. People now rely on technology to stay connected with family, friends and colleagues. Connectivity will be key to finding and retaining a new job as well as educating our children. To help prevent the most vulnerable becoming more disadvantaged we need to work together to create a new, fairer normal.

At AO, we understand the role our business should play in helping to create a better future for these communities. As a sector, we must put our heads together to search for innovative solutions to the complex challenges and changes raised by Covid-19.

In June, Digital Housing Week brought the social housing sector’s leading names together to debate and discuss the future of the communities we support. AO’s CEO and Founder John Roberts was joined by Jeremy Porteus, CEO of Housing LIN, and Sheron Carter, CEO of Habinteg, for a discussion about how the sector can use the pandemic as an opportunity to innovate. The event tackled tough questions about how organisations can offer the best ‘new normal’ for the sector’s most disadvantaged.

Jenny Osbourne, CEO of TPAS, the tenant engagement experts, began with an overview of the sector’s performance over the past months. The social housing sector was applauded for the way it has quickly mobilised to support vulnerable tenants. New communities – both online and physical – have sprung up to offer essential support and the opportunity to build more meaningful relationships with tenants was recognised. Sheron Carter, from Habinteg who specialise in accessible homes, drew on the rhetoric of Covid-19 as a great leveller, with lockdown forcing everybody in the UK to share the feeling of being trapped in their homes, which their disabled tenants experience daily.

Housing associations movement to online has largely been regarded as a positive step – scrutiny can be thorough online with focused and accountable meetings. However, moving communication to digital platforms can exclude many tenants. Online has proved itself as a huge equaliser – if you have access.

In a poll at the beginning of the Digital Housing Week seminar, 84% of attendees voted that social landlords should help their tenants by providing broadband and other technology. Many housing associations have understandably transitioned from call centres to online communication due to home working, but the sector needs to urgently address digital access before it moves full steam ahead.

The discussion introduced some key challenges which, although thrust into the spotlight by Covid-19, were already inherent in our society. John Roberts emphasised how the pandemic has exposed some particularly unpalatable truths – that those who have taken the highest risks in frontline roles throughout the crisis are ultimately the ones who are paid the least. In terms of education, John noted that while talent is evenly distributed, access and opportunity is not. With its rental business for appliances, AO are trying to build a model to tackle some of these discrepancies.

AO’s Supported Living team already recognise that those who need appliances and electricals the most, often pay the highest price. Households can spend around 47% more on the weekly shop because they can’t afford a fridge to store food. By making products more affordable and providing appliances to charities and housing associations, we hope we can encourage other organisations to work together on tackling the root causes of this inequality.

Across the business, we have found that the constraints of a global pandemic have challenged us to find innovative ways of working. Technology has been used in ways it would never have been used pre-Covid-19. At Digital Housing Week, John issued a call to arms for the housing sector to adopt a true mindset for change, challenging them to work in unison to create better communities for the future – where everyone can access what they need for a good quality of life.

The seminars at Digital Housing Week really reinforced the importance of looking through the lens of those less fortunate and rallying the social housing sector around a genuine mandate for change. AO Business have a role to play in this, which is why we have committed to changing the way people in social housing access appliances and electricals. We recognise that there is always more that we can do and we’re keen to share our expertise and resources throughout the sector.


For more information please contact piers.french@ao.com