What lessons can be taken from the Grenfell disaster in regards to communication?

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After the Grenfell disaster, much of the focus of the Hackitt Review was on cladding, but there were also recommendations regarding tenant engagement, with Dame Judith Hackitt calling for ‘a national culture of engagement’ with tenants

Dame Hackitt’s statement within the report was a response to the fact that Grenfell residents voiced their concern that the building was unsafe for years leading up to the disaster.

The role of tenants in bringing concerns to light

Edward Daffarn, a Grenfell resident who survived, warned on his blog just 8 months before:

‘Only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders’.

Grenfell residents Nadia Choucair Mariem Elgwahry who were killed in the fire publicly campaigned to try to make the block safer.

90% of Grenfell residents had even signed a petition to ask for the Tenant Management Organisation to be investigated, but the council refused.

The inquiry also heard about a ‘culture of non-compliance’ at Grenfell where proposals to fix the broken ventilation system just eight days before the fire were ignored.

After the Grenfell disaster there has understandably been a crisis of trust between property managers and residents across the country, with residents being fearful that something similar could happen to their block.

As a consequence, property managers and landlords must learn from the Grenfell disaster to ensure effective two-way communication.

How to create a ‘national culture of engagement’ with tenants

Establishing good communication from the start is of course essential for any property management company – it is the crux. Tenants rely on being able to get in touch with their property manager at all times and the property owner pays for this service.

A typical property manager/tenant relationship aligns duties, responsibilities and communication with care. Grenfell highlighted that communication failure can lead to disastrous consequences.

When a tenant has a safety concern they expect a timely response handled in a professional way, with multiple lines of communication. If the tenant believes their needs are not being met, there needs to be a clear pathway for escalation of the problem that they can take.

All tenants are different, so there are a number of ways in which a property manager can communicate with each tenant differently to meet their individual needs.

  1. Use a variety of communication methods

  • Face-to-face meetings

If there is a serious issue at hand, texting, emailing or even a telephone call can fall short. Ideally, employ staff who speak multiple languages so that there is no language barrier.

A face-to-face meeting will result in:

✔ Tenants seeing that you have a sense of urgency

✔ Tenants being reassured that you care about the issue

✔ A two-way conversation flow that may result in multiple solutions

✔ No misunderstandings about tone of voice – it is hard to gage tone from a text message

✔ A professional, but friendly approach.

If Grenfell residents had been granted regular face-to-face meetings with the property management company they could have voiced their safety fears in person.

Property managers should involve residents in the decision-making process as much as possible. Grenfell residents felt that the property management company was collecting their money and profiting from it while cost-cutting to the extent that the building was unsafe and that the landlord was not meeting their legal obligations.

By involving residents in the decision making process they would have had balanced and informed solutions. One person in the block could be appointed duty-holder for fire safety and they could also listen to other residents’ concerns and give them feedback.

Property managers can also organise a face-to-face meeting with a readers’ panel of residents who would receive any communications before they were sent to the whole block. You could then gain the feedback from the residents’ panel and make changes before sending it out to the whole block.

  • Telephone conversations

When it isn’t practical to arrange a face-to-face meeting with a tenant, tenants and property managers need to be able to call each other.

Telephone conversations are best for simple issues, such as calling tenants to reassure them that a maintenance check has been scheduled for a certain date.

However, a phone call won’t protect you in court if the issue is a serious one, so make sure you document the phone call with a write-up of everything discussed and email and post it to the tenant.

  • Texting

Text messages are another quick and convenient method of communication and they can sometimes be useful in a legal dispute.

  • Online portals and email

Online portals and email are an excellent way of communicating effectively. These are convenient methods of communication for both the property manager and the tenant. They also allow for easy recording of the discussions if a legal dispute arises later.

Property managers can also prepare and upload regularly updated online guides for residents providing safety checklists and health and safety information.

However, not everyone prefers this method of communication, particularly the older generation. Important messages could also be ‘lost’ within spam folders or if a tenant doesn’t regularly check their emails.

Social media groups can be very useful, but again – important issues need face-to-face, personable contact.

  • Paper correspondence

Although this may seem old-fashioned to some, hard copies of important documents is still vitally important. Sending documents such as inspection notices via the mail are best sent special delivery to the tenants. The property management company can then alert the tenants to the delivery of the letter via text message.

Ultimately, if property managers make themselves accessible to tenants using a variety of communication methods they will reassure tenants that their home and personal sanctuary is safe. Some tenants will prefer social media and texting, others will prefer a telephone call.

  1. Poor communication issues must be avoided

Factors that result in poor communication include:

  • Ambiguous or complicated language
  • Confusing, lengthy or contradicting messages
  • Being oblivious to special needs
  • Apparent fatigue, boredom or disinterest
  • Inconsistent body language
  • Poor listening skills
  • Seeming too busy to listen to the tenant.
  1.  Communicate to tenants that there are new fire and safety risk assessments

As a result of the Grenfell fire, property managers have re-examined how safe their blocks are. It is vital that they communicate this to the tenants to reassure them that something similar won’t happen to their block.

Property managers must tell the tenants when fire and safety assessments are carried out, who the fire wardens are and this updated information must be rolled out to all tenants.

Strengthen residents’ voices

The Hackitt report called for a need to strengthen residents’ voices and that resident involvement and engagement should be at the heart of systems going forward with a  ‘culture change in the relationship between landlords and residents so that the good practice that already exists becomes the norm across the whole sector’.

Property managers need to maintain transparency in all information relating to the building, inform tenants of their responsibilities and duties regarding fire safety, and involve residents in decision making that ultimately impacts their safety.

 

This article was contributed with the help of Ian Harvey at Redbrick Property Management, a property management company based in Hertfordshire.

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