Tim Hill from Keyzapp explains how combining contactless tags and cloud-based software helped two housing associations solve an age-old problem

For housing associations key management can be a real headache. Keeping track of hundreds or even thousands of keys is often time consuming, yet it’s an incredibly important aspect of housing management with the security of tenants at potential risk. “How hard can it be?” thought Sam Spicer, customer service manager at Bath’s biggest housing association Curo. Sam reviewed the process for tracking the company’s 5,000 property keys, quickly uncovering that key management is actually a very tough job, taking his colleagues hours every day. Alan Hume, manager of the Private Sector Leasing (PSL) service within Edinburgh’s Link housing association knew the problem only too well, observing his own team struggle to keep their key cabinets up to date. Keys are notoriously hard to control, but the safety and security of residents and their property depend on keys being well managed, making it a critical process for all housing providers. “With modern data protection requirements, to write the address on a key would be unthinkable,” says Sam.

Finding a better way

Sam consulted industry peers at a conference, and was surprised that most were still using spreadsheets and paper logbooks for tracking their keys, despite all acknowledging it was far from ideal. “Spreadsheets and paper weren’t cutting it for us,” says Megan James from Link. “It was just too difficult to maintain and prevent mistakes”. “We couldn’t face any more spreadsheets,” agrees Sam. “The best spreadsheet we could design had 13,000 rows!” Curo had previously adapted a library book tracking system for their keys, but it wasn’t a perfect fit.

Contactless technology – ideal for key tracking

Most of us are used to tapping our credit cards at the checkout, but this idea also works really well for tracking keys as well. By embedding a tiny chip into a key fob, a simple tap on a reader or phone lets you identify a particular key and issue it in a matter of seconds. For both Curo and Link, this was the answer they were looking for. “Contactless fobs make it so much faster and more accurate to record who has a key,” says Simon Bex, Curo’s key manager. “It’s improved security as there’s no risk of written key tags falling into the wrong hands.” Sam loves that he can check keys by tapping them on his phone: “If I forget what key I need then I can simply look it up on my phone and check it out at the same time” he says. The team at Link took the contactless idea one step further, using purpose built ‘kiosks’ to create a self-service experience for issuing keys, much like the machines at the supermarket. “I just have to scan my ID on the kiosk, and it lets me search for the key I need, then I just zap it to sign it out,” says Megan.

Purpose-built apps make it easy for everyone

In the current smartphone age, we expect specialised apps that both fit our needs exactly and make our tasks easy and intuitive. Curo’s digital system needed to reflect the real world subtleties of their daily work. For example, they needed to precisely catalogue the multi-property master keys protecting their vulnerable sheltered accommodation residents. They chose Keyzapp because it naturally handled the nuances of their process. At Link, keys are tracked at the building’s reception, as well as by the operational teams sitting some distance away. “Seeing what’s going on at reception without leaving my desk makes life far easier,” says Megan. “Before, I would spend a day a week checking keys in folders at reception. Now I’ve got all that time back.”

The right technology changes the game

At Curo, introducing digital key management has dramatically reduced the training requirement for new team members. “We were previously reliant on two people who knew the key system inside-out. Now, it’s easy for anyone to find what they need,” says Simon. “Having late keys chased automatically by text message saves a lot of time” he continues. “I love that I can see what’s out of place and fix it before it becomes a problem. Misplaced keys can take an hour or more to track down, but now it almost never happens.” In addition to the one day per week Megan saves, Link calculate that in the six months since they went digital, they’ve saved over £10,000 in unnecessary lock replacement and administration costs. The teams are now looking at applying the same principles to the other small assets they manage, like lockboxes and maintenance tools. Technology is constantly evolving and developing in ways to make our lives easier. For housing providers, switching outdated processes for more time-efficient, digital alternatives is a natural step – especially where tenant safety and security is concerned.

Tim Hill is director at Keyzapp

Housing Management & Maintenance (HMM). 2019. Keyzapp.
Available at: https://www.housingmmonline.co.uk/companies/keyzapp/