Wherever I May Roam

As work/life balance becomes an increasingly important consideration for employees the role of the traditional office setting is changing. Remote working and flexible working have reduced the need to have an organisation’s workers based in an office. The challenge for organisations is to adapt their culture, as much as their IT infrastructure, to get the best of both worlds.

Most people could work from Timbuktu provided they had a reliable internet connection and a phone with a good international dialling plan

The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with One Step

One of the most significant stumbling blocks regarding remote/flexible working for organisations is not the physical infrastructure, although that can always be improved, but the culture of the business. Far too many see working from home, or at least away from the office, as something to be avoided at all costs. It is reflective of a failure to have a grown up relationship with your staff and the ability to be adaptable in the workplace. Most people could work from Timbuktu provided they had a reliable internet connection and a phone with a good international dialling plan. In all likelihood they’d be doing their job just as well as if they were sat in an office in Milton Keynes.

Personally I’ve always been a fan of treating staff as grown ups until they prove otherwise. Yes there will always be those that take the piss, but a happy workforce is a productive one. And if as an employer you can help ease part of the day to day stress inducing clusterfuck that is life by allowing staff to work from home or pick up their kids from school, why the hell not give it a try? If you’re unsure as to the benefits, here’s a link to a blog I quickly Googled to pad out this paragraph. It’s actually quite useful. Elsewhere here’s a good piece on why offering flexible working also helps.

Getting away from walk-in traffic is occasionally invaluable

A Word of Caution

Working remotely is not all plain sailing. Working from home or in a different office to your usual one will always require a small amount of adjustment. Even if it’s just for basic things like knowing where the non decaf coffee is kept (honestly who drinks coffee without the caffeine content). It is also important not to underestimate the value of relationships built up by face to face contact. Different personality types will cope better than others.

What helped me during the few weeks this year when I had no office to call home (it was undergoing a refurb) was the fact that I’d been working from home 1 day every 1-2 weeks for the last year. Whilst forcing myself to get away from walk-in traffic is occasionally invaluable for ‘admin days’ or mini projects, it also meant there was less of a shock for me on day one as I had already sorted my routine. It meant that my line manager and I also knew what to expect. For every diligent worker there will be one who ends up eating ice-cream in their PJ’s watching Jeremy Kyle rather than working. Easing people into such changes, as well as setting up clear boundaries/expectations, is therefore a must.

That’s a Wrap

As with many aspects of modern work there have been many improvements made to make our jobs easier. As employers it is also important to try and create a working environment that facilitates productive workers. For some this means office based working. For others it means 2 days a week at home so they can pick up the kids on time. Sticking rigidly to one way of working is simply nonsensical, backward and will ultimately have a negative impact on your organisation. Evolve a little, the results may surprise you.

Photo Credit – Michal Scuglik – Abandoned Office (2011)

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

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Warm Smiles Don’t Make You Welcome Here

Housing Associations are increasingly trapped by their own ambitions and whilst Mr Hilditch is right to highlight mission creep, the sector’s problems go deeper than simply chasing dollar signs. It still does not understand how to deliver good customer service based on the needs of its end users. Continued failure to address this issue will further erode credibility in the sector and ultimately the very values it claims to uphold.

Customer Service

For those blissfully detached from the internet over the last couple of weeks the power of failing in the very basics of customer service was beautifully highlighted by United Airlines. A fee paying passenger was physically, and very forcefully removed, (getting injured in the process) on a flight that was overbooked. Whilst initially unrepentant and largely unapologetic. Sharp drops in the company’s share prices, alongside a massive social media backlash forced the CEO Oscar Munoz to apologise. It is an extreme case, but highlights that get customer service wrong in the private sector and you will, literally, pay the price. And that’s before the inevitable lawsuit.

For me this is where a large number of the problems with the sector lie. The main focus of a business, social or otherwise, should be to ensure that the customer gets a good service. That comes from a culture that accepts and embraces customer service as a necessity. Something that social housing orgs, without the type of competition seen in the private sector, have struggled to come to terms with.

The Power of the Market, but Beware of the Dark Side

Some of the most popular apps have been developed out of a perceived need. I can order an Uber, book a table, hunt for houses to rent all on my smart phone (another need based development). Yet when it comes to social housing how progressive have we been in our service offer? As Tim Pinder has noted, only a modest number of social housing organisations offer customers the rather simple ability to book a repairs appointment online. I think he was being polite regarding his nod to the fact that in reality most of these were actually ‘fancy emails’ with a scheduler still required to actually sort the appointment. Not only does this save time and effort for customers, as Tim notes it can also deliver savings for the organisation. The two factors are not mutually exclusive.

Elsewhere opening hours continue be highly restrictive and inflexible. Opening 9am-5pm is next to useless for most people who work. So too is being open Mon – Fri. Letting agents in the private rented and home ownership sectors are open on a Saturday. This is because they recognise the need to be available at times that suit potential customers. So why aren’t social landlords who own and manage tens of thousands of units doing the same? Even banks have changed their opening times to be more customer friendly (admittedly dragging their heels the whole way). Again, why aren’t we looking at this seriously? Flexible hours of working should not just be for the benefit of staff. 

I’m not for a moment suggesting a marketisation (is that a word? It is now) of social housing, anyone who’s witnessed the basket-case of New Labour quasi-markets in the NHS will know the perils of trying to create a state-led market out of thin air†. Certainly not all organisations act in the best interests of their customers, or even the long term viability of the business. However, the lack of a need for invention combined with the nature of many of the organisations that provide social housing has inevitably left the UKHousing sector wanting in a number of ways.

Talk is Cheap

We’ve often talked about embracing the better elements of the private sector. But in reality these have largely been confined to pursuing activities that make more money (not a bad thing in and of itself). But not on the relentless, necessary drive for developing and improving products/services* or the need for good, responsive customer care. Or the requirement to design services around the needs of the customer, not around the business, or worse still – what the business thinks the needs of the end user are.

I will let others rally around the Big is Bad, Developer is bad arguments. There are truths and falsehoods there. As this documentary by Adam Curtis has noted the problems highlighted by John Harris and by Steven Hilditch on build quality and customer service are nothing new in the development of properties for the social housing sector. As with housing policy more generally these issues have a depressingly predictable tendency to come round full circle.

As ever, it depends on the organisation, the culture and the desire to improve as a business, and yes – the profit motive if you wish to improve the services you provide. Key to this is putting the customer at the forefront of what you do, otherwise it’s just lip service. A stance that ultimately will erode your service offer, trust in you as an organisation and the very values you should be standing up for. The choice is simple one, but it’s yours to make.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Picture Credit – Wojtek Gurak – Bouça Social Housing

†That and , you know, pretty much every single ‘communist’ country, ever.

*There are obviously some caveats here, I’ve lost count of the number of tech firms I’ve come across directly and indirectly that are flogging a bit of kit that last saw major investment when Tony Blair was still PM. But you get the gist.

 

Ways and Means

Going digital doesn’t mean weakening your customer service offer, they are not mutually exclusive. But don’t think that by having a new website/online portal you’ve solved all your woes when it comes to facilitating interaction with those who pay your wages. It is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Well sit right down my wicked son, and let me tell you a story

After switching energy supplier it became obvious that I was paying far too little per month via Direct Debit. Popping onto my online account to change it proved a dead-end. Turns out I can make one-off payments, I can phone the call centre or I can wait for the 6 monthly review of my bill. Now here’s the thing, I spend all day talking to people, the last thing I want to do is get on the blower in my spare time and pretend to be nice to someone else. So I ended up sending my energy provider a borderline grumpy message about why I was not going to be calling up and could they pretty please pull their finger out regarding their customer offer.

To my surprise the next day, the auto response stated 5 working days – that pissed me off just as much as not being able to amend my Direct Debit online – I got a very apologetic email. Not only did the reply state how much I owed, how much my direct debit could be switched to ensure I had a zero balance by July but it also told me that a complaint had been raised on my behalf due to my displeasure with their service. What impressed most about the reply was the fact it matched the way I contacted the organisation, answered all my queries and apologised. This happens so rarely that it was a genuine pleasure to be on the receiving end. It also raises the question why they hell none of that was available via their online offer.

The Circle of Life

If the above sounds familiar to those of you working in housing, it should. Because if there’s one thing we are good at it, it is boxing people into ways of doing things they don’t like. Case in point – shifting in-bound contacts. Often this is couched in the language of ‘nudge’ theory, where one gently moves people down a preferred path of action with some subtle encouragement/positive reinforcement. Preferably from costly call centres to one’s new, if debatably performing, website/online account offer.

Well that’s the theory. The problem is we don’t operate ‘nudge’ theory in housing, we operate ‘shove’ theory. This involves shutting down other options to force people down particular routes, even when the organisation’s preferred one is a steaming pile of the proverbial.  And then wondering why people are getting pissed off at the service being provided.

Send Me On My Way

Too often it is easy to forget that at the heart of customer service is the need to tailor the way an organisation interacts with their customers to meet their preferences. This is not a cost saving exercise per se, although it may well be a welcome side effect, a tailored communications offer is about dragging your business away from its Soviet Era bureaucrat approach. It is about giving people a genuine choice in how to interact. And just as importantly via the means they’re most comfortable with and in a way that answers their query.

Why write a letter to someone when they’ve been contacting you via Twitter? Why phone when they’ve emailed? Yes, in some cases it might be a necessity but tweak your comms. channels to match their needs. Not the other way round. As a freebie, if you want to see how social media interaction with customers is good for both them and your business check out Amy Nettleton and her team at Aster. It ain’t perfect, but it’s a pretty darn good example of how to do customer service right. It is also the very opposite of what most of the sector is doing, i.e. having a social media account with a personality. Heaven forfend.

This is the end, my only friend, the end

Today is International Happiness Day, whatever the hell that is, so I guess I should end on a chirpy note. We are slowly moving towards offering a more diverse set of means by which to communicate with our customers. Occasionally in line with their preferences. It’s not quite there yet, far from it, but it could be so much worse (I tried).

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit

Neil Howard (2014) Telephone Booth, Longstock, Hampshire

Song List

Rusted Root – Send Me on My Way

The Doors – The End

The Pixies – The Holiday Song

The Lion King – The Circle of Life

Eyes Wide Shut

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” (Dalai Lama, Ages Ago)

The words above are one of the most insightful quotes I’ve had the pleasure of reading. It is also a quote I have to work very hard at acting on. Putting my personality flaws aside it is a quote that also needs to be taken on board by the housing sector when looking at their Customer Feedback programmes. Because quite often listening isn’t the end game. It’s figure chasing.

If You Book Them, They Will Come

At one and the same time being a landlord is actually very simple and incredibly difficult. You collect rent, you carry out repairs, put in place planned works to upgrade old/defective kitchens/boilers etc and you ensure tenancy conditions are kept. The only thing(s) in the way are people, processes and the organising of the two. As a result, whilst on the surface being a landlord is simple, doing the above on time, in budget and in a manner that provides excellent customer service is actually damned difficult. Worse still, get it wrong and your customers will let you know in no uncertain terms.

One of the mistakes people make with customer satisfaction is the fixation on improving the score. This might seem odd, particularly as KPIs, Performance Reviews and even parts of Contractor Performance Payments can be reliant on these measures. But often such a focus results in measures being tweaked, targets being dropped, time periods of performance reviewed. None of which solve the underlying issues impacting on performance i.e poor quality service/dysfunctional service delivery/expectation management failure. Resolve the problems impacting on service delivery and the satisfaction score will look after itself. Not the other way round.

Knowing Me, Knowing You (Aha)

The problem with putting the voice of the customer front and centre, is that it goes against the ingrained nature of many housing associations. Attitudes regarding the relationship between the customer (tenant etc) and the organisation get stuck in a paternalistic prism. At best they’re put up with, at worst they are marginalised. We expect to be able to provide the answer and give it to our customers. Whether they like it or not, or whether it solves the problem or not.

But as Paul Taylor quite rightly notes – individuals and organisations can be pretty crap at identifying and solving the real issues affecting us and our customers. Such a scenario is a complete waste of everyone’s time. But if we treat customers as the grown up, informed individuals (and their families) that they are and marry that up with ‘hard measures’/metrics of performance.  Our chances of identifying, and then solving, the right problems (thus improving customer satisfaction) will be greatly improved.

Closing the Loop

One of the things that genuinely pisses me off is that often organisations allude to customer engagement. But fail to understand the nature of the beast. Most are content with sticky buns and coffee on a wet Wednesday afternoon. That’s fine, it’s a part of the puzzle. But if someone has bothered to provide you with feedback on a service, that is engagement. The very least you can do is take on-board the problems they’ve identified, check if it forms a part of a wider set of issues and do something about it. Otherwise what is the point of having a Customer Feedback programme if you’re not going to use the information it provides?

Wrapping it up – Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Customers don’t whinge for the sake of it (for the most part). They are on the receiving of the services you provide. Anger, distress and upset are symptoms of service failure. Identify the root causes and nullify them. But you can only do that if you’re willing to take on-board what is being said and tie it to your service improvement activities. What we think are the issues might not actually be the case. Be humble, open your ears and learn something new. Otherwise you will just carry on making the same mistakes.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit – Lisa @ Sierra Tierra (2012) Customer Comments Chalkboard

 

The Dark Side of The Moon

Recent pilots in Sweden on changes to the working week have come to an end, raising interesting debates on the different ways in which organisations structure work. The Housing Sector should take note, and take on board the lessons learned. Particularly as a work-life balance is increasingly important for current and future workers and at a time when productivity is stagnating, why not reinvent the wheel?

Who’s a Good, Productive Little Worker?  Not us Apparently 

In the UK we have a serious issue in relation to productivity growth. In that it’s not really happening. At least not at the rate needed and/or hoped for. We fair particularly poor when compared to the G7. Sitting 18 points (whatever that means) behind that rich block of countries, if one excludes the UK from the count. Germany, quite typical given the subject matter, was top. 

The reasons for stagnating productivity (as with many things in life tend to be) are complex. But part of the picture will inevitably be the working environment for staff, expectations around how they operate and investment in tools for them to do their job. And that is where this blog is largely focused on, conveniently.

Health Warning – the above is based on one particular measure. Full Fact does a good job of explaining the pitfalls here. For more in-depth stuff check out Ha-Joon Chang’s introduction to economics – Economics: The User’s Guide. Or, if you’re a masochist, full on Economics text books, with maths and everything. You monster.

Ain’t it funny how the factory doors close? ‘Round the time the school doors close?

One of the things I’ve found odd for many years is the way in which both the school week, and the working week are constructed. Mostly because they are rooted in such arcane ways of working. Both stem from working patterns introduced as part of the industrial revolution. When it was realised that child workers and stupidly long hours weren’t great ideas in the long run.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that our productivity woes will all stem from failure to work 6 hour weeks in places that have ball-pits, free food and a full body massage as part of the working schedule. However, considering the industrial revolution was 200 years ago, should we not revisit how we organise the working day? In so many other ways we have improved ways of working and related inefficiencies. The email has made the fax redundant. The mobile phone and associated tablets have largely made the office irrelevant for many. Video purportedly killed the radio star. Yet we cling on to modes of working that were thought up when King George IV was the monarch, when Germany had barely unified and the height of male fashion had only recently abandoned wigs and make up. More’s the pity.

Sounds Good to Me

One of the most convincing arguments to changing how we work is the fact we’re simply not built for it. People tend to work best in compressed periods of activity followed by rest (mental/physical) and then repeating the process ad nauseam. But not everyone works best the same way and to say it is not an exact science would be an understatement. But it is something that simply isn’t challenged enough. In terms of value, and productivity the best quote I’ve googled quickly seen on the subject is the one below. As an aside I would strongly suggest reading the whole article from which the quote comes it’s by Tony Schwartz and is called For Real Productivity, Less is Truly More. The article is much better than the title suggests, I promise.

The value of those you manage isn’t generated by the number of hours they work, but rather by how much value they produce during the hours we are working.

Making It Relevant, but a note of caution

Many in the sector are talking about channel shift, moving away from cost and labour heavy interactions such as call centres and open offices/receptions. Whether customers want it or not. Yet very few organisations are looking at shifting their work patterns to change when we are available to customers outside the 9-5 or to drive a more flexible approach to patters of work.

There has been some begrudging acceptance of using social media (comms people, I feel your pain here). Certainly, I’ve lost count of the amount of “Hi, my name is [insert instantly forgettable name here] and I’m here until [probably about 6pm, maybe 8pm] to help” that I’ve seen both within and outside the sector. Yet particularly for our back office functions why have such rigid working hours? Who does it help?

Whilst many of the headlines focused on the ‘success’ of the pilots in Sweden only a few bothered to delve deeper and show the many layers of the story. Working 6 hour days does not fit all people and all circumstances and it ain’t cheap. Furthermore a number of other businesses in Sweden who started similar pilots have backed out over negative impacts reported by staff. Interestingly enough a number of employees felt constrained by the condensed working hours and felt they couldn’t deliver what was needed.

Yet at least they gave it a go in Sweden. Something that cannot be said for the many other businesses/Countries, Housing Associations included. What have you got to lose?

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit – Natesh Ramasamy (2011)- Victorian Houses, Nottingham

 

Culture Shock

More often than not when reading articles on how to engage with, maintain and build a successful business culture with staff it’s written by people who have been so removed from A) Organisational working (as they’re now freelance speakers/consultants) and B) Who haven’t worked on the front-line for the best part of a decade (or two) because when they went solo they were probably at directorate level (at least). That in mind, here’s a heads up from a guy with sod all experience on how to make the most of your organisation.

Just Like the Movies

The other night I was flicking through channels and momentarily stopped to watch Armageddon. A move with a far better sound track than story-line/acting. Near the beginning (the prelude to meeting Bruce Willis and his motley crew), worried scientists, military folks and that guy who was married to Angelina Jolie (not him, the other one), were discussing how to stop an asteroid that was going to smash the Earth into little pieces. After raising the option of sending nuclear missiles to deal with the aforementioned threat, one of the scientists ruined the idea. Highlighting that if one placed a firecracker in their hand you’d burn it.  However, if you held it tight in your hand, “your wife’s gonna be opening your ketchup bottles the rest of your life”. In order to prevent world destruction some folks were going to need to get up close and personal with a really large hunk of space rock.

Whilst hopefully not as explosive a process, when looking to embed cultural change it’s probably worth taking on board the Armageddon analogy. The culture of an organisation is an evolving beast. No big bang or fundamental reset will embed a shared focus and drive amongst staff. It is through hard won trust that an organisation can shift from one way of working to another. Just because you’ve watched a TEDx talk and went weak at the knees doesn’t mean the rest of your staff will follow. Yes, the overall steer needs to come from a strong leadership team with a long term strategic vision. But that needs to tie into the ‘ground floor’ reality of the staff who will be sharing and, ultimately, implementing that vision.

Treat your Staff as People, Invest in them and Reap the Rewards

Staff are more productive when they are well paid/proportionately paid for what they do. It also helps if they are undertaking jobs they find both rewarding and fulfilling. The Richard Branson quote of focusing on your staff and the rest will follow is typically used here. However there is another, more unlikely, source which highlights the value of investing in your staff.

In 2015 Walmart, one of the stingiest business out there, announced it would pay its workers more and revamped its in-house training. But just as crucially it provided more opportunities for career advancement. The end result? Whilst initial investment might have hit the bottom line of the company the overall signs are positive. The change in approach has seen more dedicated, productive staff joining the ranks (something known as the Efficiency Wage). Staff are happier, so are shoppers, stores are cleaner and in many instances are improving in performance. In short, don’t be a dick to your staff and your organisation will probably perform better as a result. Mike Ashley, are you listening, chap?

Look Outside the Traditional Approaches to Working

Be adaptable, learn through failure and don’t be afraid to test new ideas. Getting change in the Housing sector is like trying to turn around an oil tanker, in a typhoon, when the rudder is broken. We are quick to take on new projects but slow to adapt, change and get rid of processes. Even if they are flawed and not efficient. It feels that after so much advancement in technology, reducing so much of the day to day chores in our life we feel the necessity to fill it up with needless bureaucracy. It needs to stop, sharpish. Best put together a working group to ensure it happens, eh?

On the subject of learning through failure if you don’t already check out Paul Taylor’s piece on it. Or for a crash course in how not to do it, simply look at the England National Football Team.

Whilst the likes of Google and Facebook have long been noted for their different approaches to working. Let’s face it, computer geeks can be pretty highly strung and bribing them with easily accessible food and a ball-pit is a decent pay off. Particularly when you’re talking about two of the biggest and most successful tech companies going. For those of us operating in more mundane occupations/organisations, not to mention smaller budgets, challenging the orthodoxy on working hours is just as important as free grub.

In Sweden shorter working hours are again gaining traction. Though more recent pilots have been less conclusive than perhaps hoped, less sick leave and lower levels of stress have been reported. Longer term there’s the potential to not only improve the morale and work-life balance of staff but also productivity. Such moves may be impractical for many in the social housing sector, but more flexible and/or remote working may be just as beneficial. Just make sure staff don’t take the piss on flexi-time.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

*A large part of Walmart’s working practices still suck to the point that neither me nor the ladyfriend shop at Asda, their UK arm, on principle.

 

Far from the Maddening Crowd

It’s time to stop with the Excel Spreadsheet fetish, it’s pretty bad for you, but it’s worse for your business. Step away from the grid-lines, now!

Time to go Cold-Turkey

One of things that has always surprised, and frankly occasionally unnerved me, is the lack of basic digital skills in the sector. Now I’m not talking about being a Black Belt in Python (until 6 months ago I thought that was just a type of snake) or a Pokemon master at Q-Basic here. I’m simply talking about a broader depth of knowledge beyond the Housing Management system people use (or more’s the point, the narrow part of it related to their role) and Microsoft Word. But it is not just at an individual level that the sector has a bit of an issue. If you were to take a look around your business I guarantee your mortgage (I can’t afford one so I rent #millennialproblems) that a significant proportion of your staff are using off-system solutions to carry out day-to-day work. Why? Because your current software solutions doesn’t meet their need.

Square Pegs, Round Holes: Failure to Develop = Failure

People fall back onto Excel and Access-based solutions when there is no obviously better way to interrogate data. Their over-use is symptomatic of a business crying out for a more suitable solution but without the foggiest idea of what it needs or where it can be acquired from. It is also a result of failure to update and refresh the software solutions the business has as its disposal.  It’s no good thinking your billy big balls with your Morris Minor when everyone else is cruising around in their Audi R8. Also, considering the sector seems fine to throw a dollar or two around when it comes to Chief Executive pay maybe they can cough up and pump some money into the machinery that keeps the organisation ticking over. Just a thought.

FYI good reads come from Jules Birch and Kevin Williams on Chief Executive pay and the wider debate/ramifications related to them. Funnily enough Kevin’s Blog is from last year’s nicker twisting championships on the same subject. But it’s worth re-reading if only for the fact the name comes from my favourite Biggy Smalls song.

Sorry, got side-tracked 

The problem is for a lot of staff Excel is actually pretty crap when trying to communicate performance and data trends. Surprise, surprise, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Indeed the near meltdowns I’ve seen when merely mentioning the name Excel is highly amusing. It’s like dropping the Voldemort-bomb at a Harry Potter LARPing event. Additionally spreadsheets are not always easily understood and it’s too easy to miss important information in them. And I can guarantee you unless you lock that baby down someone is going to delete an essential bit of formula quicker than Liam Fox can insult the entire country’s business community.

More worryingly for the sector they’re actually not great when being used for managing essential business processes (good heavens, no!). So if you’re using them to monitor performance for say Planned Works or Estates Services, or god forbid Repairs. Please stop. Now. Because the amount of things that could go tits up relying on spreadsheets for such business critical processes frankly gives me nightmares.

What to do

Go back to basics. Look at what you want to report, who you want to report it, why you need to report it and then how. Because believe me there are a million and one better pieces of kit out there to monitor, report on and interrogate data than Excel. 

Excel is fine for basic bits and pieces, but it should be a useful extra, not the go to for essential business processes. It’s like using an abacus when you have calculator available. Cute for none users to admire your handiwork, but you’ll be buggered if you believe everyone else can use it. Worse over-reliance on it will leave you over-exposed to one muppet and the delete button. Be brave, make the change.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

*Updated 13/09/16