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Lessons from the UAE

Strategies for improving operating efficiencies

By Muhammad JawadUrRehman, CPM
Abu Dhabi, UAE
Abu Dhabi, UAE

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is one of the most dynamic, forward-looking, and innovative countries in the world. People of over 200 different nationalities call the country their home. We have the world’s tallest building (the Burj Khalifa) and the biggest shopping mall (the Dubai Mall). When you drive down the Sheikh Zayed Road, our longest, most prominent street, the shining, towering skyscrapers provide evidence that the country’s leadership has had unparalleled success in the built environment.

The race to excellence does not end here: The real estate sector in the UAE continues to develop and mature, and the property management industry has been a cornerstone in its success. Property managers here manage both individual units and entire buildings. Like other places, we work to maximize return, enhance asset value, and provide hassle-free experiences for tenants.

Customer satisfaction and happiness are government-driven in the UAE, and the real estate sector is becoming a key contributor in making the industry more customer-centric. A “cohesive society and preserved identity” is one of the six pillars of the National Agenda set out in the UAE Vision 2021, and the happiness index is one of the key performance indicators. We even have a Ministry of Happiness.

A role for real estate

United in responsibility and following the vision of the country’s leadership, the private sector has been inspired and strives to make a difference in reaching this common goal. Hence, organizations of all kinds are putting their efforts into gaining a better end-to-end understanding of the customer’s journey, living experience, and tenant management to improve operational efficiencies. Property management companies have set benchmarks following the best global practices in order to measure the satisfaction and well-being of their patrons and tenants in terms of buying, selling, leasing, and management.

In the UAE, we are witnessing a holistic shift in data collection through innovation and digital transformation, from new construction developments to existing buildings.

Some of the strategies adopted in this process of improving operating efficiencies are based on:

  1. Proptech

The sector has come a long way in adopting proptech products in both management and operations applications. Aligning with the government’s vision of meeting customer expectations, the industry is reshaping itself to offer quick and efficient digital platforms in order to optimize the delivery of services. The objective is to empower tenants, centralize all the key services at their fingertips, and do so quickly. The COVID-19 pandemic has further pushed organizations and industry professionals to explore virtual tours and digital lease renewal, simplifying the rental journey.

Facility management is another domain that has seen a significant shift in improving Common Area Maintenance (CAM), workplace management, energy savings, and complex workflows with the introduction of advanced technology in property operations.

  1. Customer experience

The real estate sector in UAE is witnessing a transformation from being customer-focused to customer-centric. There is a broad understanding that we must embed the culture of listening and learning into business strategies moving forward in order to continuously improve and meet customer demands. Though proptech is an essential component, there is much more to it.

Companies recognize the value of customer experience by aligning business and customer strategy, helping them better understand the people and the journey. Like any other industry, customer service is critical for the growth of the real estate sector. The progression is a realization that a customer-centric business will provide a competitive edge over its peers, nurture tenant relationships, and increase underlying asset value. UAE property management companies have been recognized with regional and global awards for adopting customer-centric policies.

  1. Data mining and optimization

Data mining is transforming industries and driving both performance optimization and competitiveness. It largely remains untapped in the property management sector of emerging markets, but the needs of investors and rising expectations of tenants are changing the landscape.

In the UAE, we are witnessing a holistic shift in data collection through innovation and digital transformation, from new construction developments to existing buildings. One example of this is on the customer side: We are tracking more information about our tenants, such as why they are moving out of their unit, their satisfaction upon the completion of work orders, the types of maintenance requests they are making, and their payment preferences.

On the facility management side, we are learning more about our buildings in order to plug the service gaps. With data, we can identify more quickly when issues emerge with HVAC, perform in-depth reviews of water usage, adjust common area lighting and landscaping to achieve increased energy savings, and more accurately project our reserves. All of this data allows us to better manage the asset life cycle.

Recently, we have been tracking which areas of the building are unoccupied during the COVID-19 pandemic to determine whether they need to be cleaned as often as normal, providing operational expense savings.

We’ve also managed to consolidate our data. Previously at my company, our call center, work order system, and facility management program all used separate ticketing. By bringing these under one umbrella, we have been able to centralize our previously scattered data sources.

Many have looked to real estate for a new direction, but there was very little available to guide these people in starting their careers in property management.

This, in turn, has given us real-time access to all the services offered to internal and external customers. We can understand the delays in work completion and issues faced by the employees in getting the job done, such as any unavailability of materials in facility storerooms. Furthermore, recurring issues reported by the tenants are addressed in a timely manner and communicated to the department heads for needed follow-up action.

The benefits of data are expansive. We’ve reduced paperwork, saved time, and gained the ability to address day-to-day challenges by comparing them with others within a given building, community, or master development.

Upcoming challenges

The property management industry in the UAE is on the right trajectory. However, challenges remain; globally, the industry is forecasted to grow around 8% year over year. With the positive trends in innovation and digital transformation, there is a need to address a few fundamental but pervasive problems of a skilled and qualified workforce.

During the pandemic, we unfortunately saw job losses on an incredibly large scale. Accordingly, there has been a significant shift within the labor force to switch career paths. Many have looked to real estate for a new direction, but there was very little available to guide these people in starting their careers in property management. The UAE needs someone to fill in this leadership vacuum in order to promote greater industry development and to increase interest in property management among the younger generations. Developing a diverse, inclusive, and value-creating industry requires continued proactive work to address the imbalance in workforce skills.

Lack of clarity surrounding job roles within real estate is another painful area that is negatively affecting this profession in the UAE. Currently, when a property manager is hired, it can be unclear if they are being hired as a facility manager, a community manager, a broker, or even a property inspector. This hurts the profession and trivializes the role of a property manager.

The property manager is a multitasker who oversees property maintenance operations, risk, marketing, leasing, budgeting, and reporting. It requires knowledge and competencies in both hard and soft skills to preserve a building’s physical and economic life. A property manager must be able to communicate with owners, tenants, residents, and investors. Sustainable property management requires a structured approach rather than random hires who are playing targeted roles.

The UAE real estate landscape is expanding and evolving all the time, and new types of buildings are always coming into the market. With this comes the challenge of retaining and training new workers for these buildings and providing the necessary education so that industry professionals and new aspirants can continue to develop their capabilities. It is our job to reduce the ambiguity of the role of a property manager and communicate to the market that, ultimately, it is the property manager who ensures upkeep for a property, increases the length of its usable life, and enhances its value.

Journal of Property Management

Muhammad JawadUrRehman, CPM, is property manager of RAK Properties PJSC in the United Arab Emirates.  JawadUrRehman brings a distinct experience from the real estate industry with a desire to make it a customer-centric sector. JawadUrRehman is also an elected member of the Governing Council at IREM.

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