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Pivotal transformation

The Technology Advisory Board launches at a crucial period of rapid change

By Greg Cichy, CPM
Female Hands Holding Smart Phone Displaying Photo Of House Interior Living Room Behind.

Imagine what the property management world would have looked like if COVID-19 had struck, and the technology tools we have in place didn’t exist. Work from home? Not possible. Show apartments? How? Sign a lease? Not a chance.

Technology has enabled our management companies to stay in business, our transactions to be completed, apartments to be shown and management teams to provide service. Quite a leap, given that, only recently, commercial and multifamily real estate—property management included—had been regarded as a technology laggard, mired in a business-as-usual mindset and slow to adopt.

That began to change several years ago. A combination of trends—increased competition, pressure from owners, tenants and residents, lowering of costs for cloud-based systems and the ubiquitous use of smartphones—began to accelerate the rate of adoption and, with it, industry transformation. It was in this environment that IREM established the Technology Advisory Board last year. Its stated purpose is to determine IREM’s strategy for addressing technology issues that impact real estate property and asset management, conduct research and develop useful content to address these issues, and provide guidance in identifying and implementing technology projects and collaborations. With this purpose in mind, the board launched its efforts with three noteworthy actions.

Three steps forward

Working with our Innovator- in-Residence, we’re launching a series of technology playbooks that speak directly to keeping people safe and productive and to keeping buildings occupied.
First, recognizing the need for outside expertise, IREM brought a Technology Innovator-in-Residence on board to provide insights into the world of proptech: James Scott, lead researcher for the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Real Estate Innovation Lab (REIL). Among other projects at REIL, Scott has been responsible for creating a global database of all real estate-oriented technology companies, a list that has grown to more than 2,000. His goal at IREM has been to collaborate with the Technology Advisory Board to identify innovations that can help members operate their buildings more efficiently, improve their properties’ competitive positioning and better serve occupiers and clients.

Next, with Scott’s guidance, IREM surveyed our members to assess where they saw themselves and their companies in terms of technology adoption and satisfaction, to identify major pain points they are experiencing that could have solutions in technology and to lay the groundwork for creating tools and providing useful resources to respond to the pressure managers are under. Looking first at pain points, the survey revealed that document management is the most challenging issue that could be solved with technology. This was true for managers of all asset classes and all sizes of companies. Right behind were data management and the controlling of operating expenses. The survey further showed that the major hurdle in tackling a technology project is system integration—even more so than cost—and that for any new project to be successful and gain adoption, training and technical support are key. These and other survey results have informed our strategy going forward.

Third, in the spirit of collaboration, we joined with Realcomm Conference Group to jointly produce a Property Manager Technology & Innovation Forum as part of the Realcomm Conference in Nashville last year. The Forum succeeded in providing a learning platform for enriching the technology skills of property management professionals. Realcomm 2020, taking place October 26–30, will be “real estate tech’s first hybrid event.” The first two and a half days will be virtual, and IREM will be participating in a pre-conference property management forum during this portion. The second half of the event will be held live at the Gaylord Rockies Resort in Denver. Registrants can attend the virtual or live part, or both.

The need for technology solutions gets amplified

Fast forward to March 2020, which found most of us hunkered down, working from home and taking part in frequent Zoom meetings. In the space of just a few short months, the coronavirus pandemic caused management companies to see technology in a new and essential light: as a lifeline to continued operations. And to keep our employees connected, productive and protected. As well as the vehicle by which we could reopen our properties while keeping their inhabitants safe and healthy. The pandemic sped our industry’s adoption of technology more quickly than ever imagined. This environment has indicated the companies best positioned to weather the storm are those that can utilize technology not only to continue operations but also to innovate, collaborate and remain competitive.

For IREM, the role of the Technology Advisory Board became even more vital as it turned its attention to providing resources to address the challenges created by the COVID-19 maelstrom. Working with our Innovator-in-Residence, we’re launching a series of technology playbooks that speak directly to keeping people safe and productive and to keeping buildings occupied. Each of these playbooks will provide an overview of a specific technology, insights into the options that are available, and factors in making decisions about its use and will identify several companies that are offering that technology.

Since COVID-19, the focus has shifted to employee hygiene and health to mitigate risk of spreading infections.
The first three topics in IREM’s Technology Playbook series were drawn from both the member survey and the COVID-19 experience. The playbooks will be available to members at later this fall, with the board working to expand the series and have more available by year-end. Here’s a glance at the challenges the first three address.

Touchless access. Touchless technologies had moved into the workplace before COVID-19, primarily in the form of motion-operated lighting and hands-free soap dispensers. Since COVID-19, the focus has shifted to employee hygiene and health to mitigate risk of spreading infections. Avoiding contact with frequently used surfaces—elevator buttons, door handles and meeting room booking screens—has become a priority. Whereas contactless technology was seen as a “nice to have” earlier this year, it has suddenly become a “must-have” to get rid of areas where the virus can linger, protect staff and tenants, and reduce the number of surfaces that require frequent cleaning.

Virtual tours. Even when buildings went into lockdown mode, companies didn’t stop looking for office space, and families continued their searches for new apartments. No longer able to accommodate in-person visits, the use of digital visualization tools grabbed attention, and property managers have been at the forefront of adopting their use. Thankfully, several products were already available to help showcase properties through virtual reality (VR). In a world of necessity, these tools and technologies are now being adopted at a far greater speed than was imagined. There are many virtual tour products on the market with a wide spectrum of functions and capabilities, ranging from the most rudimentary (e.g., software such as FaceTime being used to walk prospective tenants through spaces) to high-end VR technology that uses room-scaled headsets and hand controllers to simulate the actual experience of walking through a space. Though virtual tours can’t fully replace in-person showings, they can provide a true sense of the space while respecting the need for social distancing.

Document management. As workers left their offices on a massive scale and headed home to work, their ability to function productively relied heavily on seamless accessibility to documents and files. Even before the pandemic, commercial and residential property management companies alike struggled with managing, securing and accessing a wide range of documents necessary to effectively conduct business. This is why IREM’s technology survey last year identified document management as our members’ No. 1 technology pain point, and COVID-19 made it a throbbing ache for companies that had not yet tackled it. Digitalization and document management systems can ease that pain, enabling documents to be accessible by anyone, anywhere, at any time.  

Journal of Property Management

Greg Cichy, CPM, is the chair of the IREM Technology Advisory Board, as well as a member of the Executive Committee. With over 20 years of experience in commercial real estate, he is currently the managing director of real estate management services for the Washington D.C. metro area with Colliers International, AMO.

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