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IREM’s Technology Advisory Board agrees: COVID has accelerated prop tech innovation

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: COVID-19 has been an accelerant, lighting a fire under technology innovations and causing unprecedented levels of change to occur in months that otherwise would have taken years. This was reinforced by members of IREM’s Technology Advisory Board when they gathered virtually in October as part of the IREM Annual Governance Meeting.

New technology implementation and investment

Speaking specifically about self-guided tours and virtual leasing, Kim Bender, CPM®, indicated that COVID became a license to experiment. Bender, who is executive vice president and head of property management at Fairfield Residential Company, AMO®, in San Diego, had been pushing the company to try virtual leasing with a leasing consultant not located in the leasing office and instead serving multiple properties. Along came COVID, and the company decided to try it. The result: The shared leasing consultant concept is working, said Bender, both for potential residents, looking for places to live, and for the company, which has been able to accommodate leasing in a socially distanced environment while reducing overhead.

This notion that the pandemic was a catalyst for sudden change was reiterated by Ted Brownfield, CPM®, chief operating officer at SJG Properties in Washington, DC. He said that COVID-19 has definitely had the impact of “speeding things up” for his company. Examples of shifts SJG has made in the past six months: using chat-bots for leasing, offering 24/7 unattended touring, and transitioning to paperless invoicing.

Kasara Smith, CPM®, director of property management at Cushman & Wakefield, AMO®, cited some of the changes being made at properties she oversees in Washington, DC. Chief among them being touchless technologies and hands-free wave technology for ADA doors. She joined Greg Cichy, CPM®, of Colliers International, AMO®, in Arlington, VA, in noting that, not surprisingly, indoor air quality, HVAC systems, and building automation have become much more critical issues for both building tenants and owners and are getting greater attention.

While it’s clearly increasing the speed of technological change, COVID also appears to be driving an increase in the investment being made in technology. Bender said she is seeing this at Fairfield Residential. It also was one of the findings of a survey of IREM members conducted in September. When asked if they anticipated that their companies would increase their technology spend over the coming year as a result of COVID, 56%of members who responded to the survey said yes, with 25% saying they didn’t know and only 19% saying no.

Remote working challenges and successes

Working from home, and being able to do so productively, has also been made possible by technology. While it hasn’t changed the work that is being done, it has certainly changed where and how work is occurring.  Acknowledging that some people at his company were initially nervous about the change to working remotely, Brownfield said those who have been able to work from home have found that it removes the 9-to-5 constraints and accommodates more lifestyle and workstyle preferences. “People are happier, more productive, and it’s made work more refreshing,” he said.

Cichy agreed with this generally, but did note that one of his challenges has been supporting those essential on-the-ground workers who have to be at the property. They can’t work from home, said Cichy, and we have to work hard at staying connected with them and remembering that their experience during this pandemic is different from those of us who are working remotely.

Here again, technology has been an enabler for maintaining connections. Bender said that Fairfield Residential has been conducting weekly video calls with some 280 members of the property management team across the country every Friday morning. In addition to keeping everyone connected and informed, these calls have given her and her colleagues an opportunity to share what they are experiencing on the ground and to offer suggestions on how to respond, not only at their individual locations but also on a portfolio-wide basis. This has definitely created a “we’re all in this together mentality, not a dictating mentality” she said, with open discussion encouraged and innovation recognized.

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