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COVID at the Forefront of Realcomm Property Manager Technology and Innovation Forum

The property manager’s role in building and occupant wellness, smart buildings and IoT, and remote teams and working from home: these were the key topics addressed during the Property Management Technology and Innovation Forum that took place on the opening day of Realcomm 2020. Not surprisingly, woven throughout all of them was COVID-19 and its impact on the built environment and those engaged in its operation and management.

Originally scheduled as a live event in June in Miami, Realcomm did what so many other organizations have done this year: it pivoted, creating a hybrid event that began virtually and ended with live sessions presented in Colorado and streamed to an audience of more than 1,000 tuning in from all over the world. As Jim Young, president of Realcomm, said, “Our inability to beat COVID quickly forced us to be innovative.”

In the opening session on “Occupant Wellness, Healthy Buildings, Wellness Standards, and Privacy Concerns,” Anna Murray of BentallGreenOak discussed how the focus of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives in recent years has been on the environmental. More recently, with the pandemic and social unrest, she said, there has been a fundamental shift to the social. Noting that “shedding light on occupant and tenant wellbeing has never been more important” and that health is becoming a “fundamental necessity,” Murray said that tenants are now being drawn to buildings that support wellness.

This was echoed by Jonathan Bauer of Tower Companies, who, after reminding listeners that we spend 90% of our time in buildings, asked “What kind of building do you want to be in? What kind of change do you want to see?” He suggested that the market will experience the equivalent of an arms race to have the healthiest building in a city. “Those who respond well will do well,” he said, “and those who don’t will suffer.”

Cheryl Gray, CPM®, of QuadReal, agreed, adding that “It’s no longer about bricks and mortar and a few amenities.” Tenants engage with their spaces differently and have different expectations, she said. “This requires property managers to understand that everything is tied together: leveraging technology platforms, the wellness of our occupants, their experience within the buildings. These are some of the things that have come out of COVID that will stay with us when we come out the other side.”

The session on “Building Automation, Smart Buildings, and IoT: The Journey Continues,” began with Thano Lambrinos of QuadReal declaring that when it comes to technology, real estate as an industry has been a laggard, but that’s changing with COVID. Looking at  QuadReal’s technology journey, Lambrinos said that alignment with business goals based on enhancing asset value and offering a differentiated experience was key to how his company approached technology and digital strategy. This incorporated a gamut of considerations: reduction of operating costs, reduction of cyber risk and operational risk, climate risk, efficiency of operators and employees, reduction of energy and carbon emissions and energy costs, and enhancement of user experience. It also involved talking to all stakeholders – property managers, engineers, owners – to fully identify the challenges they each were facing. Only after all of this was done, he said, did we talk about how technology could address our challenges. This strategic, holistic approach is very different than starting with a vendor who approaches you, or tackling a single problem, or focusing on a single stakeholder group, he said.

David Gallagher of Oxford Properties agreed that pushing toward a more digital building experience has to start with strategy. Identify your challenges and opportunities first, he said. “Technology is part of the solution,” he emphasized, “it is not all of the solution.” For existing buildings, he emphasized the importance of understanding your building stock and the systems in the building, then conducting a smart building assessment. Out of this a smart technology roadmap can be drawn that outlines how to transition the building from its current state to the desired state, he said.

Greg Cichy, CPM®, of Colliers, AMO®, who moderated this session, raised the issue of how this move toward more complex building automation is changing the role of the property manager, and the skills and knowledge needed today. Across the board, the panelists agreed that change is underway and new skills are desperately needed.

Lambrinos stressed the urgent importance of schools and colleges to prepare people to manage modern buildings in a modern age. Property management started with spreadsheets and notebooks, he said, and it’s a big transition to a digitized world, a virtualized environment, and a lot more automation. He suggested that property managers will need to be data scientists as well as front-line first responders.

Today it’s not about bricks and mortar, said Gallagher of, it’s about switches and software. As he sees it, there are two major disconnects. The first disconnect is with hiring; Do job descriptions require a knowledge of building systems and an understanding of building automation? The second disconnect is with colleges and universities that don’t understand that property management and operations is a growing field that sorely needs people with more of a technical background.

This was reinforced by Waddell Wright, CPM®, of W. Wright & Co. in a session on “Optimizing Virtual Teams: Leveraging People, Processes, and Information Technology.” Wright stressed that technology has become a constant and, “As buildings become more sophisticated, real estate professionals have to become more sophisticated,” he said.

Recently, this has extended out of the traditional office workplace and into the home, where many real estate professionals are now working. Panelist Gary Shaw said that making the shift to remote working wasn’t a big technological leap for his company, Arcadia Management Group, as they already had systems in place to operate through a distributed workforce. Noting that property managers are used to being always on and having things happening in the middle of the night, his team already had computers at home and the ability to work online as things popped up.

What did require attention at Arcadia was keeping people connected to each other and to the corporate culture. Shaw shared the story of how his company took occupancy of a new 20,000-square-foot corporate headquarters, complete with in-house bowling lanes, two weeks before the pandemic hit. Although disappointed they could not fully utilize and benefit from the new space and all of the team-building amenities it offers, he pointed out that the most important thing was to make sure people were safe. Since they couldn’t get together in the new corporate headquarters or stop by each other’s office to say hello, Shaw said, they turned to virtual events – virtual happy hours, trivia contests, anything to create personal interactions.

James Scott of the MIT Real Estate Research Lab and IREM’s technology innovator-in-residence, reiterated both the importance and challenge of creating a sense of culture and building trust with new employees when they are working remotely from day one. COVID hasn’t stopped companies from hiring, he said, and businesses have to find ways to onboard new employees and make them feel a part of the company without bringing them together with their new colleagues.

Also important is having the infrastructure to function effectively from a day-to-day operational perspective, said Scott. One of the keys to maintaining productivity while working remotely is the ability to access a company’s documents and collaborate with teammates. Scott stressed the benefits that come from a robust document management system with the ability to capture all of the documents used in the company – from contracts to leases to email – and offers cloud connectivity, version control, naming consistency, and permissions authority.  While having such a system is valuable all the time, the work-from-home environment that COVID has brought on has made it an even greater priority.

The Property Manager Technology and Innovation Forum, conducted as a Realcomm pre-conference virtual event, was a joint effort led by IREM and Realcomm, and included BOMA and NAA.


While I enjoyed the article, as a PM of office buildings I struggle of being the mask police. People still don't want to wear them. We can post signs, provide free masks and more, but they still scoot by us not wear as mask. It is maddening when we still have folks getting sick. I would like suggestions - feedback from others.


With the absence of litigation (that I have seen so far) and, therefore, the inability to follow the guidance of "case law," the insurance industry has yet to determine its position about who will be ultimately held liable for people getting sick. It may very well be the property manager! - who isn't enforcing the state mandated guidelines. In New York, the State sued a county health commissioner for not enforcing mandated covid regulations in a specific county. Given this uncertainty, and obviously high stakes involved, I would take all possible steps to protect yourself (your firm, your officers, and your staff) by getting advice (hopefully written) from outside legal counsel - and maybe even putting your Errors and Omissions carrier on notice of possible future claims. I would also take all "reasonable" steps to enforce the regulations - including possibly even hiring guards to enforce the "No Mask, No Entry" you are describing - and start documenting these steps. One of our duties as professional property managers is that we are supposed to be protecting the property, its tenants and its owners. Maybe, you could use this to back up your recommendation to the owners that guards be hired. By making the recommendation, you may even mitigate your own exposure by transferring some of the risk to the owner (check your management agreement on indemnification!) Sorry if I'm sounding alarmist, but I'm leaning towards enforcement and self-protection, rather than being a "nice guy" and allowing tenants to break the law. NOTE: 1. I am not a lawyer. 2. Please update or correct me if you have better or more updated information about how the insurance industry will be handling these eventual claims. Thanks.


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