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Post COVID, UAE property managers embrace “the twist”

Every year, Dubai, UAE, celebrates Dubai 30x30, a “celebration of fitness and wellness,” that calls for all interested parties to perform 30 minutes of activity for 30 days. Part of the annual event is a marathon, and this year, the throng--a whopping 145,000 strong--included Muhammad JawadUrRehman, CPM®. The property manager for RAK Properties saw some interesting connections between the dynamics of the run and his chosen profession.

“I saw all the people who were there for someone else, supporting and promoting the runners and each other,” he says. That, of course, has been an apt metaphor for best practices in property management, in place long before the pandemic gave rise to the phrase, “We’re all in this together.”

But indeed, the pandemic did drive us still further together, which is why Jawad sees the post-COVID-19 status of the profession as “the same, but with a twist.” And quite a twist it was, with impacts that will be with us for years to come.

But we should note here that the US and the UAE have traveled a markedly different path to recovery. A recent Bloomberg report puts the UAE resilience ranking at 73.2, much higher than most other nations, and certainly that of the US, which ranked 13. What’s more, the country can boast an 89% vaccination rate and a national office occupancy above 80%. Stricter government regulations--including an across-the-board mandate making masks a must in all public places--clearly contributes to that success rate.

Jawad, whose firm manages a portfolio of about 3,500 units and approximately 4.5 million square feet of residential and commercial space, says COVID influenced the four essential functions of property management, which he describes as “the leasing aspect, property preservation and maintenance, the financials and administration. The influence, that “twist,” essentially doubled the work property managers must contend with. It also underscores a stepped-up call for “flexibility, the need to stand ready to serve customers’ changing needs.

“For example,” he says, “when you’re leasing a space, you still have to show them the unit, but you now have two options, visiting the unit or arranging a virtual tour.” Or both. The in-person experience can be “amazing,” But it’s the customer who drives the decision, especially in a market, such as the UAE, where there is ample supply. “It’s a tenant’s market, and they have options.”

The same goes for financials. Post-COVID, payments must be handled on a case-by-case basis since “customers no longer have to come to you.”

This brings up another major difference between the UAE and the US, which Jawad believes is farther behind the technology curve. “We are digitizing everything,” he says, and tech enhancements virtually across-the-board are made in-house as opposed to the US tendency to rely on third-party sources.

While property managers around the globe are using technology increasingly to “make their buildings as invincible as possible,” in the UAE, the push is virtually universal, and he reports an explosion of growth in everything from touchless technologies to digital ways for customers to make payments. “We don’t bank on third parties to create such applications.” While they might provide the basics, “they won’t address the personalization.”

And therein lies another difference between property management in the UAE and the US. As increasingly sensitive to the customer experience as the US market is becoming, in the UAE, there is a more “end-to-end” focus on the customer experience, another indication of the “inspiration gleaned from the government’s encouragement,” says Jawad.

“Customer experience is government-driven,” he says, not surprising in a country that has a Ministry of Happiness and doles out customer experience awards to worthy corporations. “The UAE government wants companies to take certain steps to improve the quality of life and the overall customer experience. Taking that cue, every company is developing its own customer experience department and making sure they are following all the best practices.”

Jawad says that the experience starts when a space goes to market and continues right through to retention. It’s a stance that relates back to his marathon metaphor, and the importance of working together. But, of course, there’s a business aspect to that as well, as all property managers know.

“Retention is always key,” he says, “Especially in a tenant’s market. But after COVID, it has become much more important to approach retention with greater empathy and encouragement.”

As we move into 2022, Jawad sees a continuation of the influence COVID has had on the industry, with an even greater emphasis on such trends as customer-centric tech innovation, a greater stress on indoor air quality and “a more proactive approach to environmental, social and governance [ESG] protocols.” Not all of this will happen overnight, of course. “It will take time.”

This is especially true as the variant strains of COVID continue to make headlines. But leading with a new degree of partnership and an increased focus on “empathy and encouragement is a good start,” says Jawad. Retention, after all, is not a sprint. It’s a marathon.

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