Last modified on January 29th, 2021
By Marc Frenkiel
The way we live and work has dramatically changed within the past year, resulting in a host of new requirements for real estate operators that range from supporting work-from-home to implementing new marketing strategies.
Property management software has emerged as an invaluable resource that for many, has ensured both the continuation and optimization of property management operations. Indeed, the adoption of property management technology has skyrocketed over the course of the pandemic, accelerating the digital transformation that was already underway.
So how can real estate technology — or proptech — streamline property management operations while protecting residents, team members, and NOI? Our team sat down with James Scott, Lead Researcher at the MIT Real Estate Innovation Lab, to find out.
Take a Long Term Approach
Before seeking new technologies to mitigate issues brought about by the pandemic, it’s important to remember that the current reality that we are collectively experiencing is — hopefully — temporary. With that in mind, it pays to think long and hard about which technologies will remain useful once we return to a sense of normalcy. According to James: “There are certain technologies that I do feel will play a very limited role…once we get over this particular situation that is COVID.”
“For me, there are certain technologies that, unless they’re embedded or built into the fabric or the mainframe of a building, I think they might not necessarily last the test of time. The ones that I do feel that will last the test of time will be the ones that touch upon smart buildings, healthy buildings, and wellness.”
What does this mean, practically, for property owners and managers? For smart buildings, think touchless technologies, smart locking systems, and smart thermostats. In terms of healthy-building initiatives, think air purification and ventilation. For wellness, smart fitness equipment could be a possible solution. The common theme here is technology that can be controlled remotely. While the need for physical / social distancing will eventually be behind us, the need to handle maintenance or other resident concerns immediately will always be a major aspect of property management, and these technologies allow just that.
James went on to say that “the likes of wearables, space optimization programs, robotic cleaners, thermal imaging, temperature readers, air ventilation and purification systems, touchless technologies, chatbots…people have seemed to be very, very interested in.” From this, we can infer that operators are forward looking.
However, James points out that many new technologies will prove to be nothing more than a fad. The ones with staying power are the ones that allow management to improve the resident experience, lower expenses (even if it means a large up-front investment), and collect meaningful data that can be acted upon. Here are a few examples of the technologies that both our team at AppFolio and James believe will be here for the long haul.
Artificial intelligence, or AI, should also be part of the mix. According to James, ”true natural language processing and voice recognition, which are aspects of AI, have really, really improved.”
“That technology in itself for property managers is hugely helpful because ultimately, it reduces a significant amount of very mundane tasks in their day-to-day operation, be it scheduling for maintenance, scheduling for showings, lead generation, things like that that take up time. Technology like that can really funnel down all of that to give yourself a much, much better, more productive day.” This newfound time can be used to build relationships with customers, study your markets, and develop your team — all activities that will grow your business.
AI is a technology that will stand the test of time, especially as it relates to property management. Certain applications, like chatbots for scheduling showings, stepped up in a big way during the early months of the pandemic. Not only have they helped property managers weather the changes brought about by COVID-19, but they can lead to increased business. In an earlier interview, Wendell Burris of Texas-based Minnix Property Management said of Lisa, AppFolio’s AI leasing assistant, “We’re at a point where Lisa is basically scheduling everything for us. Contacting and following up with every lead that’s coming in and our showing rate has doubled every week. We were constantly having full schedules.”
James goes on to say that “I’m a big believer in digital twin.”
He explains: “Really, what digital twin is, it’s a digital replica of a physical entity. If you can imagine a 3D BIM (Building Information Modeling) version of your building, and then within that, all of the sensors that you would implement within the building like energy level sensors, heat, where people are, what people are utilizing, and then to give you an up-to-the-minute exact visualization of what is taking place in your building.”
“The ultimate goal with a digital twin is to create a situation whereby you can use that data to run simulations and forecasting from that model. You can play out different scenarios in your head if you wanted to initiate changes within your building. Let’s say if we had it this time last year, if you wanted to forecast what a pandemic did and you said you didn’t want people to be within six feet of each other, you could run certain situations where you would see where there was a blockage of people or where people were going to come together and you could actually initiate certain scenarios and sequences to create a much safer environment before any issues ever arose.”
“I think digital twin is going to be a massive change to all aspects of property management. A couple of years from now, digital twin technology and digital twin platforms are going to be, I think, a major aspect of a lot of property managers at day-to-day business.”
James’s inclination is proving to be prescient, as interest in the technology has surged.
Robots that Clean and Protect
The age of robotics is upon us, and according to James, “robotics is a really interesting play. We’ve probably seen more advancement in robotics over the last few months because of COVID than we have for a long time, specifically robotic cleaners…That is something that I think is going to evolve very much over the next few years.”
He goes on to explain the potential application of robotics in security: “I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the videos with Boston Dynamics’ Spot the dog. Things like Spot will evolve. They will become much cheaper. They will become much more commonplace. You might have two or three of these robots in a not too distant future that are being managed by one person be it at a gate or at a desk to monitor the security of an environment, which I think is going to be hugely beneficial and really interesting over the next few years to see how it will evolve.”
Embrace the Future
James concluded our chat with a few reassuring words for those who may feel overwhelmed at the thought of trying to understand which technologies are on the market, which are on the horizon, and how they relate to property management:
“Everybody has a different portfolio. Everybody has a different way of doing things. Trying to understand the technologies that are out there can be a little bit daunting. If you can, take the odd half hour some nights sitting down on your couch with your laptop and just have a look at what’s available and embrace the idea that technology is there to help you. There are some fantastic technologies that can really benefit people…all of those burdensome tasks that are just painstaking on a day-to-day that can literally take up to two to three days of your week can be automated. And then from that, if they’re automated and they’re not causing a major issue, you can be out there doing exactly what you want to do, the best parts of the job.”
Should technology scare you? We don’t think so. Rather than taking jobs away, the right proptech can automate the manual and mundane and free up resources to focus on the more complex, ultimately growing your business. James said it perfectly: “technology is there to help you,” and that’s certainly also AppFolio’s raison d’être.