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Leasing Tech Made Big Strides During the Pandemic, But Can It Keep Pace?

For years, the multifamily industry bore the tech-averse label. Multifamily was seen as devoted to traditional methods, clinging to its analog ways despite all of the technology available. In its defense, I will say that the conventional processes that became so sticky in the industry had served it well. The value of multifamily buildings and the rent that supports those valuations has been steady for decades. If it ain’t broke…right? But then the pandemic hit, and every process the industry had relied on had to be rethought. As COVID asserted its control, it became obvious that the traditional ways of business would have to change. The multifamily sector, known for being a person-to-person industry, had no choice but to embrace the technological advances it once spurned.

For the most part, the industry performed exceptionally well during the pandemic, rising to the challenge of a procedural reorganization that required things like lead management and lease signing to continue without the traditional human touch. Multifamily embraced and condensed 15 years of technology in just a few short years to mitigate the health risks associated with the pandemic. These investments in technology during COVID permitted onsite teams to continue to be able to communicate with prospective residents and nurture deals. Leasing agents were forced away from the old ways and into an era of video conferencing, self-guided tours, and digital signatures. In hindsight, it forced great waves of change and showed the industry what’s possible. 

Now, we have to take what we’ve learned and apply that to the industry’s newest employment and retention challenges. As the stresses of the pandemic spread through the country, it encouraged many workers in the U.S. to re-evaluate their professional priorities. This has resulted in challenges in finding and keeping talent in the rental housing industry, like many others. So while we are trying to fill positions and return to a new normal, we are also trying to ensure that current associates and managers aren’t overwhelmed with their mounting work duties. 

Switching to a centralized method of property and leasing management is one way that property companies are learning how to optimize staffing. The personnel needs of any property can shift based on numerous factors, including vacancy, seasonality, and popularity. Centralization permits organizations to flex their associates on any property that requires attention in real-time. The question now is: can the multifamily industry continue to keep up the pace of technology adoption, meeting challenges that are arising today and possible unforeseen ones in the future?

One of the reasons technology is advancing so quickly in multifamily has been a shift in the way the upper levels of management of firms see the importance of innovation. Decision-makers are bringing a renewed focus to technology adoption and showing a greater willingness to explore new approaches through PropTech, data centralization, and artificial intelligence. Technology partners have always pursued integration and centralization, and owner/operators are realizing that the benefits of a thoughtful, forward-thinking tech stack significantly affect operating efficiencies and ROI. The success of this tech surge is reliant on organizations having a very clear understanding of their own company’s needs and capabilities. Similarly, vendors must approach tech with the understanding that PropTech (and any other tech involved) shouldn’t tell owner/operators what they need but instead work together to determine what is in the best interest of each particular organization.

 

More with Less

The pandemic had a significant impact on the way people search for a new home. Traditionally, prospects would look for an apartment, perhaps online or perhaps not, and then call to schedule an appointment for a personal tour of the community and the desired unit. The pandemic, however, required that potential residents take that task up themselves through self-guided tours or via the digital route of virtual tours.

Even as in-person tours return, a growing number of prospects still desire a self-service approach to finding their next apartment. This desire isn’t limited to the realm of tours alone; savvy potential residents want to look at floor plans, videos, and amenities, as well as ask questions and schedule visits, all before they actually speak with an onsite associate or visit a community. A community’s website holds more weight than it ever has before.

In the multifamily industry, we will always need and want person-to-person interaction. Onsite teams are still critical for successful leasing and the resident experience, but the number who wish to employ some form of self-service continues to expand. Automated outreach has become an essential tool because most people choose to rent with the first community that makes contact. But there is and will always be value in personal interactions. Leasing agents equipped with CRMs, can maximize their outreach and help get deals done. Technology will never replace a good salesperson, but it can allow them to get a lot more done within their limited timeframe.

Knowing thy Portfolio

There are varying levels of centralization. There is centralization of leasing, which comprises all of the elements regarding prospects, such as leasing teams and self-service tours. Centralization of management, however, entails moving management teams, such as assistant managers, to the locations where their attention is most needed. There are collections of technologies that owner/operators can deploy to create their own centralization experience that best suits their situation.

First, you need to confirm your leasing strategy and playbook. What is the current state of your portfolio? What are your goals? For example, are you trying to get more lease-ups at your properties, or are you trying to manage more units? You can make all the necessary adjustments to your properties and set all the policies you like, but it comes down to having the right tools and the right teams. By taking a closer look at property type, geography, density, and the ability of operations to effectively execute a strategy across the entire portfolio, you will find which touch points are ripe for automation.

Not everything will work for everyone, and it doesn’t need to. One of the benefits of the pandemic was that it brought multifamily out of its comfort zone and injected some dexterity into how we do business. Tech doesn’t have to be your entire organization, but it can be a valuable part of it, and any developer or manager who wants to be successful will need to have some integration.

The challenges that have arisen today link hiring and retention, the need for automation, quicker responses, and resident expectations mean that centralization will be the next evolution. Centralization, in all its forms, better utilizes resources to achieve a superior result for the prospect and a better financial operating environment for the property management company. Multifamily staffing needs are in continual flux. Properties will have days when the phones are busy and others when they are quiet. A community may have an unexpected issue that requires greater attention from managers. Locking your teams to a single property creates inefficiencies.

Centralized staffing is the most logical approach to meet challenges and control costs by allowing owner/operators to disperse assets and personnel to the areas most in need, which is in continual flux. With uncertainty looming in the post-pandemic economic environment, flexibility and optimization offer greater financial control.

One of the pitfalls of decision-making is that opinion can sometimes drive action when it isn’t necessary. When data isn’t available, owner/operators have no option but to go with their gut. However, when data is available for making operational decisions, such as which properties are missing calls and which properties prospects are most interested in, there’s no reason not to use it. Let data be your guiding light!

PropTech is helping the multifamily industry address the uncertainty many are feeling about the struggling economy and increasing cost of capital. It might not seem prudent to spend on technology in uncertain times, but it can often be the only way to prevent an impending disaster. Adopting, implementing, and progressing technology with the same cadence and enthusiasm as the past few years is our best bet to meet the continually high demands in multifamily.

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