Mobile Maintenance

Portable devices are creating more efficient teams and enhancing resident retention efforts.

In this day and age, it goes without saying that almost everyone has a smart phone. As the use of these mobile devices becomes standard, the apartment industry is incorporating them into the maintenance team toolbox in ways that benefit staff and residents alike.

The maintenance department, which has sometimes lagged behind in the adoption of mobile technologies, is catching up. Both suppliers and apartment companies are figuring out maintenance applications for portable tech tools, smartphones and apps. Many of these portable tools can be used even where there is no cell phone reception.

Vendors, including MRI Software LLC and Yardi, have already made it possible for maintenance staff to input and access information from the field. Yardi’s maintenance mobile system, which is accessible to i-Phones, Androids and Blackberrys, allows technicians to access work orders instantly as they are submitted, as well as post new work orders. The system also records notes that may include the time the work order is sent by the resident and completed by the technician. The results of the completed work order are automatically uploaded to the Yardi property management software. Supplies can also be added to the inventory list and barcodes scanned via the hand-held application.

Obviously, one of the biggest benefits of these communications capabilities for maintenance staff is a quicker response time. The need for a technician to walk back to the office to obtain more work orders or submit work-completed information is thereby eliminated. Additionally, time is saved as a result of the ability to add orders to inventory as needs are encountered in the field.

Because mobile functionality allows the maintenance staff to record the progress of work orders in real time, management can track the staff’s response time or create labor standards as to the length of time that should be spent on different tasks. As a result, the maintenance staff can do more with less, and apartment companies can conceivably cut labor costs. For example, by hiring four good maintenance technicians instead of five, a company can theoretically save 20 percent in labor costs.

In an even newer development, portable devices are being used not only by the maintenance staff, but also by residents to fulfill maintenance functions. Ann Arbor Michigan-based McKinley has taken advantage of its in-house IT department to develop apps that enable residents to submit maintenance requests via Android or i-Phone. The work order data is automatically integrated into McKinley’s software system without the need for re-input by the staff. The company has also developed apps that enable residents to submit feedback on the company website via their mobile devices.

“Our goal is to provide as many ways as we can to allow the resident to connect with us—on the Internet, on the phone, in person or on their mobile devices,” says Albert L. Berriz, vice president and managing director of owned residential real estate at McKinley. Providing mobile phone functionality, says Berriz, is “a natural extension of our core philosophy of customer engagement. We are making it easier for customers to talk to us.”

Indeed, enabling residents to use their smart phones to communicate with staff may be just as significant as allowing maintenance staff to carry out their functions by way of such tools. The ability of residents to use their mobile devices to perform any number of functions related to renting the apartment is becoming increasingly important from a customer-retention perspective, agrees Robert Lampher, president of Pennrose Management Co. “Having the information sourced at the time it is happening is keeping in pace with what the customer is more and more demanding,” says Lampher. “We have become an instant gratification society in wanting to know in the moment what is happening that is of significance to us.”

Lampher observes that in this new world, smart phones encourage the following scenario: The resident leaves the apartment in a morning rush and sends a work order on his mobile device in one hand while holding a cup of coffee in the other. Halfway through the day at work, he receives a text message on his phone from the apartment company that his repair request has been completed. “He is obtaining instant peace of mind and real time information. More and more, we see customers wanting that type of convenience where maintenance is concerned,” says Lampher.

In the end, the extent to which portable communications tools are useful also depends on the type of property in which they are used. The New York-based property management company Cooper Square Realty reports that maintenance departments of properties in its portfolio are generally composed of three sub-departments: superintendent, handymen and porters. Depending on the size of the property, the number of personnel in the department can range from just one staff member fulfilling all three roles to any number of superintendents, handymen and porters.

Generally, technological tools developed for use in apartment maintenance have not materially cut down on the number of staff members needed at the company’s properties, suggests Dan Wurtzel, president of Cooper Square Realty. The properties’ maintenance operations are already pretty lean, he says. Furthermore, as the types of apartments in the company’s portfolio are mostly high-rises, providing portable devices for maintenance staff is generally not a top concern since maintenance offices are not located a long distance from the property.

Nevertheless, Cooper Square Realty does automate its work orders electronically. The maintenance requests are received, assigned and closed in this fashion. The paperless processing, even if not a portable system, is certainly “a more productive way of maintaining records,” Wurtzel agrees.