Will the Pandemic Forever Change Property Management?
- Sep 02, 2020
For multifamily operators and managers, the last six months have tested even the hardiest, longtime veterans. Industry forecasts that were looking rosy in January had to be scrubbed completely by the end of March. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced property managers to go virtual, think outside the box, and learn how to connect and create a sense of community without face-to-face interactions.
The biggest ways things have changed and what the industry can expect to take with them in the future are still being defined, as companies adapt and try to prepare for the not-so-distant future.
“The manager’s role, in essence, hasn’t changed because they are still responsible for the health and welfare of their team and residents,” said KW Residential President Marcie Williams. “But how we’re doing it and the processes we’re using to execute it—that is different.”
A people business
For on-site management teams, one of the biggest changes has been the shift from in-person to virtual. Working from home became a norm and a new challenge for an industry not used to running things remotely. Historically, interacting with residents and prospective tenants on a day-to-day basis was a key responsibility. That is what made the shift so hard, insiders said.
“The change of going from face-to-face and shaking hands to going virtual and no human interactions, for employees, was honestly the toughest thing and will continue to be the biggest challenge,” said Margette Hepfner, COO of residential management at Lincoln Property Co.
For many firms, the switch to virtual has proven successful. JoLynn Scotch, managing director of operations at Bozzuto Management Co., said the firm has always been a “high-touch” company and did everything in person in the past. When the pandemic hit, the firm had to adapt quickly.
“COVID-19 forced us to make better use of technology and interestingly enough, it’s created a connected community, certainly Zoom has done that,” Scotch mentioned. For property offices that opened back up, Bozzuto instituted A/B schedules for employees and added physical barriers to offices with open concepts.
Turning in-person community activities into virtual get-togethers or socially distanced entertainment has been a go-to for many property managers. Some communities brought live music to residents by way of a guitar player with an amp in the courtyard. Others have found the most popular virtual activity to be weekly yoga classes.
“I think now more than ever, we’re going to really have to be on our game in creating rapport in relationships online,” said Tina West, multifamily practice leader for the Americas at CBRE. “How do you marry high-tech and relationships?”
Tech is king
Perhaps the pandemic’s biggest impact on operations has been the surging need for technology. Virtual tours have become a necessity for leasing across the country, as Americans continue to socially distance and take precautions. At many communities, rent payments, maintenance requests and general communication between staff and residents have all gone virtual.
Some companies are using apps to help residents make minor repairs. YouTube has become a popular way for staff to post step-by-step videos for routine fixes such as changing a filter or replacing a stove light. One company even made a TikTok video on fixing a leaky faucet.
“If there’s been a silver lining with COVID-19, it has really been the accelerated adoption of technology, especially around automation,” said Sarah Yaussi, vice president for business strategy at the National Multifamily Housing Council. Self-guided tours, smart locks and controlled access to amenity spaces have been particularly handy during the pandemic. “Companies who invested earlier were able to transition much more easily.”
Williams’ company RKW Residential, which oversees a portfolio of 20,000 units across six states, is one of those firms. A tech edge has helped the company grow its portfolio by around 2,000 units since the beginning of the pandemic, taking over management from companies that lacked the kind of apps and programs needed in today’s environment.
“I think that multifamily was positioned for something like this just by way of fact that our industry has been evolving over the last few years with online leasing, virtual tours and smart-home tech,” said West.
Changing hands, safely
Property managers must now comply with new local, state and federal guidelines surrounding sanitization and cleaning. That is having a big impact on how companies turn over a unit from one resident to the next—one of the most routine processes you can find at a property.
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Lincoln Property Co. has several properties using portable foggers to thoroughly clean and sanitize units, something Hepfner said will also come in handy in the future, during flu season or in the event of another pandemic.
“Ventilation systems inside buildings and spaces will be important if not more important than just the protocols,” Hepfner concluded.
At Bozzuto’s properties, staff goes through a 70-point checklist when turning a unit, topped off with a “sanctuary seal” placed over the door after the apartment is thoroughly cleaned and sanitized.
“It gives our customer a reassurance that their home is what we promised it would be,” said Nancy Goldsmith, managing director of operations at Bozzuto.
When asked by NMHC about how often property staff cleaned amenity spaces and following tours, answers tended to vary widely.
“It ended up being different strokes for different folks,” said Yaussi. “I don’t know that we’ll get to a real standardization, but I do think it will be something people pay attention to a lot more.”
Rewriting the handbook
While the timeline of the pandemic remains uncertain, some changes will stick around for longer, according to seasoned industry execs. The advent of virtual tours tops the list. While many firms expect that people will eventually want to physically visit apartments once it is safe to do so, virtual tours will remain a popular option, especially with younger generations.
“I think virtual tours are here to stay, I think that’s how they will engage first,” said Scotch.
Online payments, already popular with certain demographics, could become even more common if more properties offer the option, said Yaussi. NMHC’s quarterly renter preference report has consistently shown that residents prefer to pay digitally.
“Yet we hear from property managers that half their payments processing are checks and sometimes cash,” Yaussi added. “I think if COVID-19 has anything to do with moving that needle, it’s that we really need to have online payment options.”
One aspect that has always rung true, and will continue to, is the notion of customer experience. Companies will continue to use all the tools in their box to make the community stand out among others in the area.
“You can build the same property 10 times in a row, the difference is the people and the service,” said West.
Beyond new cleaning protocols or increased use of technology and apps, the experience of the pandemic could change property managers on a deeper level. Those in the field have had to think creatively, solve problems on the go, learn to lead a team virtually and generally go above and beyond in keeping their staff and residents safe.
“I think it will actually make us better operators,” said Hepfner. “With team members in that fight-or-flight mentality, and even though we have 5,000 employees and 680 properties, we’ve never felt like a smaller, more tight-knit family than since the pandemic began.”