From left, consultant Judy Bellack moderates a discussion at the National Multifamily Housing Council OPTECH conference in November on how to seamlessly integrate technology and humans to provide top-notch customer service with panelists Kelley Shannon, Bozzuto; Todd Katler, Anyone Home; Tyler Christiansen, Funnel Leasing; and Karen Hollinger, AvalonBay Communities.
Courtesy NMHC From left, consultant Judy Bellack moderates a discussion at the National Multifamily Housing Council OPTECH conference in November on how to seamlessly integrate technology and humans to provide top-notch customer service with panelists Kelley Shannon, Bozzuto; Todd Katler, Anyone Home; Tyler Christiansen, Funnel Leasing; and Karen Hollinger, AvalonBay Communities.

The recent NMHC OPTECH in the Washington, D.C., area was a milestone moment for the multifamily industry in its post-COVID recovery. More than 2,000 apartment executives and technology partners were finally able to gather and celebrate the industry’s resiliency and set a path for what’s next. And what’s next for multifamily is all about technology investment, management, and leadership. Multifamily firms are thinking more holistically about their tech infrastructure both at the enterprise and site levels and focusing on developing the right teams and processes to become truly data-driven decisionmakers and efficient operating machines. Here are the emerging trends around multifamily proptech for 2022.

1. Process Automation Is Real and Here to Stay

While the pandemic forced the automation of many of our processes and systems, many believed—and some still believe—the industry will return to our traditional high-touch approach to apartment leasing and management. I’m not so sure.

The “great resignation” is hitting customer-facing jobs particularly hard, and this is on top of a historically high turnover rate for leasing agents and community managers. The pandemic’s emergency “test run” for new technologies was, for the most part, successful. Perfect, no, but an effective and adequate replacement, sure. The challenge now is creating a seamless process that doesn’t leave prospects stuck in an unresponsive robot loop. How do you get proptech, humans, and AI to work together in harmony?

This was the challenge posed to a stellar panel at OPTECH moderated by consultant Judy Bellack with Funnel Leasing’s Tyler Christiansen, Anyone Home’s Todd Katler, AvalonBay Communities’ Karen Hollinger, and Bozzuto’s Kelley Shannon.

The panel highlighted several existential industry threats that may force companies’ hands to adopt automation and AI technologies sooner rather than later. The panelists argued that AI technologies can better facilitate today’s customer journey, which requires instant answers to repetitive questions, while improving operational efficiencies around rote tasks. In addition, AI breeds consistency, which is helpful when it comes to compliance, and produces reams of data that can better inform decision-making.

AI and machine learning also inherently improve, learn, and refine, which is what makes them different from a plain old algorithm. As a result, the improvements with these products and services will likely be exponentially faster than anything we’ve seen with other technologies.

2. Broadband Infrastructure Never More Important

Residents on Zoom calls during the workday and streaming audio and video content at night were the obvious drivers of the need for fast, reliable internet during the past 18 months. But the pandemic also accelerated the move to smart home automation as well as other tech-enabled operational solutions such as package lockers, self-guided tours, and more. Getting the infrastructure right and supporting all the new demand has never been more important for resident satisfaction and community reputation.

Managed Wi-Fi was a hot topic at the 2021 OPTECH event. Holland Partner Group’s Jeff Gengler moderated a session on the topic with RealtyCom Partners’ Rush Blakely, Dish Fiber’s Nathan Block, and CommScope’s Sandy Jack. They walked through the pros and cons of managed Wi-Fi for both the resident and the operator. Topping the list of pros for the consumer was the fast setup, the convenience of having connectivity follow him or her throughout the property, and the potential cost savings, while access to data and critical infrastructure to be able to institute IoT solutions like smart locks and leak protections were major benefits to operators. But the benefits also come with some trade-offs.

The connectivity discussion wasn’t limited to just managed Wi-Fi. Attendees showed strong interest in controlled access and smart lock technologies, as well as IoT technology for leak detection and energy efficiency.

3. How We Lead, Manage, and Work Has Changed Forever

As we enter year three of the pandemic this coming March, the landscape for leadership, management, and employment seems to have shifted dramatically—and possibly forever. Beyond the rapid switch to more remote work, this period has also born witness to baby boomers finally deciding to retire. This marks a significant demographic shift that is beginning to drive cultural shifts at firms of all sizes.

While staffing challenges was a recurrent discussion point, so was making data a core component of company culture. It’s simply not enough to implement a data platform and hire smart data scientists to achieve a data-driven organization. Engrain’s Brent Steiner led a discussion around the culture of data from innovation to communications with panelists Kevin Geraghty, AvalonBay Communities; Diana Norbury, Pillar Properties; Stephanie Gonzalez, Venterra Realty; and Brandy Daniel, BH Equities. The key takeaway was successful data implementation is not just looking back to measure returns but also looking ahead to identify how the experience can create more efficiencies for team members going forward.

AppFolio’s Stacey Holden also led a session on how the future of leadership is human-centric. Panelist Steve Cadigan, author of the recently released “Workquake” and former HR executive at LinkedIn, said we need to completely rethink how we view work.

On average, young workers stay in their jobs less than three years, and he argued that’s OK. If you want them to stay, continue to give them new learning experiences, new positions, new challenges, and, if they do move on, view them as part of your extended alumni network. Panelist Lisa Wise, CEO of DC Flock, concurred that times have changed and our relationship with work has, too. She argued a human-centric approach really makes the most sense from a business perspective as loyal and happy employees are usually top performers.

The past year and a half—whether it’s been working in front of blaring computer monitors or juggling packed day-to-day schedules—has proved that burnout is very real. Keynote Suneel Gupta, CEO of RISE and bestselling author of “Backable,” underscored how critical it is to learn the art of unwinding, destressing, and recentering.

“We have the tools to thrive when things are going well, but what about when things are tough?” asked Gupta.

As an industry, we are beginning to emerge from the trauma and burnout of the pandemic and find our energy and excitement restored. The year ahead will be a truly exciting one for multifamily as some of the successes and failures of the pandemic recalibrate strategy. Market fundamentals are mostly favorable, and the opportunities for tech adoption and process automation are there for us to pilot and see what works for our companies.

So, here’s to 2022 and seeing the new landscape as a chance to build a more efficient and resilient apartment industry.