The commercial real estate industry is not usually first thought of when it comes to technological advancements. But slowly, that is changing. Increasingly, technology is helping property management firms automate systems and processes, and improving tenants’ experiences.
“Cushman & Wakefield makes enhancements to its operating platform on a continuous basis,” says Edina Lemo, a managing director in the real estate services firm’s New York office, in an email. “Some of these enhancements serve to help us operate better internally (i.e. streamlining of HR processes) and some enhancements serve clients (i.e. quality of financial reporting).”
Several real estate experts we spoke with say ease of use and the ability to integrate into existing systems—as many say their firms partner with third parties to develop technologies—are key when weighing whether to incorporate new products.
While some technologies may provide straightforward solutions to systematize how buildings and tenants are managed, others seek to provide amenities and data to landlords and tenants—like the use of heat sensors to gather information on how workers move about an office and whether it’s the most efficient use of that space.
“I think there’s a coming seismic shift in the way that we use data and technology inside real estate,” says Eddy Wagoner, global CIO of corporate solutions at real estate services firm JLL.
Here are several ways—both big and small—commercial real estate firms are using platforms, services and products to better manage and enhance the use of their assets.
- Boosting Efficiencies: Karen Whitt, president of U.S. investor services and project management and real estate management at Colliers International, believes the real estate firm’s property management tools should work to improve at least one of three categories: productivity, end-users’ experiences and clients’ revenue-generating opportunities. The first category centers on tools that boost financial and operating efficiencies, such as reviewing equipment performance before problems occur, Whitt says. To boost the experiences of end users, such as a corporate tenants’ employees, Colliers focuses on technology that fosters convenience and community. For example, the firm is rolling out a new app called Ritual in Canada that allows individuals in a building to order food at local eateries to avoid waiting in lines, Whitt says. Finally, the firm also works to find ways clients can have opportunities to build revenue through real estate. For example, the firm is in conversations with a platform called Dark Store, which provides urban fulfillment in vacant or underutilized spaces, like an unused basement or garage. “It allows us to create an additional revenue source if it can be used that way,” Whitt says. Generally, Colliers—like many other firms—aims to partner with outside companies that have products that can interface with Colliers’ existing technology. The firm recently launched an accelerator program to mentor and invest in startups focused on real estate tech.
- Helping Tenants: To recruit top corporate clients, JLL is working on programs and applications that allow for more individualized customization of properties, Wagoner says. The goal is to boost employee productivity and satisfaction, which drives corporate tenants’ bottom lines. For example, JLL is utilizing technology such as heat sensors to determine where and how employees tend to utilize a space. In general, JLL tends to adhere to a build-buy model when it comes to technology—using outside companies to provide certain technology, such as the heat sensors, and building some of the integration platforms, if there are multiple providers in a building, Wagoner says. “We are working to deliver products and apps that will interact and will deliver that employee experience to our client and our clients’ occupants in a seamless fashion,” Wagoner says. This includes a smartphone app so employees in an office, for example, can order food from local eateries or book a conference room. “For your building to compete in the future, it will need to be enabled,” Wagoner adds.
- Data Visualization: “The amount of information is very overwhelming, and it’s not going to get reduced,” says Patrick McGrath, CIO and head of client technologies at real estate services firm Savills Studley. These constant streams of information have led the firm to focus on how to best visualize all of it. For example, Savills Studley’s Knowledge^3 platform, using artificial intelligence technology from Leverton, creates data visualizations and analytics from end users’ imported real estate documents, such as leases. Another emerging product the firm utilizes to help it visualize data is called Matterport, which allows people to virtually walk around the interior of an existing space using 3-D renderings, McGrath says.
- Document Management: Practicality matters when it comes to property management technology at Avison Young, a real estate services firm. “It’s all about practical solutions. No one’s impressed by fluff,” says Michael Vullis, a principal at the real estate services firm’s Fort Lauderdale, Fla. office. “We are a business that is not fluff-oriented.” For example, about six months ago, the firm partnered with an outside company—which Vullis declined to name—to help Avison Young manage tenants’ certificates of insurance. Previously, individual employees were constantly following up with tenants to provide the documentation—a lease requirement—but the third party has automated the process, including follow-up responses, saving time and resources. “The advantage of having a third party is there’s no discussion,” Vullis notes. “It just gets done.”
- Organizing Data: Data is a huge demand now, and VEREIT is in the process of transitioning to a new cloud-based structure through Microsoft to house VEREIT’s information, says Jeff Keen, vice president of real estate operations. “It will definitely be a significant step up from our current data structure,” Keen says, adding, “This is going to be really a game changer.” The goal of the change is to help ensure that data is accurate, eliminate redundancies and customize the services VEREIT needs. For example, if there are some retailers struggling and filing for bankruptcy, the firm can quickly scan through its data to determine its level of exposure, Keen says. VEREIT also works with robotic process automation—essentially using robots to overtake manual, tedious tasks. For example, instead of having someone go through tenants’ websites for their quarterly earnings reports, the firm eventually could teach a robot to take over that task. “It allows us to more proactively manage our portfolios because we’re not spending time doing menial tasks,” Keen says.