In the COVID-19 era, mandatory social distancing is challenging the industry’s high-touch customer service model and highlighting the value of the self-service apartment when it comes to control, risk reduction and resiliency.


By Sarah Yaussi
Sarah Yaussi is the vice president of business strategy at the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at syaussi@nmhc.org.


Like most people in areas affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, I start my day by watching the news to get a numbers update on those infected by the virus as well as the victims. One of the more fascinating stories of late, at least from a tech perspective, was about how a Chinese company was rolling out a new, advanced facial-recognition product that included thermal imaging technology to help identify people with elevated temperatures. Moreover, the product could also identify people for building access control purposes even if they were wearing masks. 

Regardless of how comfortable you are with the idea of facial recognition technology, the story underscores technology’s role as a critical tool in today’s COVID-19-dominated world. This truth is playing out big time in the apartment industry right now, even if daily triage feels like about all we can manage right now.

Up until now, much of the apartment industry has prided itself on the high degree of “touch” and personal service we give our customers. However, the rapid spread of COVID-19 and the extreme measures governments and businesses are putting in place to combat it—not the least of which is social distancing—have exposed a myriad of risks associated with this traditional model.

In contrast, the tech-enabled, self-service apartment has never been needed like it is today. Operators today are struggling big time to figure out what to do with amenity spaces, packages, maintenance requests, tours, move-ins and more during this crisis with seemingly no end in sight. These unprecedented times are going to make it hard to argue against the self-service model going forward. This is the tipping point moment for the self-service apartment.

What Is the Self-Service Apartment?

Thanks to a series of technological innovations, the entire resident experience, from searching for an apartment to renewal or move-out, is on the brink of being automated, making true on-demand servicing a reality.

AI-powered digital leasing assistants are here now to help online prospects during the search process—and they are light years beyond the original chatbot. In fact, the technology has improved so much that we’re hearing from operators that prospects are coming into leasing offices asking for the non-human leasing agent as if they were human.

Interested prospects can view floor plans, rents and availability online and can self-schedule a tour of the community. The touring process itself is being redefined with the advent of self-guided tour technologies. While operators are testing different self-guided tour approaches, those who are fully embracing the concept can remove the onsite leasing agent from the tour process nearly completely.

Prospects arrive at the property and check in with a quick automated screen. They can then use codes from the self-guided tours to open the smart locks at the community entrance, amenity areas and unit using their smart phones. Beacon technology can be used to trigger content about the property. They can process a paperless lease online, then use their cell phone to schedule movers and reserve the loading dock for the moving truck.

Once a resident, they can use the 24/7 package lockers to pick up their packages, check out the lobby screen to monitor local transportation options or order an Uber or Lyft. They can use their phones to schedule a dog walker or cleaning service, arrange for dry clean pickup or order a meal, providing a temporary building access code for their guests entering building. If they need maintenance in their unit, they can also schedule the repair through all their cell phone as well.

This type of experience is largely in line with what people experience with other industries like airlines, rental cars and hotels. It offers control and convenience through a 24/7, on-demand model.

Why Does It Matter Today?

While convenience has been the biggest advantage of the self-service apartment model to date, we’re now seeing additional benefits in the wake of COVID-19.

As cities order non-essential business to temporarily shutter their operations to control the spread of the virus and apartment firms grapple with how to mitigate resident and staff exposure, the self-service apartment becomes an extremely useful tool in today’s era of social distancing.

Scheduled move-ins can still happen without an on-site staff person to hand off keys. Maintenance requests can be made, managed and even outsourced as needed without face-to-face contact. Amenity access can be shut off remotely. Management offices don’t need to be open for package deliveries. And virtual and self-guided tours can help operators maintain some degree of business continuity without requiring on-site staff.

Up until now, the industry viewed these technologies as luxuries and conveniences that contributed to a better customer experience while lightening some of the task load for on-site staff. However, today, there’s an argument to be made that these technologies are essential risk-mitigating tools, helping companies be more resilient in a time of great uncertainty and financial hardship.

COVID-19 could very well end up a significant lifetime event along the lines of the fall of the Berlin Wall or the attacks of 9/11. But even if it’s more temporary than the experts expect, this will remain a watershed moment for the apartment industry when it comes to the self-service model. Those companies that have moved more quickly in that direction will be more responsive and adaptable to challenges be they pandemic or otherwise; those who haven’t (or won’t) will struggle more to resume operations, putting them at greater risk over the long haul.