Let’s face it. COVID-19 has turned our operating model upside down. However, here are three areas where technology can help us be more resilient going forward.

By Khushbu Sikaria

Khushbu Sikaria is a multifamily innovator and business strategist. She has been a thought-leader in real estate technology, growth strategy, brand, and consumer experience. She was most recently at an early-stage start-up in the flexible living space. She can be reached at khushbusikaria@gmail.com.

Sometime in late February or early March, if you were on the leadership team at your company, your day to day and role instantly changed. Whatever your role was previously, you were now also part of the COVID-19 Task Force. Your mission was to try to predict if hundreds of confirmed cases of coronavirus would turn into thousands and how the daily White House briefings would dramatically impact your customers, employees and business.

During my first task force call, one of my former colleagues suggested that we take this opportunity to produce branded soap and distribute it to our residents in an effort to display our vigilance for hand washing. Stop. Pause. Fast forward a few weeks and we would all agree that branded soap was not going to solve a public health crisis.

I share that story to highlight how unbelievably unprepared the industry was for what we are experiencing today. This pandemic has broken the traditional model and forced us to rewrite the rules on how we operate.

First and foremost, we now understand the need to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. This begins with developing a crisis management plan with built-in triggers and proactive and accurate communication to our customers and employees with an emphasis on health, safety, and experience. Second, we need technology more than ever to be able to keep our commitment to our customers and mitigate financial risks in the business.

To that end, I see three areas where technological advances and innovation are going to help us be more resilient in the near and longer term.

Health Tech

Just as retail was disrupted over a decade ago, forcing companies to look beyond brick and mortar to an omnipresence model, the doctor’s office has been going through a similar digital revolution.

Telemedicine, the newest B2C health tech service, allows doctors to provide a similar virtual face-to-face experience as an in-person visit, converting doctors’ physical office visits into virtual ones. Telemedicine is safer for the patient, physician and the entire office staff, not to mention the time savings resulting from not having to commute and wait.

Prior to COVID-19, healthcare providers were slowly but surely adopting these technological capabilities. In a post-COVID-19 world, this technology becomes critical because it allows our residents to receive the evaluation and care they need, while minimizing unnecessary contact and interactions.

There are a plethora of new start-ups in the space, some of which like WellVia and AllyHealth, are trying to broker a multifamily partnership. Doxy.me and Zoom are other tools preferred by healthcare professionals, making those platforms of greater interest to multifamily operators. Facilitating these types of relationships on behalf of your residents can demonstrate that you are actively seeking substantive resources and truly care for their physical and mental well-being during this difficult time.  

Financial Hardship

Almost no one in this industry is shielded from the financial impact of COVID-19—from our residents to our building owners to our lenders and investors. But at the base of our twisted ladder is the resident. What happens to them ultimately happens to us.

So we looked at our residents’ financial health. One analysis showed that 25 percent of our residents are in the service industry, sales, or another industry where their job and/or compensation is vulnerable due to shelter-in-place orders that limit operations to “essential” businesses. The direct impact to building owners is that these residents could be at risk for delinquency and eviction. Many may need an alternative payment program than can provide some temporary relief during these unprecedented times of business interruption.

The first step we considered was flexible payment options. Entrata and other property management systems often have a preset option that you can turn on. Other third-party options include start-ups like Flex and Till; these renter-finance companies are focused on making housing more affordable through alternative payment schedules and could become valuable tools in this crisis.

Regardless of the level of financial hardship, almost everyone could use a little extra money back in their pockets. Many owners require a capital commitment for renters in the form of a security deposit. Companies like Jetty, Leaselock, and Obligo have tools that allow the customer to pay only a fraction of their security deposit at lease signing. We also set a retention goal of 70 percent knowing that roughly 20 percent of residents move out voluntarily and we could incentivize them to defer their move during this crisis. To help us, we engaged Jetty, which allows residents to get back a large portion of their original security deposit back at renewal.

Whatever your preference, new policies and technologies can get us closer to the goals of avoiding a spike in delinquency and reaching a higher retention rate at the property during the crisis.

Virtual Customer Experience

During the second week of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., our first order of business was to shift non-essential staff—leasing agents, concierge shifts, admin positions and managerial positions—to work from home, leaving our prospects and residents with a skeleton crew of humans to service them.

The second big change was our (least) favorite new phrase of 2020: social distancing. This required us to shut down thousands of square feet of amenity space and ask our residents to shelter in place in, on average, 700-square feet of space.

Each of these seismic changes caused an uproar from our residents and also reduced tour traffic to our buildings.

Fortunately, 2019 had been the year of the reinvention of on-site employees’ roles. Whether the goal was to up-level their role or reduce headcount in the leasing office, we had invested in technologies and platforms that moved us closer to a self-service apartment model.

Our buildings had unified access control systems, allowing us to turn off access to vendors and residents and to deploy virtual codes for temporary vendors so they could enter the building in absence of a concierge.

We also launched a marketing campaign with focused messaging on being open for business online. In order to support this new form of leasing we engaged Realync, a cloud-based, video leasing system that allows us to conduct virtual tours and follow-up with dynamic multimedia content.

We partnered with building vendors and residents to launch virtual fitness classes, meditations, happy hours, comedy shows—you name it. Other considerations were to allow for self-guided tours, self-service F&B marketplaces like Stockwell, a smart package room for oversized packages and refrigeration, and even an autonomous robot that could act as a runner for food deliveries.

This Too Shall Pass

To be sure, COVID-19 is disrupting our multifamily world in more ways than we can count. But this new environment has exposed our weaknesses and forced us all to get a little creative and accelerate the process for finding solutions.

Fortunately, technology is providing us with new solutions in the critical areas of health, renter finance and customer experience—all of which will remain essential in the post-COVID-19 world. Hopefully we can come out of this crisis a stronger, smarter and more high-tech version of ourselves.

About the Author

Khushbu Sikaria is a multifamily innovator and business strategist. She has been a thought-leader in real estate technology, growth strategy, brand, and consumer experience. She was most recently at an early-stage start-up in the flexible living space. Prior to that she spent almost nine years at Bozzuto, where she led Innovation & Product. She also held multiple other roles there, including the VP of Advisory Services, where she was integral to the growth of the management company.

Prior to joining Bozzuto, Khushbu founded an e-commerce retail business, worked at a branding agency and practiced law in Florida. Khushbu holds a JD/MBA from the University of Baltimore and a BS in Marketing from the University of Florida. Khushbu was awarded Multifamily Executive’s Rising Star award, highlighting her exceptional work in the industry. She can be reached at khushbusikaria@gmail.com.