By Focusing on Relationships, Building Managers Have an Opportunity to Lead With Purpose

Senior advisers resigned. Board members fired. A lawsuit filed by civil liberties activists. Who knew building smart cities could be so hard?

Despite these challenges, just last month, WeWork announced itself as the next tech company that will build the future of cities and buildings. It seeks to use data, artificial intelligence, and other emerging technologies to automate city services and drive business decisions.

In its quest to automate and reduce human intervention, companies like WeWork have an opportunity to learn from smart city initiatives like the above. WeWork can embrace social responsibility and a commitment to relationships. Managers of smart buildings — like those at WeWork — have an opportunity to help not just their tenants build relationships with each other but also engage surrounding underrepresented communities.

By focusing on relationships, building managers have an opportunity to lead with purpose, like the Apples and Southwest Airlines of the world. Instead of simply transacting with their tenants, managers are well situated to advocate for them. By listening and investing in their residents, buildings will realize that one of the most painful problems facing many urban residents is social isolation—not inconveniently located retail. Inclusivity is key here, too, as the most isolated residents tend to have fewer financial and educational resources.

Take WeWork’s existing relationship-building efforts, which have strengthened its brand. 45% of WeWork member companies claim that the company’s relationship-building efforts like workshops, events, and online forums have helped their companies grow. Customers that attribute their successes to and enjoy interacting with brands are more likely to refer them. 84% of potential customers are more likely to trust a referral from a friend. These community efforts, as a result, have improved WeWork’s brand and is an excellent foundation for its future smart building initiatives.

While leadership is hard, building managers have a growing number of tools to place inclusive relationships at the heart of their brand. These ideas come from both successful multifamily buildings and other companies using sensitive data to serve their customers. Smart companies view relationships, especially one built on ethics and trust, as an emerging competitive advantage. We cover five strategies in turn.

Design community-oriented housing that is affordable-by-design

One of the best ways to foster community is to create housing that is affordable-by-design. Affordability allows more people to live in a space, increasing opportunities for social connection among people of all backgrounds.

Take Starcity, one innovator making San Francisco rentals more affordable. By creating smaller bedrooms and sharing common spaces like kitchens, Starcity claims it’s been able to add “three times” more rental units than traditional apartment rentals. More people per square foot means lower rents, greater diversity, and ample opportunities for community-building.  

A key way of increasing affordability is to help residents share space using design. Buildings can learn from several “co-living” startups making this a reality, such asStarcity, Padsplit, and Ollie. For instance, Ollie uses furniture that allows rooms to be used for multiple purposes. Padsplit converts larger units into multiple ones, allowing more people to share space and save money.

Another approach to affordability features companies taking an active role in helping residents find roommates  to reduce their costs. Beyond tried-and-true platforms like Facebook, Craigslist, and Roomi, some focus on helping residents identify their compatibility with each other. HomeShare (who have since closed their doors), for instance, uses algorithms to pair roommates, increasing roommate compatibility. Hubhaus builds cultural communities to help residents living in close quarters enjoy each other’s company. The Collective pairs coliving with cultural programming and coworking spaces to help residents interact in more casual settings.

Save renters time and effort

Every moment a renter spends on time-intensive administrative tasks like paying rent is a moment that person is not spending as part of your building community. Various property management tools can help to create a seamless experience, from viewing a unit to requesting help to fix a sink.

Numerous examples help renters with their initial search process.  Instead of relying on static pictures, building managers can use 3D tours and videos, apartment reviews, and building grades, like those from Rentlogic, to increase transparency. Services like Joinery incentivize existing renters to tap into their networks. With a trusted party as a guide, potential renters can ask frank questions to a current tenant. These tools give renters more information up front before spending time visiting, saving time for all involved.

Once a renter decides on a unit, several tools help renters overcome large upfront costs to renting a unit. Rhino and The Guarantors, for instance, provide new payment schemes to help renters overcome the financial barriers caused by security deposits and income minimums, respectively.

Additionally, the legal process can be daunting. Docusign and other electronic contract signature technologies reduce wasted paper. In addition to quick signature tools, managers can educate tenants on what they’re signing to reassure them that leases are fair and increase trust.

Finally, even once tenants rents the unit,  they waste time on various administrative tasks. Active Building and Bixby have created self-service platforms for renters to pay their bills and request maintenance services from property managers. Boodskapper uses artificial intelligence to make building operations, such as maintenance and inspection, more efficient.

Partner with community-building providers

Today, it is easier than ever for managers to boost community-building. While Cobu helps residents connect based on shared passions, Building Impact and Meal Sharing focus on specific interests: volunteering and dinner hosting, respectively.

At Cobu for instance, we’ve built a digital community engagement platform that connects residents based on shared passions within a single apartment building. The genesis for Cobu came from seeing my own mother’s experience moving to Manhattan — achieving a lifelong ambition of hers —  into a large, amenity-rich apartment building, and seeing that dream turn into a reality of isolation and anonymity. What we’ve learned along the way is that while software can enable communities to get stronger, technology itself does not build community. Cobu’s communities interact both offline and online and are catalyzed by a virtual community manager who encourages and enables offline relationships to develop and flourish within the building and neighborhood.

Property managers can also invest in amenities that foster community. For example, managers might partner with Hall. This company currently provides a co-working space and a dining hall. By placing such amenities in a building, managers can provide residents with more casual opportunities to meet each other.

Collect and analyze data ethically

By operating smart buildings, property managers are likely collecting data about their tenants. This data is a strategic advantage, allowing property managers to listen carefully and solve problems quickly.

Yet this data is a double-edged sword. Residents’ data is sensitive. From bank accounts to living patterns, these are some of the most intimate forms of data—and must be handled ethically. Doing otherwise will breach your customer’s trust and their willingness to share their data.

Data ethics, as a result, is a foundation for relationships in the smart building age.

There are tools that make certain aspects of ethical data governance easier.

One key aspect of data governance is transparency. Tools like Termly and other privacy policy generators help managers clearly inform residents about what data is being collected and for what purposes. Companies like WritersHQ have used their privacy policies to further their brand as a creative and transparent company. To help residents manage their consent to data collection and access their own data, managers can consider tools like Metomic and Transcend, respectively.

Another key aspect is privacy and security. To make data confidential, managers need to know where their data is located. Using tools like BigID, managers can discover sensitive data throughout their organization.

Once data is identified, platforms like Immuta help managers create access and privacy policies — such as masking or aggregating data — by default. While there is some cost to installing a tool like Immuta, prior work has helped data analytics team learn that tools like these can improve collaboration, while simplifying compliance with complicated regulations. We’ve discovered that if sensitive data is masked or aggregated by default, both privacy and security are enhanced. Even if hackers obtain aggregate information, for instance, their options to cause harm are much more limited.

Finally, as Facebook experienced firsthand, inappropriate models can result in lawsuits and a loss of public trust. ther  tools, again like Immuta, help managers audit whether sensitive data is being used in only the ways it should. To reduce the risk of bias data and models, tools like EthicalOS and DataRobot can help managers predict and reduce potential harms from their analytics. Similarly, managers can use third party services to audit their algorithms, as Rentlogic has done.

Engage underrepresented communities

Buildings are situated within neighborhoods, often facing tremendous socioeconomic change. Sleek, smart buildings in cities symbolize the growing gap between the haves and have-nots. When people believe your building has torn apart the relationships of those who have lived in that neighborhood for decades, your branding efforts to put people first fall flat.

As leaders, building managers can foster communities not just within, but outside the walls of your building.

Take a page from Patagonia, which FastCompany calls one of the world’s most innovative companies.

Learning from Patagonia’s lawsuit to fight the loss of public lands, managers can fight for policies that dismantle exclusionary zoning and promote housing choices that are affordable by design.

Learning from Patagonia’s donation of its tax break, managers can invest surpluses into incubators for affordable housing innovation or for low-skilled entrepreneurs.

Learning from Patagonia’s investment into childcare, managers can partner with community-based childcare centers that have helped mothers build inclusive, diverse relationships.

Property managers who adopt smart technologies can realize the potential they have to cultivate a relationship-oriented brand. They can do so by designing an inclusive community, making their tenants’ lives easier, partnering with community-building providers, using ethical data governance, and engaging with underrepresented communities.

Property managers have an opportunity to deliver tremendous value to their residents, their building, and their brand, all the while creating a welcoming space to truly call home.

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