As one of the technology’s latest buzzwords, PropTech is a fairly new trend in the digital landscape. Many companies and investors see this as a fertile ground ripe for numerous benefits, which is why funding into this particular industry has been on a steady rise. In short, there’s no shortage of capital in the market, along with countless ways to use it. As a result, there is also no shortage of both realistic and outrageous claims about PropTech. Some call it the bonafide disruptor and the second coming of real estate while others see it as yet another small advancement in the long line of digital innovations. In both cases and subsequent extremes, you can often spot a common link: a distinct lack of vision.
This is particularly true for office and property management, where the focus is of innovation is either exclusively on companies working in one small part of the workflow or individual buildings. Improvement in the ecosystem has been stagnant, possibly because all of the new companies in the space have been trying to break out of that delicate first stage in any tech startups life where heavy development commitments are often only attainable with outside investment. But the matter of the fact is there is no better time than now.
As someone with two decades of experience in the IT industry, I believe the current approach to PropTech is wrong. Due to changing expectations, the true promise of PropTech is to bridge the divides real estate has on a daily basis: from disrupting the logistics such as managing assets and time maximization to reinventing traditional real estate industry jobs, and everything in between. Let’s not forget that we are talking about a historically slow-moving and conservative industry that’s been stuck in time. Even still, there are plenty of opportunities to innovate and rethink current systems and processes.
The convergence of real estate and technology we so fondly call PropTech is currently only halfway through to true innovation and the eventual disruption that follows. My gripe relates to the glut of existing solutions that solve only one part of the equation. On one side, you have a tailored system that fits an organization but doesn’t match the needs of a specific building. On the other, there’s a solution that fits the building and even caters to an individual segment of the company but does very little in terms of serving on a company-wide level.
I have witnessed the advantages of technology when applied to the real estate industry, from using data analytics to better interact with real estate to diving into emerging technologies like virtual reality and IoT to enhance both user and management experiences. I am pretty sure it can be implemented better. The reason why is because an important piece in current PropTech management efforts is neglected: the workers themselves. The industry needs a combination of these approaches with the ability to run a more granular operation if need be.
Because we live in an app-centric world, such an all-encompassing approach requires an all-encompassing application. Preferably, one that represents an entire ecosystem supporting the worker. It should be capable of handling mountains of complex data while providing actionable insights in real time, such as locating a specific worker. It should be able to report problems with equipment in the tenant’s spaces and the common areas and in the building in general. It should be able to provide information about room occupancy through advanced application of fast data and AI. Such a solution wouldn’t have to be put into effect merely within a specific building or company. Instead, it should be integrated across an organization to enhance office management and engage the workforce while still providing value to it.
Today’s fast-paced digital world makes it extremely tough to effectively operate a business, especially that of a large(r) stature, without an integrated system that manages and analyses data collected from various sources and departments. Add the silo effect, lack of information flow between organization’s departments, to the mix and suddenly there is a lack of openness and information sharing that cause inefficiency throughout the company. An integrated system helps managers understand how a certain office or property is utilised, and proper ways to optimize it.
I deliberately used ‘proper’ because the reality is different compared to these encouraging words on a screen. A lot of managers only understand optimization on paper or to a certain degree at best. When thinking about it, we are envisioning a seemingly simple matter. After all, the goal is clear: to make something as functional and/or effective as possible. So how wrong can we be? It turns out, more than we think.
Attempt at optimization is not the same as actual optimization. It’s not that these managers are incompetent or anything like that. It has more to do with the scarcity of analytical knowledge and deep(er) insights such as metrics in energy consumption and a complete overview of misused productivity hours, for instance. These and other recurrent issues prevent large offices and properties from true optimization. Because of this, the management is often misled and full of unfounded assumptions.
In office and property management, optimization covers a lot of things. Thanks to advances in connectivity, applying technology to physical spaces where people work or live can yield remarkable benefits. These refer to energy and utility consumption, worker productivity, space utilization, and various operational and maintenance costs. Without requisite PropTech, the value created within these spaces will diminish over time.
On a practical note, one aspect of expenses many will be quick to point out is energy and utility consumption. These are widely considered as one of the leading unnecessary costs in real estate, with all the additional lighting, air-conditioning, heating, and else. The truth is these are completely avoidable costs through sensor-enabled smart monitoring and measurement systems like Zonifero and PointGrab that combine automation, AI, and IoT.
At least one of the HVAC elements routinely eats up more energy than it should. A light stays on overnight in one or two offices. Both are fairly usuals scenarios in an office. Through connected IoT devices and sensors throughout the building that measure and optimize consumption levels, a business can both raise its efficiency and reduce energy usage without affecting employee comfort.
For a more specific example, I’ll quickly turn back to the employee aspect and the ever-important quest for productivity. In a modern workplace, there are shared spaces like meeting and conference rooms where employees must spend time figuring out if they are being used at an exact time, place, and duration by asking around and getting ahold of people. Meetings end earlier, rooms get booked but the clients cancel the meeting, some urgent matters arise and there’s a need for a quick reservation.
The same principle goes for hot desking, where the challenge is to allocate people in large offices with differing roles in terms of mobility and flexibility. Work is being increasingly done on undefined and interchangeable work locations, along with the fact that people require desks at different times and different usage intervals.
These are all the things that happen within an office environment on a regular basis. If you add them up, you get a significant inefficiency problem. In such cases without monitoring systems in place, employees are at risk of losing time and being unproductive in their attempts to best utilize a workspace or perform a certain activity. In addition, it may be difficult to pinpoint the location of specific employees in organizations with a large amount of staff, especially in cases when verbal communication is necessary.
With an integrated and mobile-friendly solution unused office rooms, desks, and even parking spaces, as well as time spent/wasted on looking for otherwise easily available information and other related issues can become a thing of the past. With IoT sensors providing real-time feedback about occupancy and workers, employees can easily book rooms, find available shared desks, locate printers, and so on. Not only does it allow for a more efficient use of space but also cuts down on time spent on ultimately pointless activities.
On the managerial side, ensuring an interconnected and open workplace means getting rid of unnecessary expenses and stress. Just imagine an entire ecosystem supporting a workforce and its individuals across the landscape as the system exerts its ability to analyse at the company, division, and individual level. Solutions like these check off all the boxes when it comes to radically changing office management in its current form.
So why haven’t we seen these adopted already? It’s tough to pinpoint an exact reason. By nature, the real estate industry is complex and risk-averse. There’s generally little willingness to embrace the risk and experiment so any serious change represents a massive adjustment. With technology tying all the loose ends, focus on data privacy grows, particularly since GDPR came into effect and that makes existing systems difficult to manage through emerging tech. It’s important to have an open mind about current developments and what’s to come, especially considering as companies begin to use technology to refine and upgrade their operations.
In order for all of this to work, scalability is crucial since the solution in question aims to solve multiple issues at once instead of being implemented separately. In part, that is the true promise of PropTech in office and property management: the modularity and scaling under various conditions without any hiccups that allow integration to take place in different stages. This will especially be important as the scope of PropTech evolves as time goes by and digital transformation continues.
For a technology that encompasses both hardware and software, as well as certain operations such as manufacturing and management, PropTech has the power to affect almost every facet of the real estate industry, whether it’s the commercial or construction side. It’s hard not to be excited about all the cost savings and efficiency this technology brings to a traditionally slow-moving market.
While the vision and desire for reinvention is at an all-time high, there’s still a long way to go for PropTech to become mainstream. Despite indisputable growth within the industry, resistance to change has limited the rate of adoption thus far. Privacy and data protection will always be a question mark in a digital world, and far from the only unknowns. One thing is certain, though: the rising PropTech tide and its 4.0 rendition offers a clear path from challenge to solution through the use of AI algorithms and sensor-powered automation. If you are interested in rewriting the book on the real estate industry, now would be the time.