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Occupant Engagement Starts With Functionality, Not Frills

The beginning of autumn is different this year. Unlike years when we typically countdown to holidays or major happenings, this year we wonder if any of these events will actually occur. And yet, despite fewer gatherings, it seems like we have even less free time. Between working from home and playing bandwidth tug-of-war on Zoom with our school-age children, technology has become a true substitute for personal connection with the outside world.

Major crises can accelerate trends and the current pandemic is doing this for technology adoption across virtually every category, including communications, dining, shopping, healthcare, and fitness—to name just a few. Unsurprisingly, technology providers for commercial real estate have responded to these changes as existing players have sought to meet shifting demand while new players have launched to address incumbents’ perceived shortcomings. Predicting who will win in moments of dramatic change isn’t easy.

Is it overwhelming, or is it just me?

Humans are creatures of habit. Faced with rapid, consequential change, we do our damnedest to keep things the same. This explains why so many of us are scrambling to maintain the status quo when it comes to our activities and patterns of daily existence, despite a lack of proven, customary mechanisms for doing so. In the real estate industry, where we operate, seemingly easy tasks for occupants, like paying rent, accepting packages, scheduling a meeting, or going to the gym, now require tech-enabled tools like touch-free user interfaces, improved cleaning processes, social-distancing, automated booking, and more. The need is real.

The challenge for building owners and operators isn’t too different. Buildings need to provide these tools for occupants. Consequently, they’re investing in many technologies to address these problems, frequently on a one-off basis as they crop up. The result is a patchwork, disjointed tech stack on the front end of many properties, a collection of point solutions. And while the intent behind introducing these solutions comes from the right place, the experience they, collectively, introduce is pretty poor. Asking occupants and staff to download multiple apps, go to multiple websites, maintain multiple logins, enter data in multiple places is the opposite of ease and efficiency. Given these frictions, one would expect low levels of adoption and utilization of these tools.

That’s precisely what we hear from owners, operators, and occupants all the time.

Why? Because trying to drive engagement through multiple solutions does the opposite. Instead of engaging people, the mishmash of technologies diminishes a cohesive experience in the building. High engagement is desirable because it allows property owners and operators to have a pulse on what is happening within its walls. This data enables owners and operators to better serve their customers and derive more value from their assets.

Achieving high engagement is doable. We see it all the time. I can tell you how our clients have maintained 95 percent occupant engagement using our platform. 

Before I go there, let’s be clear about something. With an abundance of apps available for interaction, few people will download a building app just to talk to building staff or neighbors. We all already have tools for that on our phones: Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, etc. An app for their building that replicates that feature set is just more friction to connecting with the property.

Wanted: Users

For years, PropTech marketing has touted ways it can solve occupant frustrations and products are getting closer, but many don’t live up to the hype. Too often products that promise automation and integration really just mean “automatically email a human to do something.” That’s not automation and doesn’t really do a whole lot to make the property more efficient or the occupant experience better.

We started Rise Buildings because we couldn’t find an intuitive and reliable occupant experience and property management platform available to those who needed it. We knew that if it existed, then buildings would see higher engagement rates because occupants would want to use the platform. For example, one of our clients, a Class A high-rise in downtown Chicago, currently has 95 percent occupant engagement. They achieved this because our platform provides real, functional tools for the building population. It is the place where they go to do everything they need to do in the building, whether that’s book an amenity, credential a visitor, access the building, or purchase goods and services

Occupants need technology to access building functions for a multitude of reasons, but the key to getting people on a building’s platform is to start with priority, functional elements like those mentioned above. Once you have people on the platform, then you can start to engage them in different ways, such as through surveys, events, or connecting with other occupants. These are all things that occupants can do elsewhere, so without drawing them in from the start, the probability of keeping them engaged will be low.

Today engagement, tomorrow the world

Buildings that offer enjoyable occupant experiences successfully merge the digital and physical elements of a property through engagement. They become one step closer to being a connected and prosperous location. With a foundation established, the user experience will continue to get better as new capabilities are added natively or integrated through APIs. What people start using for payments or work orders can expand into and be accepted as a one-stop-shop for everything occupants need.

If we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that we need solutions more than we need shiny objects. The pandemic has us looking for connection and efficiency, and technology is perfectly positioned for this. Technology providers must make occupants’ lives and overall experiences with their buildings better before we can hope for the platform to grow into something bigger. You have to start with functionality before you get to the frills.

Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.

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