Leveraging Technology to Improve Building Operations

How technology can help property managers and FMs do more with less

by Jessica Bates — With property managers increasingly being asked to do more with less, new technologies are lightening the workload by helping to streamline operations, increase efficiency and boost tenant satisfaction. Over the past few years, the industry has benefitted greatly from the rapid advancements in smartphone technology, monitoring systems and data analytics, in particular. New products are making basic property management tasks, from procurement to tenant relations, faster, easier and more efficient.

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Property managers spend a significant portion of their time handling paperwork, so one new trend in the industry centers on streamlining the procurement process. New “procure-to-pay” systems integrate purchasing with accounts payable to increase transparency and streamline workflow. Vendor self-service systems, for example, now allow property managers to add their approved vendors to the system, and the vendors can then upload their invoices directly, retrieve purchase orders, check payment status and even upload their insurance information. Some of these systems are tied into the property management company’s accounting software, which allows property managers to process payments directly and categorize payments automatically. These systems not only reduce the time commitment on the part of the property management team, they also cut down on accounting errors and keep the vendor automatically apprised of the payment timeline.

Similar systems are now available for other common tasks, including a dedicated online marketplace for purchasing pre-coded, discounted building supplies and online RFP systems that allow vendors to submit bids electronically. Robert Teel, senior vice president for Global Solutions at real estate software developer Yardi, says the demand for these types of products is growing. “With no paper changing hands, the workflow is streamlined and the savings are tremendous,” says Teel. “Automating these processes can significantly reduce company workload.”

Other tools, such as web-based work order systems and tenant portals, which have become standard in primary markets, are now gaining traction in secondary and tertiary markets. For example, mobile apps now allow property managers to communicate directly with their maintenance staff, assign work orders and review the status of these work orders in real time. Members of the maintenance staff can log their time and materials usage quickly, and through integration with a smartphone’s microphone and camera, these apps facilitate the documentation of building issues or a project’s status. Property managers also can be alerted immediately through push notifications if there is a site issue or a project delay.

Likewise, tenants are able to communicate in real time with their property management teams through online tenant portals or building apps. Tenant portals typically include building documents, such as occupant handbooks, as well as a building directory, a work order system and an online payment option. Tenant portals and online payments have been in use in residential properties for years, and they are becoming increasingly standard in commercial properties. These user-friendly systems can increase tenant satisfaction and reduce the time managers spend addressing tenant questions or concerns.

All of these systems are designed to streamline workflow and help keep managers, staff, vendors and tenants informed. “More and more, technology is moving towards connecting internal and external building stakeholders,” explains Teel. “Facilitating communication and data sharing between these stakeholders or parts of a process makes things more efficient and, in the end, saves everyone money.”

Building Automation

Just as streamlining payment systems can greatly improve office workflow, automating building systems can make a building much more efficient. So-called building automation systems (BAS) are becoming increasingly common in commercial buildings. As automation technology continues to be developed and refined, managers are seeing increasing operational efficiency from these systems.

By integrating multiple building systems — lighting and electrical, HVAC and life safety — into a single platform, property managers can reduce the need for employee training and system upgrades. However, David Thurow, senior product manager for Siemens’ Building Technologies Division, cautions that systems should be primarily independent of each other. “It’s very important to have robust systems that all talk to each other rather than one giant system that has too much vulnerability” advises Thurow. “If you hang all your systems on a single thread, when the thread breaks, none of your systems will work.” He recommends finding a system that will allow you to manage separate systems that are integrated into one platform. This integration allows you to view your building system holistically, track energy expenditure and pinpoint energy drains, such as illicit space heaters in tenant spaces, early on, while ensuring that a malfunction in one system won’t affect the building overall. As the software accompanying these systems continues to develop, managers will benefit from better visualization of data, with easy-to-read dashboards covering all aspects of building operations.

Another simple way to manage energy expenditure is to allow your tenants to have a role in the process. Raphael Imhof, director of Strategy at Siemens’ Building Technologies Division, recommends using the aforementioned tenant portals and building apps to solicit real-time feedback from tenants on temperature and lighting. “Different tenants have different lighting and temperature preferences, and the easiest way of finding out these preferences is to ask,” he suggests. Tenant feedback can augment building analytics to determine patterns or issues with the HVAC or lighting systems. Property managers can use this information to adjust settings or even relocate tenants within the building based on their temperature preferences to reduce complaints and increase tenant satisfaction.

Longevity and Security

Even when a new product offers clear savings, property professionals may be reluctant to adopt it due to concerns over longevity and security. When installing a new system within a building, for example, owners want to know they will be able to upgrade it in 10, 15 or even 20 years.

Manufacturers are responding to this desire to “future proof” building systems for the next generation by giving up some propriety control over their products in exchange for standardization across the industry. More and more products are being designed to adhere to standardized network communications protocols for smart buildings. “Instead of relying on one company, the advantage is that you have hundreds of companies that are on the same standard and that’s growing,” explains Thurow. This also allows local vendors to work with products from multiple companies without specialized training on each product. “If there’s an issue with a product, you want to know you can find someone to fix it who is a drive down the street, not an airplane ticket away,” adds Thurow.

As for security, building managers should ensure that building systems are kept on a secure network behind a firewall. Imhof emphasizes that most security issues arise when product users fail to take basic precautions: “It’s typically not the complicated high-tech things we see on TV that put systems at risk. Systems are vulnerable when the password is too weak or it’s posted up visibly in the office. Our priority is educating our clients on security best practices.” Security can be a tricky balance for developers, as the systems must remain off-limits to outsiders, but easily accessible to authorized users. When security protocols become too complicated or time consuming, users stop using them altogether. “We can put in many more security features, but there’s a trade-off,” explains Imhof. “Systems need to be as secure as possible while being user-friendly.”

The Future of Property Management

Many of the core tasks and functions of property management are ideally suited to recent advancements in web-based systems, building automation and mobile technology. These tools have the potential to optimize workflow and save time, money and energy. As more tasks and systems become automated, the training and required skill set for property managers is evolving. In the future, buildings may need staff members who are more IT specialist than building engineers, monitoring automated systems remotely from a central location. Regardless of how the tools evolve, property managers will be a critical part of ensuring that tenant needs are being met, that vendors and staff are meeting their goals and that buildings are running smoothly and efficiently.

BOMA Magazine is the official magazine of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) International. It is a leading source for the latest news, issues and trends affecting the commercial real estate industry.