Gaining ‘app’titude

It's time for property managers to make better use of their mobile software
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
By Daniel Viola

Smartphones and tablets have become essential for many Canadians but the property management industry’s adoption of mobile technology is still fairly rudimentary. Owners and managers typically use their phones to call and/or send text messages to tenants and workers, however, mobile software for connecting to integrated building systems is less prevalent.

Many industry insiders and advocates are now urging building managers and operators to make better use of their smartphones to control temperature and lighting or to check utility usage in a building or across a portfolio.

“It makes so much sense,” says Bala Gnanam, director of sustainability and building technologies for the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of the Greater Toronto Area. “It is not being used to the same extent as it should.”

Gnanam suggests many property managers are hesitant to take what they see as a risk on an unproven technology. If a property is running relatively smoothly and delivering the projected return on investment, managers may be more reluctant to question the current system or experiment with new ways to approach problems.

Investment consultant Brandon Sage calls it an issue of “a lot of old money and old ideas.” After facing resistance in previous positions, however, he reports that his current employer, Toronto-based LandLord Property & Rental Management Inc., has embraced technology as a means to work more efficiently. This includes the ability to generate work orders on-site and provide easy access to a catalogue of recent inspection reports on a smartphone or tablet.

“Apps for property managers to improve upon one of their core functions is where there is opportunity,” he says.

On the flipside, Sage argues that apps aimed at tenants may be too complicated and/or time-consuming to gain traction with users. For example, it can be difficult to get a majority of residents to find, download and then regularly use apps for reporting maintenance problems.

“I think it’s asking too much of a renter who just wants their faucet fixed,” he says.

Capital investment budgets and schedules can also be a critical factor. For example, lighting retrofits have been one of the industry’s most common energy efficiency upgrades in recent years and many managers will not have the budget flexibility to upgrade the controls to accommodate mobile apps so soon after that work.

“The fact that technology is available does not mean that it’s going to be deployed,” says Casey Witkowicz, CEO of the telecom and mobile property management consultancy, Rycom Inc.

Yet, he does see growing industry take-up of mobile software. He predicts future growth lies in integrating smartphones with building systems such as security and energy management.

This would free security staff from fixed monitoring stations and give them greater opportunity to patrol buildings on foot, confident that they could receive instant notification about tripped alarms or other problems on their phones. Meanwhile, HVAC, lighting and water use information delivered to phones in real-time would keep managers connected to every property they oversee as they move throughout their portfolios.

“It gives them the ability to be responsive instantly,” says Witkowicz.

Organizational tools
Property managers can organize and expedite everyday tasks with no-cost software found in the App Store or Google Play. These apps are available free of charge for both Apple and Android devices: Dropbox, CamScanner and Evernote.

This handy app is all about sharing, storage and security. Dropbox allows users to share files, store documents in cloud storage and back-up files as a precaution against hardware malfunction. Once files are added to the Dropbox folder on a PC, users can access them from any other computer or mobile device.

CamScanner turns a phone into a fully functional computer scanner at the push of a button. Users can snap a picture of any important document, whether it’s a contract, government form or receipt, which is then automatically cropped and enhanced. The document is saved as a PDF and can be e-mailed to anyone. The synching function also means files are saved and instantly accessible on multiple devices.

Juggling upcoming meetings, deadlines and project ideas can be tricky. Evernote acts as a catchall planning app that helps users keep track of busy work life. But these notes aren’t limited to a few sentences typed out on a phone’s keyboard. The app allows users to record important meetings, take a picture of a floor layout or write a quick ‘to do’ list. Evernote also syncs with Gmail accounts and computers, so users can review posts at any time on any device.

Daniel Viola is the online editor of Canadian Property Management magazine and the editor of Property Management Report.

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