“We pride ourselves as innovators in the space,” said Kirby.
Kirby says there’s been a gradual change in demographics in the workforce. Generation Z, people born (between 1997 and 2012) is starting to have a big impact on the rental market, now accounting for about 23% of rentals. Millennials are still the largest rental group right now, taking up about 47% of the rental space this year; but that number is down about 6% from just a couple years ago. Gen Z is catching up and has already passed up Gen X as the most active renter.
“This is our incoming workforce. It’s not just affecting the apartment market, it’s going to affect our team members and our employment base,” said Kirby.
The oldest people in Gen Z are now turning 24 years old. That means they’re recent college graduates who are now entering the job markets. They’re big advocates of remote work, listing that as one of the primary things they seek out in a job, and they felt that way even prior to 2020.
“The oldest Gen Z’ers identify themselves as ‘Z-lennials,’” said Kirby. “It’s kind of strange; it’s part of what’s called a ‘Generation Battle.’ It’s basically, the older Gen Z’ers that kind of sit on the line feel they’ve grown up as the digital revolution has evolved, whereas the younger Gen Z’ers who are there, and they just expect more and more things and more and more features to happen.”
Anywhere Operations is an IT-based operating model that’s been around for a while but is starting to evolve and come to light more these days. It supports customer service so you can deploy products from anywhere, regardless of your physical location.
Kirby says 82% of companies plan to let team members work remotely at least part of the time. They might create hybrid workspaces and change up office spaces. Since companies want their teams to be as efficient and productive in remote work as they would be in the office.
Things like Zoom and Microsoft Teams are great for communication, but anywhere operations does something more: data security.
“This is an entire system that is being orchestrated out there to make remote work more secure, more possible, more integrated into what we’re doing,” said Kirby.
Most offices have a secure firewall. That might not extend outside those walls. If someone logs into a company’s system from residential internet, they’re inherently going to be at risk.
Anywhere Operations is a cloud-service style service powered by firewalls. It lets people gain access to a network computer system, which lives in the cloud.
“It all lives in what’s called a ‘security mesh system,’” said Kirby. “It builds a more modular approach to security, and this is critical in our industry, where we hold a lot of sensitive information.”
Kirby says there’s a mix of people who want to go back to the way things were, and those who want to continue with remote work.
“The problem with the way things were is, trending behind us is a huge demographic that doesn’t like to talk and would rather text. They don’t like encountering people. These are your next clients, what do you do?”
Eventually, Kirby says, even ‘touchless’ won’t be a thing anymore. That’s why he says we should focus on Predictive Projects.
“It’s a project that we had in motion long before stay-at-home mandates and mask-wearing was a thing,” said Kirby. “We’ve been building technology, knowing what’s coming into the market. We know that market turns over. We know that the next generation winner is coming in, and just as we started off the year, is going to be that prominent and dominant renter in the market, so that’s what we’re looking at building technology for.”
Kirby says the coronavirus helped speed technological advancement. But there were things being built before the virus, based on predictive technology geared toward Gen Z. That means going paperless, texting rather than calling, and making things as un-complicated as possible.
Kirby says he calls this the “Uber Generation,” saying the functionality of the Uber app is reflective of the generation today. You press a few buttons, you get in a car, you get where you need to go, and no words have to be exchanged the entire time.
With today’s technology in the Multifamily industry, you can do a lot online, but at some point, you do have to interact with someone. Kirby believes the industry needs to make it so someone can apply for an apartment, get approved, sign a lease, all within a matter of minutes at any time of day or night.
Right now, AI aids about 90% of the workforce in some form or fashion. It automates something that makes the job easier. Multifamily includes a lot of AI, but application approval and lease generation – two things that have lots of special conditions – still need an actual person to look over. There are a lot of manual pieces involved. Kirby thinks those are the things that need to change to become automated, touchless, and much faster.
“I call it Search to Sofa,” said Kirby. “How can I get it search to sofa and not have to involve a staff member? That’s the question we should be asking ourselves.”
Applications for apartments have a lot of questions. Some of them go into great detail, hoping to auto-populate in the lease if the person does get approved. But a lot of that information isn’t necessary at that stage. For instance, applications will ask for vehicle information and license plate numbers? What do you do with that information if the person isn’t approved? Nothing!
Kirby says you really only need four or five things for the application. People should be approved quickly.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to get to 100% pure touchless automation on the application and lease process, because there’s always some piece. But I think we can get in the 90% range,” said Kirby. “And I think the – I call them ‘off-cases’ – can get set to the side, and there’s someone to deal with them. Would you rather deal with 100% or 7 or 8 percent? I’d rather deal with 7 or 8 percent.”
Kirby says he thinks there is enough AI out there to make this process better. People should be asked simple questions before their approval, then once they’re approved they can go through the more complex questions.
“I looked up some research on what people call ‘response.’ 90% of customers wanted an immediate response. What do you call an immediate response? It was in the study. 10 minutes or less. They want to know something right away.”
Leases have a lot of moving parts. Between AI, advanced analytics, automated processes, and more, most of those things can be automated these days.
“I think we can use hyper-automation to get there, to get 90+ percent of this done without a human touch.”
Kirby admits this might not work for every property type.
People in Multifamily are used to talking with customers. Everyone has their different processes, but a lot of people are holding on to processes that are outdated and no longer viable. The younger renters and workforce that will come into the market are not going to put up with old leasing strategies. The new generation will dictate those processes, and corporate America doesn’t have a choice in that.
Kirby recommends that leaders shouldn’t spend too much time looking backwards. Don’t revert back to pre-2020, when there was a pandemic, a record hurricane season, and wild- fires torching the West. Look forward, focusing on what might be next. Think outside the box, keep innovating, and keep trying to figure out how to make things better. Then, pay attention to how that affects your team members and your bottom line. Keep in mind, turnover costs money.
Another good idea is to pair up with tech companies, sharing some of the information you’ve gathered and walking through other potential processes. Collaboration could be key to moving forward.
“We listen to the problems people have and see if they work at scale. A couple things we’ve adopted recently is, when COVID came, a lot of people were doing what I call, ‘paper’ and said, ‘Wow, we’ve got to go digital,” said Kirby. “We tore apart what we were doing, rebuilt some things. Some of the cool things we’ve been able to do is, if somebody’s applying for something online – on an application line – typically, on the other end, that unit is still available. We’ve built some technology that says, ‘this is reserved at the moment,’ and it won’t allow you to apply at the moment. We can set timers on it.”
Kirby wants to scale things down and make things more flexible and easier. Those services should be available anywhere.
“That’s what excites us. We’re starting to create some things. And as we’re creating them, we’re starting to create some really advanced analytics,” said Kirby. Those analytics will be for big-picture data points, which can be drilled down to get more finite.”
Kirby calls those “Actionable Analytics.”
He also thinks the industry should take a look at the things it is doing well, like at automat- ed marketing, online service requests, and digital rent payments. All this could use some other pieces, but it’s going pretty well so far. But he says the onboarding process between the application and the actual move-in date has a problematic and fragmented grey area that can be vastly improved.
As far as team members, more companies are getting excited about being rated as a “Best Place to Work Multifamily®.” Vying for that title has made Multifamily better at communicating about staff’s wants and needs.
“I think we are all moving in the right direction,” said Kirby. “I think it’s about collaborating, innovating, and not thinking that – ‘Oh man, there’s some things I want to know, but I don’t want to call this company because I don’t want to get sold anything.’ Our philosophy is, we don’t want to sell you anything you don’t want. To me, collaboration is more valuable than making the sale. If we can build the right things as partners in the industry, then move things forward for everyone, then that’s the thing to do. I would encourage more collaboration between property operators and industry providers,” said Kirby.
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