PBM's Jess Parmar talks to IRPM about the lessons learned in lockdown

9th July 2020

Coronavirus and the lockdown have changed how we work, perhaps forever. Our Chief Operating Officer, Jess Parmar, joins other industry experts to discuss how Covid19 has impacted on the property management sector and what PBM has been doing in this unprecedented times.

From our house to your house: lessons from the lockdown

From WFH to e-signing documents, we’ve all had to change our mindset during the lockdown. But what, if anything, have we learned and where do we go from here? We talked to some of our members to find out.

Apart from the obvious health concerns that have affected the whole country, one of the biggest impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the agility that technology has brought to the workplace. During the lockdown, the majority of property managers have been able to work from home with little more than an internet connection and a laptop. Video-conferencing has become part and parcel of our daily lives and most firms have quickly resolved or found a way around the practical problems of how to sign and serve documents, hold AGMs and maintain properties while meeting social distancing guidelines.

For many of us, work may never be quite the same again, so how have property managers fared during this unprecedented period – and what lessons have we learned from it?

How have we changed?

David Clark, non-executive chairman of Mainstay believes the sector has already changed significantly with reduced travel, more video conferencing and more flexible roles. Teams are finding ways to support those who are unable to undertake elements of their jobs because they are isolating or vulnerable by sharing duties and, in his experience, both customers and clients have been supportive throughout. However, David does note what he describes as “an uptick in enquiries regarding everything from repairs to resales” in recent weeks.

Niall McGuinness, head of London residential property management at SHW has had a similar experience, with residents feeling the pressure of being at home 24/7. “Property managers have been drawn into liaising with the police to deal with domestic abuse and confront antisocial behaviour, which is very concerning. And on a more mundane level, with buildings more or less fully occupied, we’ve faced a constant drip of leaks to get fixed!” he says. However, Niall believes that these problems show the value of having a good property manager on hand to deal with the inevitable complications and issues that arise in any residential blocks. “My managers have shown they can do that just as effectively working from home as they can in an office,” he says. Jess Parmar, COO at PBM Property Management thinks technology has been the sector’s saviour through this difficult period. Working from home has taught us more about the importance of communication, she says. PBM has established new leadership teams to ensure the right messages are communicated across the team and site staff. “The technology we implemented such as Zoom, Slack, Trello, cloud-based Qube and the Horizon telephone app – helped us automate this”. In future Jess thinks many businesses will look to create even more flexible working and enable their colleagues to work from home more often.

Sarah Fisher from MIH property echoes Jess’s experience. For her property managers, business continuity has been achieved in large part by taking the step to create a customer service inbox. All emails are copied to the inbox and all property managers having access to it. “We truly believe that our clients are inadvertently and unknowingly benefitting from this,” says Sarah. “Should they call and get someone other than their property manager the person answering the phone will general-ly know what they are talking about.” This means all issues can be dealt with promptly regardless of what they are, who picks up the phone or who has received the email. “Our emails are received at the same time as if we received them in the office, sometimes quicker Case Law due to home connections being faster,” she adds. ”We are also able to answer our phones and do everything that we would if we were in the office. In fact, the only thing we can’t do from home is give out and receive returned keys, and send out and receive post.

Camden-based Ringley Chartered Surveyors has got around this by using e-post opt-in and e-signing for key documents. The company had already put these processes in place prior to Covid-19 and they have now come into their own, says MD Mary-Anne Bowring. Niall McGuinness agrees that the sector was already embracing technology and thinks the pandemic has simply accelerated uptake. “We are using online portals much more now to get our message out there,” he says.

At Firstport too, the pandemic has underlined the importance of clear and regular communication with customers. Chief Operating Officer David Young says it has shown how digital tools play an important role in enabling quicker and more regular communication. “These efficiencies and improvements in customer service are here to stay”, he says.

What are the benefits?

There is a general consensus among the property managers that we spoke to that residents have also quickly embraced the increasing use of technology: Zoom meetings in particular are seen as an improvement rather than the endless flow of emails. The benefits of the change are widely acknowledged, with Niall McGuiness and David Clarke both citing speed, better information sharing and fewer evening meetings on site as key benefits.

So it is clear that working practices have changed rapidly in the last 12 weeks but what of the future? Ringley Group CEO Maryanne Bowring thinks the pandemic will accelerate the decrease in office space requirements per person that have been gradually coming into play in recent years. “For the foreseeable future, it is doubtful whether any company can expect all their people to work in the office five days a week“, she says.

Niall McGuinness also says no to business as usual – at least until a Covid-19 vaccine is found. “Our offices are in central London and heavily reliant on public transport. We will adapt to ensure some office presence in the future but we certainly will not be at full occupancy. All of our offices are having risk assessments done and this will give us a flavour of the space that will be left,” he says. Unfortunately he also thinks some businesses could be forced to cut back in the face of a shrinking economy. The British Chamber of Commerce has warned that six out of 10 residential managing agents could run out of cash within the next three months. “In the short-term though,” says Niall, “all we can do is adapt to changing circumstances to do our jobs to the best of our ability and demonstrate the value we add even in such difficult times”.

David Young agrees. “This crisis is a good reminder of the core principles behind good property management – operational excellence, adaptability and customer focus”, he says.

Putting wellbeing first

Jess Parmar believes that, ultimately, the pandemic has served to magnify the importance of the property manager’s role in managing relationships rather than just dealing with technical issues. “Customer engagement plays a significant part of that role and it is not just a strategy, it is truly reaching out to your customers, asking for their feedback and implementing that feedback across the property and wider community”, she says.
The other thing we can all learn from this experience,” says Jess, “is that engagement with customers, “starts and ends with our colleagues’ well-being”. “At PBM, as in many other PM companies, ‘office vibe surveys’ were carried out more frequently than usual to allow the management team to ask staff questions about their well-being, which is hugely important to us,” says Jess. “If your team are feeling motivated and inspired in their working environment, only then can they deliver our mission to create happy homes, cared for spaces and better value.