Maintenance can assume the lion's share of a property team's focus – and for good reason. Keeping managers owners and residents happy requires a constant eye on the assets that oversee the health, safety, and sustainability of the property and its residents.
That's not to say managing maintenance activities is simple (or cheap). In fact, the maintenance function is often the most costly and time-consuming part of property operations. As one operator pointed out in an interview, "Other than payroll, maintenance is the largest expense for your property.”
Unfortunately, traditional maintenance strategies are plagued with inefficiencies, miscommunications, and manual processes that can add up to significant strains on staff and budgets. Not to mention, resident satisfaction is often integrally tied to their perception of how seamlessly maintenance is handled.
Consequently, there's value in taking a closer look at the maintenance function and ways in which property management teams can ease physical and administrative burdens.
Property maintenance refers to far more than keeping lobbies clean and the lights on. Maintenance-related activities run the gamut between responding to resident requests, tackling building repairs, ensuring key systems are operational overseeing renos and refurbishments, and facilitating unit turnovers. No matter the task, however, each property team has their own agreed-upon procedures which inform maintenance professionals and property staff throughout the each end-to-end process.
The challenge for teams is that these this end-to-end process continues to be bogged down by antiquated, manual, or paper-based processes. For many, the process begins when maintenance requests are submitted via physical forms or calls to building staff, after which they're left for maintenance staff to "pick up" the next time they're available. Moreover, maintenance jobs are often carried out with disjointed communication between the "boots on the ground" and administrative staff, making it difficult to monitor progress, coordinate work, and measure the final outcome.
“When it comes to maintenance techs in 2020, the industry is essentially operating the same way we did in 2005 or even 1995. There are a lot of technological tools that have taken a back seat, even though we understand that maintenance is the key to renewals,” says Justin Marshall, Chief Operating Officer with Fogelman Multifamily Investments and Management. “I think it’s just dropping the ball to not equip the techs properly. We as an industry have been slow to give the maintenance teams updated tools to enable them to be more efficient at caring for these incredibly valuable assets.”
Throw in miscommunications, human error, and the challenges of aligning with residents' schedules, and one can understand how keeping operations in motion can cause headaches. It may sound cliché, but it's true: [seamless] collaboration, communication, and tech-driven processes are vital in executing a successful maintenance program.
Common Maintenance Hurdles
Maintenance comes in many forms. Similarly, there are a variety of costs associated with maintenance activities, some of which are to be expected and others which can crop up due to delays, errors, and inefficiencies (e.g., opportunity costs).
To gain deeper first-hand insight into the obstacles and concerns that crop up in a traditional maintenance program, SuiteSpot conducted interviews with a number of prominent property management stakeholders. They also shared some thoughts about the way the pandemic has complicated some existing issues.
Read on to learn about operators’ most common issues!
1. Maintenance Request Backlogs
Managing requests between multiple properties and entire portfolios can prove exhausting – especially in a system that relies on coordinating paper requests across various team members and locations.
“With a paper-based system, there's just too much bureaucracy – too many people doing too much paperwork in multiple locations,” says a VP and National portfolio Manager of an international institutional fund with 10,000 units in its portfolio.
For example, he adds, "We have a sizable community in Toronto with six or seven towers, and our maintenance employees service it all. What happens, though, is one maintenance worker may walk across the street to pick up their maintenance request and head back to where they came from only to find out later in the day that another request came in minutes after they left and has been sitting there since."
The inability to see orders when they are issued and plan accordingly can lead to wasted time and an inability to prioritize work – especially since most properties aim to turn around requests in a quick timeframe.
Alternatively, offers the operator, “If they received that request on their smartphone to begin with, they could have easily knocked it out in seconds. Instead, that request sits there for longer than it needs to and we start seeing a backlog.”
2. Murky Workflow Visibility
Maintenance tasks have many moving parts. Keeping tabs on those parts and the individuals associated with them (e.g., maintenance staff, property managers, vendors, residents) is no small order.
“Manual tracking is pretty much useless, since there’s just not substantial information that you can access or leverage easily,” offers Brian Turpin, Chief Information Officer with Greenwin Inc.
Another operator said that it was hard to track how much time each task took because his system depends on admin staff closing out tickets – and they were often too overloaded to close tickets in a timely fashion.
“When you're working with physical forms and a number of ongoing tasks, it's tough to track those orders and prioritize," agrees the vice president and national portfolio manager. "We can run reports on those requests at the end of the day, but we know there are going to be a lot of gaps and possible errors. It's a garbage in, garbage out problem. If people aren't putting in the right data, you can't be sure you're getting the right information out."
With low visibility comes the challenge of holding maintenance crews and their partners accountable throughout the process. And indeed, a common issue cited by our interviewees is the lack of transparency when it comes to tracking the progress of work orders from the moment they are issued until the job is closed out.
Under traditional processes, one maintenance request can go through any number of people before it is approved, assigned, addressed, and audited. This means waiting for the appropriate sign-offs and directives from stakeholders who might not even know their involvement is required until late in the process.
“I think the most inefficient way to handle maintenance was the old, paper-based method,” says Joanne Chapman-Reps of D2 Demand Solutions, a multifamily pricing and revenue management firm. “That’s when a resident called the office to report something and the leasing team quickly wrote it on a -- God forbid -- sticky note or a piece of service request paper and put it in a bin. The service team would pick up the request, and not really have all the information they needed. Plus, that lack of visibility made it a lot tougher to audit work orders to see where issues lay.”
3. Lack of ability to prioritize
Lack of standardized processes and a "big picture" view of maintenance activities makes it next to impossible to prioritize activities. This can result in delays to vital repairs or misplaced focus on lesser issues.
“One of the biggest issues we’ve had in the past is prioritizing our efforts," says one vice president and national portfolio manager. "We got to a point where we needed to utilize technology to standardize our work and create a system through which we could identify what is a priority and what isn't, in real-time."
4. Managing expectations throughout the process
For maintenance to run smoothly, it is essential that residents know what's happening, what to expect, and that they will make their units available when work is required. Conventional resident communication methods (e.g., emails, notices, town halls, etc.) may help manage expectations to some extent, but keeping residents in the loop and updated along the process requires a more constant, direct, and reliable means of staying in touch.
The same thing applies to larger-scale projects work such as elevator repairs, lobby work, or other initiatives that may impact residents in a way they weren't expecting.
“You don't want to keep residents guessing, so it's important to keep the communication going," adds Andrew Lowe, Vice President, Residential Real Estate at Oxford Properties Group.
However, it’s not just as simple as effective and timely emails, calls, and texts. Ensuring a resident is satisfied after a service call can be complex.
“Every customer has a different service outcome expectation,” notes Lowe. “Some people might have a dripping tap, but not realize how long it will take to fix that or that it requires us to remove everything below the sink.”
Operators who had every other aspect of maintenance totally under control mentioned this as the most difficult part of the process, proving it’s often the less tangible aspects that are the most challenging to manage. A large part of that confusion is due to our next issue.
5. Inaccurate service requests
Part of setting expectations with residents is developing a clear understanding of the issue from the start. Relying on hand-written requests or anecdotal accounts makes it difficult for maintenance staff to know precisely what they're walking into. If a tech goes into a service request equipped for one task, only to find it’s actually another, it’s hard to manage resident expectations about the length of a job or how messy it may be.
“Inaccurate reporting is one of the biggest causes of major delays,” says Robert Weiman, Vice President, Quality Assurance & Compliance with Greenwin Corp. For example, "a resident might report that their dishwasher is leaking, but when maintenance staff arrive they discover there’s another problem altogether and they don’t have the tools onsite to get the job done. Digitizing maintenance requests and adding the ability to include pictures or more references allows us to leave it to the experts to narrow down what the real problem is, and take care of it in the most efficient way possible.”
“A picture is always worth a thousand words,” adds Turpin. “When you have a system where a resident sends in a maintenance request with a picture of what the issue is, you’re eliminating a lot of potential confusion, streamlining the maintenance request process and achieving better results.”
6. Inability to benchmark
Consistency counts in maintenance. Yet without the right information and data analytics tools to gain a “big picture” view of maintenance activities across a portfolio, it is difficult for property stakeholders to set benchmarks and performance metrics in terms of employee performance, maintenance costs, and overall outcomes. This lack of centralized and standardized processes can make it challenging to establish metrics, due to a lack of ability to pull up an individual's work orders and scroll through by date or category. If a property can’t establish what a typical work order looks like and create benchmarks, it’s much harder to address issues and find red flags.
As Marshall points out, the administration side has outpaced the maintenance side in terms of sophistication, even though maintenance has “everything” to do with income categories, such as vacancy due to turnover.
“We’ve created so much visibility and transparency in the office through CRM products in Yardi -- the move-ins, the move-outs, and communication logs. Everything’s systems-driven and cloud-based,” Marshall says. “But when it comes to the maintenance side, there’s really a lot less visibility as to what's actually happening, getting done, and being prioritized.”
7. Tech reluctance
Embedding digital tools to aid maintenance activities is only the first step. The real challenge for some property owners is bringing their teams on board with new technologies and making sure they are being used to their full effectiveness in the field.
“While we have a digital work order platform, it is still rife with inefficiencies,” offers Jim Mitchell, Director of Maintenance and Capital Projects with IRET. “That's largely due to the fact our service teams are not using them effectively. There hasn't been much training on them because it wasn't a necessity for their jobs.”
“As a result of that, we have very poor data capture, which makes it hard to even start talking about setting key performance indicators (e.g., KPIs),” he continues. “After all, if you can't measure it, you can't make the most appropriate business decisions that you could.”
For more in-depth strategies for introducing teams to new technologies, check out this blog.
While maintenance programs were daunting before the COVID-19 pandemic, now it's a different ballgame.
“Today, we have more human beings living in our buildings for a sustained period of time than ever before, which puts a tremendous load on the buildings," says one vice president and national portfolio manager.
Certainly, this “new normal” has called for a new approach to maintenance – particularly when it comes to prioritizing work.
“We all stopped doing routine work orders and said we were only going to do emergencies,” says Mitchell, echoing others in this study. “We're also changing the way we do repairs. Instead of spending maybe an hour or two in somebody's home repairing their refrigerator, we're now swapping it out with a new one, taking theirs away to repair in the shop or somewhere else, and then working that back into a rotation cycle.”
Other operators mentioned created do-it-yourself videos to help walk residents through simple maintenance tasks, like changing a toilet flapper or testing a smoke alarm. Techs would drop off supplies (when needed) and operators found that residents actually appreciated learning new skills. Other properties stepped up their phone troubleshooting to ensure techs were only deployed to jobs residents couldn’t be walked through on the phone.
Here again, the demand for a more collaborative and connected system is stronger than ever, especially as property management teams are more physically distant and fragmented than before. And if anything, adds Lowe, “This pandemic has confirmed how essential our business is.”
Solving the Problem Today...for Tomorrow
There's no underselling the importance of an efficient, connected, and tech-driven maintenance program. Given the complexities of the job, however, it can be a difficult program to perfect. Here's where taking steps towards a more digital strategy can bring teams on the same page throughout the entirety of a simple repair, large-scale reno, or time-sensitive unit turnover.
SuiteSpot is continuously listening to partners like those featured above to evolve its own end-to-end unit turnover and maintenance platform. Today, the SuiteSpot cloud-based system is used by property stakeholders across Canada and the United States to achieve greater visibility and control over the unit turnover process, while effectively managing vendors and residents.
It’s true that embedding new tools and systems comes with upfront costs, such as purchasing mobile devices for your staff. Still, the longer-term value of stronger coordination, collaboration, and data-driven strategies makes a strong argument for upgrading the maintenance process.
SuiteSpot is a solution that goes beyond just the maintenance process. Our comprehensive cloud-based solution also speeds up unit turnovers, controls operational cost, and monitors portfolio performance. For more information about SuiteSpot’s capabilities, visit this Q&A.