Property professionals must see technology as an opportunity, not a threat

Over the past 10 weeks, digital platforms have played a key role in sector

Managing director of Savills Ireland Mark Reynolds: ‘One positive outcome of the lockdown may be that the property industry’s use of technology has advanced years, in just weeks.’ Photograph: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

Managing director of Savills Ireland Mark Reynolds: ‘One positive outcome of the lockdown may be that the property industry’s use of technology has advanced years, in just weeks.’ Photograph: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

 

A question that has become more prevalent in the property industry is whether real estate advisers will be replaced by technology.

The evolution of online property platforms, providing an end-to-end service, has increased exponentially in recent years, causing concern for many operating in the commercial and residential property markets. Will these rapid changes in our industry make us obsolete?

I have argued against this point for many years, for many reasons. Have I had doubts along the way? Of course. However, the past 10 weeks have convinced me that the role of people in property – more than ever before – is vital.

The property industry as a sector has been slow to embrace technology, with many firms only dipping their toe in the water, but reluctant to dive in. Perhaps it’s the perceived threat from digital platforms – which enable buyers, sellers and solicitors to complete transactions online in a fraction of the time it would normally take – that has us questioning our relevance.

But the reality is that although these – and other types of technology – help us to do our job more efficiently and effectively, we shouldn’t worry about them replacing us. In fact, some online platforms have tried – and failed – to emulate people in a digital setting, eventually reverting to the promotion of their service as a support to the real-life property adviser.

Advanced

Pre-coronavirus, the rate of employment in our property industry was growing – and hopefully this growth will return in the near future – so it’s clearly evident that our reliance on people hasn’t declined. In fact, it could be argued that the increased use of new technology is responsible for this, because as we become more efficient, we can take on more capacity.

However, our ability to work with – not against – technology is essential. Over the past 10 weeks, digital platforms have played a key role in our business. The launch of Savills Live – a website dedicated to the virtual viewing of property and online transactions – has allowed us to continue marketing various new home developments throughout the greater Dublin area, resulting in a number of sales and hundreds of leads.

One positive outcome of the lockdown may be that the property industry’s use of technology has advanced years, in just weeks. A colleague of mine also reminded me that the lockdown has helped us achieve something we set out to accomplish many years ago – we have finally become paperless.

But what is it that people can do, that technology can’t?

The list is extensive. To start, there are the commercial nuances needed in valuing complicated and high-value assets, the insights needed to bring a willing seller and a motivated purchaser together to secure a sale in an off-market scenario, and the setting of credible commercial rental terms to secure pre-lets, in addition to managing and creating competitive tension to ensure the best result for a seller.

Strategic insights

Moreover, the ability to harness personal experience and intelligence in an industry that has evolved dramatically over the past 30 years is unrivalled by technology. There is also the provision of expertise on planning, design, development and fit-out to deliver a viable end product that the market wants.

Perhaps most importantly – and as we have seen in recent weeks – people have the ability to provide strategic insights, guidance and reassurance to clients and funders at a time of crisis.

There is no doubt that our industry – like so many others – will be impacted negatively by the virus. The road to recovery will be long and arduous, and how we operate will be totally transformed. It will never return to how it was prior to Thursday, March 12th last, when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced measures in response to the spread of coronavirus.

However, having worked through the global financial crisis between 2008 to 2012, I know the playbook. People skills, such as team work, entrepreneurial spirit, tenacity, professional insight and a lot of hard work will get us through this. While technology won’t replace people, it will help us along the way, and it is important that we embrace it with open arms – our industry will be the better for it.

Mark Reynolds is managing director of Savills Ireland