Michael Lushington, the COO of Fourandhalf, joins Brittany and Marie on this week’s episode of The Property Management Show podcast. The guest is Will Gunadi of nextCoder, and the subject is workflow automation.

You might have read or watched Michael’s blogs about workflow and how to use it as a business owner when you’re growing your property management company. If you haven’t seen them yet, be sure to check them out:

Will is an expert on workflow automation, and we asked him to explain in simple terms what it is, and how it works.

Understanding Workflow Automation

Workflows are a series of steps. Those steps are repeated again and again. That’s why this particular process is so relevant to property management. If you think about it, your whole property management operation is full of workflows. Things are repeated. For example, tenants are always moving out. Each time that happens, you have to repeat the same steps. So, it makes sense for property managers to put an effort into automating the workflow. It’s natural.

You might have heard about business process management or even robotic process automation. Those are big terms, and they’re related, but workflow management is a discipline in itself.

Workflow automation is a combination of business process management and robotic process automation. There are smaller programs that are written to contribute to the overall automation process. Will jokingly calls those programs “minions.” So, with a robotic process automation, the “minions” are executing and overseeing the workflow steps. The diagram is what ties business process management into the whole scheme. If you search online for business process management, you’ll see a workflow diagram.

The diagram is a big part of automation. Workflows are not useful to you as a company owner if you cannot see them visually. So, combining business process management with robotic process automation is really what we’re talking about when we discuss workflows.

Automation: What it Is and What it Isn’t

There’s work that cannot be automated. Sometimes, people will have a vision of automating everything. They imagine they’ll just be able to press play and that’s it.

But, this isn’t the real purpose or function of automation.

Automation does not mean hitting play and sitting back. That might work when you’re listening to music, but when you’re managing 400 houses or even 1,000 houses; it’s not going to work. There are two types of automation:

  • Automate the steps of your workflow where it makes sense.
  • Automate the notifications and alerts. You can broadcast steps to people executing.

Forget the idea that automation means computerized. That makes no sense. For property management companies, the workflow has some steps that have to be done by a real human. That’s how you think about automation – it’s still a human function.

In property management, you can automate triggers to remind you to execute things. You can automate the steps of your workflow and the orchestration of the teams involved.

Is Your Property Management Company Ready for Automation?

If implemented correctly, automation will help a property management company scale up and grow. If you’re currently managing 100 or 200 properties, this is the time to start thinking about the workflow process. Start documenting what needs to happen. If you wait and start at 500 or 600 properties, you’ll find you’re too busy to put out fires and manage processes. So, start early.

Workflow automation is applicable to any property management company as long as it’s understood and acknowledged that it doesn’t mean computers take over everything. The steps are still extremely human.

Here’s an example: locks will always need to be changed on apartments or houses between tenants. No matter how good a computer program you have, it’s still going to be a person who goes to the property and changes the lock. It has to be documented. Automation can send you reminders and notifications when those locks need to be changed. But a human being has to go there and re-key the property.

Building relationships with your owners and tenants is also something that cannot be automated. You can automate the way that relationship is orchestrated. You can make sure your owners get the right information at the right time. You can automate alerts and accounting statements. That’s the value of workflow automation.

Automation is not a Magic Bullet

The technology behind automation is excellent, but there’s often a gap between what the company knows about how it works and the automation the company wants to put in place. You cannot decide to implement workflow automation if you don’t first understand how your work is moving around.

This is not a magic bullet.

You need the support of the toolmakers. When Will talks to property managers about his automated workflow process, he asks if there is any documentation of the workflow. The answer is either yes or not really, and the not really response usually comes with a lot of hesitation.

Will shows the graphical representation of the workflow that his automation product can provide. There’s something very serious that he has to explain about that diagram: It’s living.

The workflow will change as your business changes. If your business isn’t moving, it’s dead. So the diagram will never be static. It’s the toolmaker who needs to show you how it is maintained and how it is evaluated. As a property manager, you can really benefit from the expertise and the help of the toolmaker who designs your automation process.

If you’re going to embrace workflows and workflow automation, you need to understand your process. Put those processes down, and understand how they move. These are living tools that will shift the outcomes you desire.

Workflow automation helps you identify which parts of the process aren’t working. Make sure you have the tools that can identify when you hit a snag in your process.

Think of it as an audit. You’ll have a visual log that you can go back to look at. You want a workflow that presents your property management team with an idea of what has happened when the outcomes aren’t measuring up with the expectations.

Do You Understand Your Information?

Make sure the automation tool you’re using speaks your language.

If what you’re looking at makes no sense to you, it’s going to be difficult to glean any useful information from your dashboard or your workflow. If you don’t understand what you’re reading in your reports or on your screen, talk to your toolmaker. You can only keep track of things if you recognize the language. You’re entitled to something that’s customized for the way you work.

Property managers are busy. You are managing hundreds of properties and whatever comes with those properties. So, there’s very little time or capacity or energy to manage the automation itself. A client of Will’s recently asked him why there aren’t more people in the property management community managing workflow automation processes.

It requires a completely separate discipline.

To manage the workflow process, you have to know the system and understand business process management. You have to understand efficiencies and how to achieve them. These skill sets may not be possessed by property managers. Even if you do have the right skills and personality, there are only 24 hours in a day. Both workflow management and property management take time. You cannot run a property management company and a software company.

Profile of a Property Management Company Ready for Workflow Automation

A property management company that’s ready for this automation process understands who is accountable for which tasks within the company. They have documented those processes. This isn’t a requirement to get started, but it helps.

When Will begins working with a property management company, he’ll ask about who is responsible for which tasks:

  • How many departments do you have?
  • Who handles sales?
  • Who handles marketing?
  • Who works with tenants?
  • Who works with owners?

Sometimes, it’s one person who does all of that.

The profile provides a good recipe. You’ll start by establishing who is responsible for a tenant moving in. Who is responsible for a tenant moving out? How does the accounting work? Create a visual of your team and their responsibilities. Understand the accountability.

This is the best way to begin documenting your workflow. When you have a good idea about who is doing what, you can see which steps belong in each box, and then you’ll draw lines between the boxes.

Even here at Fourandhalf, we have identified what could be automated or passed on to other people.

It’s separating each task by outcome.

It’s achieving accountability by outcome.

After you create the workflow diagram, you may start to see six different departments that are handing off tasks and steps to each other. Even if you have one person doing all of this in the short duration, you’ll have a clear picture. It doesn’t mean you have to go out and hire six people for each department. But with the process in place, when you do start hiring people, they’ll be able to come in and do the pieces of what that one person did. There’s a training benefit, too. With workflow automation, people can come and go within the process and the process still moves along efficiently.

Profile of a Property Management Company NOT Ready for Workflow Automation

The property management company that isn’t ready for automated workflows is the company that thinks this is a magic sauce. If you’re an owner who just wants to sit back and hand everything over and think that it’s all going to flow through some system that you didn’t have a part in creating yourself, you need to re-think this.

As a property management company owner or operator, you need to be ready to commit.

You might think that automation looks and sounds great. But, if you’re not willing to play a large part in making this work, it’s not the right time. Automation isn’t something that happens outside of you. It includes you. It has to.

If you want an outcome, you have to make an effort.

You need to be invested, and your team needs to be invested.

If your team is broken and no one in your company communicates well with each other, there is no amount of automation that’s going to fix things.

Investment. Passion. Commitment.

Those things are needed for workflow automation to succeed in your property management company.

Getting Your Property Management Team on Board

Adopting workflow automation is easier in the property management industry than in other industries. That’s because things happen daily. You’ll know immediately when your system is being neglected. Things move a little slower in other industries. Property management is well-suited to workflow automation.

Sometimes, your team members who don’t yet understand automation worry that your new workflow will replace them.

It’s important to educate them about workflow automation and how it can help them complete their tasks. They can look forward to shorter meetings and automated notifications and reminders. The purpose of workflow automation isn’t to replace team members, but to replace the grunt work and the menial tasks that hold them back from the valued work that they really need to do.

Change management is a big part of workflow automation. Some jobs will shift and so will tasks and eventually, it will become intuitive. A lot of explaining will need to happen, but if you can get your team members attached to the outcome, you’ll have success getting them on board.

Make sure you’re automating what you should and not what you shouldn’t. You don’t want to be that property manager who is on the phone with a prospect at the same time that prospect is getting an automated email from you apologizing that you weren’t able to connect.

Removing the human element is not the goal of automation. Workflow automation allows the human element to shine.

If you’re at the point where you want your operation to grow, or you see that it’s growing on its own, join this trajectory and start thinking about workflow automation.

Find out more about what Will does for property managers by visiting Bionicpm.com. If you have any questions or you’d like to share some thoughts about this or any topic related to property management marketing, contact us at Fourandhalf.