Can You Manage Property development Projects Digitally
Who would have thought that planning committees can be conducted online or that projects can be managed digitally?
There are two sides of the coin in professional property development: one side is office-based, and the other side is site-based. Office staff covers development managers (Me), quantity surveyors, marketing teams, commercial, town planning etc. On-site team are the site managers, construction managers, building contractors, bricklayers, engineers, plasters, sales teams and decorators etc. During the pandemic and whilst the office workers were able to work from home, our unsung heroes being the on-site teams, had to physically be at work despite not knowing the actual impacts caused by the indivisible enemy. First off, I would like to commend all people who left their homes to work during this awful pandemic.
For office staff like me, I was able to work from home whilst attending construction sites from time to time. I thought it was important to show solidarity with all those who are risking catching the virus to keep projects moving forward.
This post will explore how I was able to manage my developments digitally.
Microsoft teams (March 2020 – Present)
Before the pandemic, I was not aware of Microsoft teams, but I saw the icon on my computer. Most of the meetings I attended pre-pandemic were face to face either in an architect's swanky offices or in a cabin on a construction site.
March 2020 came, and Microsoft teams was one of the most popular software used in most working settings. I will give zoom a strong second.
Instant messaging, similar to the old MSN messenger, meant that you could contact colleagues within seconds, whereas if you were in an office, you might not want to disturb your colleagues, especially when you can see that they are busy. Microsoft teams resolved that awkward interaction, but it does not necessarily guarantee that you will get a response similar to the success of physical interactions.
Financial updates (March 2020 to October 2021)
Whilst working for a large housebuilder, the monthly financial updates were brutal and was a monthly paper nightmare. Hundreds of pages were printed every month, ready for my director to review. One mistake in any of the numbers in a multi-layered cash flow meant that hundreds of pages had to be re-printed. I dreaded the financial update period not only because of the volume of work involved but simply because of the amount of printing involved.
The pandemic happened, and that tedious paper printing process evaporated. Printing was done digitally into a PDF which was a sigh of relief for me. This was one of the fortunate consequences of the pandemic, less printing.
The importance of financial updates is that it tracks how each project is financially performing every month. This includes updating cashflows, development appraisals, reservation rates, incentive schedules, planning condition/ obligations and income trackers.
Fatigue- working longer and harder (March 2020 – Present)
Previously, working from home was a treat as I didn't have to spend two hours travelling to and from work. During the pandemic, I found myself working nonstop, attending back-to-back meetings because I wasn't required to travel to meetings and the worst part of it was that I was not taking breaks in the day.
Working from home, you work harder and are less likely to take a break, even for 10 minutes.
Managing a design team digitally (October 2020 – Present)
As mentioned in my last post, I secured a Senior Development Manager role with Be-first, which was done digitally. In my second week, I was thrown into a procurement process as I quickly dive into the deep end. The preferred design team was selected and appointed relatively quickly.
For most projects that I have worked on, I met with all project members in design team meetings, but these interactions were purely digital as of March 20 due to the pandemic. The unfortunate part of managing the design team digitally is that my inbox is constantly full, and I have found that emails are sometimes misunderstood. There is something in looking a person in the eye (not digitally) and seeing how they respond to conversation. Can you know a person that you have only met digitally?
Design meetings were prolonged, and team cohesion was difficult because it is hard to build strong working relationships digitally.
After all, property development is a people business, and where the digital age was thrust upon us due to the pandemic, I still feel nothing beats meeting a person physically.
Can you manage your developments digitally?
The simple answer is yes but harder for the smaller developer. Development managers can maintain contact with solicitors, town planners, architects and building contractors. As long as there are an internet connection, a phone and an excel spreadsheet, anything is possible. My previous director at a large housebuilder managed his team overseas for at least a month, which further shows that development managers can work digitally.
After the first lockdown, I had the unique experience of attending one of the first digital planning committees. The Coronavirus Act 2020 gave local authorities the power to hold public meetings virtually.
Social distancing meant that property sales were practically ground to a halt, and construction teams ran at a lower capacity. Purchasers were concerned about their job security which created an uneasy nervousness about what the future held. Without sales and workforce to build homes, this creates a dangerous cocktail that results in crisis planning.
During this period, or at least during the first part of the pandemic, I spent a lot of my time revising development cashflows, revising forecasts and delaying as many payments as possible. Development managers are people who not only exist in the here and now but constantly gaze into the future.
I have undertaken a digital consultation on a large regeneration project which produced good response rates. With zoom, Instagram and mass mail campaigns, it is very possible to manage consultation digitally.
The development cycle
The development cycle is as follows: site identification/ purchase, planning, build and exit (sell or rent).
Site identification is possible for most property developers through digital platforms such as land insight, but social distanced site visits will be required before purchasing. Design teams (architects, planning consultants etc.) can be managed digitally, and planning committees have been taking place virtually.
The build process can not be done digitally, so I genuinely respect all construction professionals for their sacrifice and hard work. Selling and renting properties in at least the earlier parts can be done digitally, but buyers and renters would generally like to view their new homes. I also respect the work of those selling and renting homes.
The above shows that development management can be done digitally, but there are parts of the development process that cant.
Million-pound question- Are you working digitally or sleeping
I think it is near impossible for a person to doss because the signs will quickly appear. I respected my previous director because he did not expect his team to do nine to five but urged his team to work the hours that work for them. Just make sure the outputs were delivered as expected. In Development Management is hard to do little and get away with it because we are a central part of any project. If you sleep in the day, be sure to work through the night.
I was less stressed during the first lockdown as I was running every day, which helped with my well-being. I then stopped running, took no breaks, and this harmed my outlook. The key lesson here is to stay active and schedule a time to take breaks.
Homeworking is now widely practised, and I hope it is here to stay. However, we should know that home working is arguably more demanding than your standard office working. Learn how to detach work from home life.
The key parts of Development Management are Financial, Legal, town planning, stakeholder management and project management. All of these can be managed digitally but we must try and show solidarity with our colleagues that leave their homes every day. I am committed to attending the construction sites I manage more than I have done to date.
Finally, we can do a lot digitally, but nothing beats physically meeting a person. The digital age means we can connect with more people, but physically meeting allows people to connect more deeply.