The self-service generation is changing everything we know about commercial real estate

Millennials are already changing the U.S. residential real estate market, putting off buying a home and remaining renters later in their lives. But these younger adults aren’t just impacting multifamily and single-family real estate. They’re also changing the look and feel of office space.

Brian Zrimsek, industry principal for multifamily at Cleveland-based MRI Software understands this. MRI provides real estate and investment management software, and carefully tracks trends in commercial real estate.

Zrimsek, then, sees the way Millennials are changing the way landlords market apartments and employers have to run their office space. It all comes down to self-service: Millennials can’t remember a time before the Internet. For most of their adult lives they have handled everything from dating and shopping to paying their bills through their smartphones and tablets.

They expect a digital component to almost all of their experiences, including finding and renting an apartment and working in an office.

The new world of multifamily

Millennials have already changed the way building owners and landlords market their apartments.

“You used to look around town or read the classifieds in the newspaper when you wanted to find an apartment,” Zrimsek said. “Now, you go to Google and search. Now marketers have to focus on search engine optimization. When someone types in ‘Cleveland apartments,’ marketers have to figure out how their apartments can get on the first page of results. That’s how renters find you today.”

And once Millennials find these online apartment listings? Landlords and owners can’t let up on their digital offerings. Zrimsek said that Millennials, especially, want to speak with as few people as process when renting an apartment. They won’t want to have to meet with landlords or their representatives to learn about the spaces they are renting. They don’t want long phone calls to talk about lease terms and common-area amenities.

Instead, they want to find out as much information as possible online.

“Young people don’t use smartphones to talk,” Zrimsek said. “They use them to type. They want to call people as little as possible.”

Multifamily owners who want to attract these younger renters, then, need responsive Websites that adapt to all devices. These sites need to provide the key information about units and buildings in as succinct a way as possible. They need to offer 360-degree virtual tours.

Zrimsek estimates that within two to three years building owners will offer online visitors the chance to take truly immersive walk-throughs of apartment units through virtual-reality Oculus goggles.

It won’t be that unusual for tenants to rent apartment buildings without ever visiting them in person, Zrimsek said.

“I used to believe that no one would ever rent an apartment without first going onsite,” Zrimsek said. “That was until I moved from the West Coast to Cleveland. I did exactly that. I looked at online reviews and photos. I looked at the video walk-throughs, anything I could find online. I was able to figure out where I should rent an apartment on a short-term basis before I purchased a house. This happens more often than it used to. Folks get comfortable with properties by doing the research online.”

The key for owners then is to constantly push people toward their buildings’ Websites. Zrimsek says that it might look old-fashioned, and maybe even corny, for apartments to place a person on a street corner to spin a huge cardboard arrow as cars drive by. But if that gimmick actually steers motorists to the apartment building’s Website, this form of advertising remains viable.

The same can be said for ads on the side of a bus or bus stop bench: If the ads lead potential renters to the right Website, the money spent on them is a good investment, Zrimsek said.

Changing office space

Zrimsek said that Millenials and the way they use technology is also changing office space. More young adults want to work at least part-time out of the office, of course. With today’s tech, this is easily accomplished. And it has led to an increase in desk-sharing and flexible office space.

But companies that want to attract Millennial workers are also feeling pressure to constantly update the tech they offer in the office, Zrimsek said. They need to provide technology that their employees can access not just when they are in the office but when they are at home, on the road or at their local coffee shop.

Millennials expect to be able to access their work lives even when they are nowhere near the office.

“Millennials do not want work to be the place they go to use old technology,” he said. “They want the same tech experiences in their personal and professional lives. All the apps people use at work have to become web-based. They have to become responsive and accessible from everywhere.”

Are companies meeting the needs of Millennial workers when it comes to technology? Some are, some are struggling. Zrimsek said that some key employees in offices have a more difficult time adapting to technology changes. Many have been working in the same company for decades and aren’t as interested in embracing every piece of new tech that comes along.

It’s important, then, for companies to hire leaders who do embrace new tech and are enthusiastic about sharing it with employees.

“Say you have Sally in the accounting department at your company. She’s been there for 30 years. Anything new to her is change, and change is hard,” Zrimsek said. “New technology is easier for younger people to grasp. It is harder sometimes for corporations to make these changes. But they have to do it. If they want to bring in the younger workers today, they have to focus on their technology offerings.”

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