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Are the robots taking over? No, but they can, through Robotic Process Automation, make CRE firms more efficient

  
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RPA doesn’t mean robots sitting at desks, as cool as that might be.

Robotic process automation might sound like something out of the future. But companies are using it today to boost the efficiency of their workforce. And while the name sounds intimidating, robotic process automation – or RPA – is a relatively simple idea: Robots, which are basically software, handle the repetitive and time-consuming tasks that workers used to have to perform manually.

Instead, say, of having an employee manually enter sales data into a chart, a software robot would do this task on its own, in seconds. That worker could then take on a more complicated or income-earning job for the company.

A growing number of companies are exploring the benefits of RPA, including those working in commercial real estate. It’s an easy way for companies of all types to free up their workers to perform those tasks that need the human touch, while letting software take on the more repetitive, largely mindless, tasks that can eat up so much of the day.

Midwest Real Estate News recently spoke to Serena Wolfe, Central Market Segment Leader for real estate, hospitality and construction with EY, a professional services organization headquartered in London and with a main Midwest office in Chicago. She spoke about the ways in which RPA can make commercial real estate companies more effective and efficient.

Midwest Real Estate News: New technology is often intimidating to people working in commercial real estate. But some new tech, like robotic process automation, seems like it can make a big difference for CRE companies. Are companies in our industry actively exploring this technology?

Serena Wolfe: Real estate often is a late adopter when it comes to emerging technology. But RPA is an interesting topic for the commercial real estate industry. It is very applicable to many of the things we do, unlike other tech subjects of the past. So I think this technology is gaining more of a foothold.

MREN: In simple terms, then, what is RPA?

Wolfe: It’s all about automation. RPA uses software or a program that replicates the actions of a human and how that human interacts with software or a computer system. It’s not a robot in an office. It’s a software program or bot. The easiest way to think about it is that it’s basically a macro that automates a function. It’s a very powerful macro, a macro on steroids. Macros are limited to a particular application. A bot, though, can work across various applications. It can pull data from one system, say, and compare it to something in an excel spreadsheet. That is why it’s so powerful. It automates processes across different applications.

MREN: How can this technology help real estate professionals?

Wolfe: Real estate companies and real estate investors are faced with many manual labor-intensive processes. To be competitive, companies are constantly looking for ways to improve efficiency and lower costs. Robotics is another way to do it. Historically, real estate companies would debate whether a process should be done in-house or outsourced. Now there is a third option, should you automate the process as a bot versus outsourcing the whole process? Maybe a company can partially outsource a function and complete the rest of it through RPA. This is a new discussion we have been having with our clients now.

MREN: Do real estate professionals understand the time and costs that RPA can bring them?

Wolfe: There is a renewed focus on costs, a desire to reduce the time people spend on manual tasks to better use their talents. Can you use folks in more value-add tasks instead of in processing? RPA can work 24/7. It works like a virtual employee. It sits atop legacy apps like databases and email programs and then performs those manual labor-intensive tasks very reliably.

MREN: Can you give an example of how you’ve seen RPA work in a real estate setting?

Wolfe: One area in which we have seen it used often is in tax compliance. Real estate companies are tax-entity heavy. They set up a legal entity for assets that they hold. That requires significant compliance. These are not that complicated. You can very easily create a bot that will prepare those tax-compliant forms and other matters for you. We it quite extensively. Bots can cut down on the work that the tax department has to do.

Another area that is interesting is lease administration. We see bots working in the merger or acquisitions systems of companies or even in the process of validating a company’s existing lease data. We have a text-recognition tool so that you can build a bot that will recognize key phrases or texts in lease agreements. It abstracts a lease document quickly and effectively versus having a person read through a document and pull out key facts or phrases. It can then create reports quickly. In a situation where a company is doing a merger or a large acquisition and the employees have to look through a large amount of data, bots can synthesize that data to save time and money. Any process that is a routine one is ripe for automation and the use of bots.

MREN: How much time can companies save when they turn over more of their routine, repetitive tasks to RPA?

Wolfe: RPA projects have the savings potential of 20 percent to 60 percent of the baseline full-time equivalent costs. If you take those workers that would have been doing these repetitive tasks and use them in functions that generate revenue, your company will receive a great benefit. The cost savings grab the headlines. But where companies are really going to see benefits are in service improvements. You can show your stakeholders that you are cutting edge and being competitive. One of the most significant benefits of robotics is in improving client service. Say you have a lot of people working on lease administration. If you can have bots doing that work, you can then redeploy those employees to customer service. You will then see a big improvement in your customer service.

MREN: Do you expect to see more real estate companies embracing RPA?

Wolfe: We are seeing it most often today in tax and tax compliance. The next phase will be lease administration and potentially with invoicing. Companies are taking it slow, as they should. They should be cautious about it. They need to look at the pain points in their company, the processes that are labor-intensive. They can then make decisions on how to lessen that pain.