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Post-pandemic PBSA: how tech can increase flexibility and yields

The purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) sector is becoming increasingly flexible, accommodating different course lengths and formats, as well as the uncertainty surrounding Covid-19.

More than just more lenient, variable lease durations, this greater flexibility is increasingly being underpinned by the technology available to meet students’ needs in the wake of the pandemic.

As university learning becomes increasingly focused on remote teaching and landlords, accommodation providers and academic institutions all grapple with the ongoing impacts of social distancing, technology is crucial not only to increasing flexibility, but also improving wellbeing and enhancing yields for the long-term.

Lessons learned from CRE

Student accommodation providers and investors need only look to the increasingly 'smart' commercial real estate sector, to understand the importance of connectivity and reliable digital capabilities.

With 72% of CRE tenants believing that unconnected spaces will become obsolete in the near future and offices certified by WiredScore, which rates buildings on their digital connectivity, able to charge a 5% premium on office space in the capital, digital infrastructure is clearly becoming a commercial necessity for property owners and landlords.

In fact, studies have repeatedly showed the importance of robust technology infrastructure for productivity and business functionality – up to 72 minutes of the working day can be lost as a result of outdated technology and insufficient internet access. It is no surprise that good connectivity is also crucial for students, who will increasingly be taking courses online, with video conferencing requiring particularly heavy use of data.   

Undeniably, PBSA providers looking to navigate the uncertainty ahead, protect Return on Investment (ROI) and enhance yields should take note – just as technology underpins returns in the commercial property sector, so too will it become ever more central in the PBSA market.

What students want

It is no surprise that robust, reliable and secure connectivity is increasingly vital for students, not simply to cater to more digitally-savvy tenants, but also to meet academic requirements. In the wake of the pandemic, contact hours have turned digital – from seminars over Zoom to lectures streamed online.

Now faced with the possibility that local lockdowns could also limit access to physical resources such as primary materials and textbooks, digital access is vital to power effective, meaningful and productive study.

But it is not just in the context of COVID-19 that PBSA providers, and developers, should think seriously about the technology capabilities of their building. As well as empowering students to work in more flexible ways during the pandemic, research has shown that a generation of digitally-native students see the technology offering of a building as fundamental to their success.

Indeed, a study by Octopus Real Estate found a quarter of high-achieving final year students said technology influenced their decision-making in choosing accommodation, while those who achieved top results were more likely to have prioritised technology when choosing their accommodation.

Prioritising safety and wellbeing

Clearly, strong connectivity infrastructure is a high priority for students, but as well as spaces that can better power their studies in a new age of remote learning, technology that can enhance safety and improve wellbeing is crucial.

In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, this has never been more important, and while students’ needs remain particularly diverse, health is a primary concern as people return to university towns, cities and campuses across the UK.

Technology has a vital part to play in helping PBSA adapt to this. For example, digital check-in systems, self-service parcel collection, contactless interfaces and movement tracking apps can all help to aid social distancing across student accommodation.

Equally, online community boards and virtual maintenance assistance can also help residents to feel confident that a responsive service is being provided, without the risks of in-person communication.

Provisions in place to support wellbeing and mental health are also a significant priority for students when making accommodation choices. Already at a time in their life that brings new social, academic and financial pressures for many young people, coronavirus has introduced additional challenges and heightened the risk that students will experience feelings of isolation during their time living in PBSA.

Technology can play an important part in enhancing the wellbeing offering of a building, as well as helping these services to flex according to students’ needs. Sensors, for example, can flag atypical behaviours, such as students staying in their room for extended periods, so that staff can reach out to them.

Beyond Covid-19

Like all areas of the property sector, PBSA must embrace flexibility if it is to meet the demands of residents following Covid-19. However, it is also important to see that the impacts of the pandemic are far-reaching in students’ lives, going beyond simply the transition to online teaching, to have a crucial bearing on how young people live and inhabit student accommodation.

Landlords, operators and investors must recognise this – investing in the technology, connectivity infrastructure and digital solutions now that will protect both people and revenue in the face of the pandemic, and maximise returns in the long term.

*Richard Morris is a director at technologywithin

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