How many recent graduates will think of property when looking for an exciting first career? Not many. Yet, attracting new talent into the property industry - especially proptech - is more important now than ever before, with sustainability a key focus of the future. And this is where Deb Noller, Co-Founder and CEO, Switch Automation, is playing her part.

In this interview with Jerene Ang, she shares the following:

  • Why the property industry is frequently overlooked, and how companies can increase visibility to talent.
  • How the industry can tap on robots so talents can focus on higher-value and more rewarding tasks.
  • How HR can facilitate mentoring between the young and veterans in the industry.

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Q What led you to co-founding Switch Automation in 2012? Why focus on the property industry?

My background is in computer science and one of my first jobs was writing freight management solutions. I came across building automation out of a pure coincidence. Back when I was first starting out, the systems used were cheap and disparate, teams were disconnected and assets weren’t linking up with data. Building occupants then were dissatisfied with the air quality and temperature of buildings, which were, at the same time, contributing 40% to carbon emissions globally. There was an evident need for transformation.

What I wanted to do was to bridge the gap and transform the industry, all while positively impacting the environment.

Switch was built on a vision of a future driven by sustainable digitally managed buildings. We are now working to strengthen this vision here in Singapore.

Q When it comes to dream jobs, we seldom hear people mentioning the property industry, despite the diverse range of roles - from architecture to real estate brokerage to proptech. Why do you think today’s youths are overlooking this industry?

The property sector is a highly male-driven industry, and it’s common knowledge that a gender gap does exist. This could be a reason why we continue to see fewer females in the industry, and this is something Switch is aiming to change. The industry is also known to be old fashioned, with many leading businesses hesitating to invest in the right technologies and new ways of working.

We have, however, seen a change since the pandemic’s push towards digitalisation. We’re pleased to share that this has led to an uprising of a new generation of managers who are well-equipped to lead the industry forward.

Q What can companies in the industry do to increase visibility? And, what is Switch Automation doing in this regard?

As an age-old industry, companies must firstly invest in innovation and innovative methods of working to gain visibility, especially today where the future of work is undefined. It’s important for companies in the industry to replace traditional methods of working by implementing digital strategies that will future-proof conventional methods. By adopting new ways of working, companies will also be able to appeal to data and tech driven millennial talents who can drive the business forward. Highlighting the business’ impact on the wider industry and society can also attract younger talent who often have a desire to do work that makes a difference.

At Switch, we’re looking to reshape the property industry.

We acknowledge the gender gap in the industry and are actively working to bridge this by inviting women with the right skills and experience to apply for specific jobs at Switch. This has helped us form a leadership team predominantly made up of more women than men - a rarity in this industry.

We also have had success in attracting millennials who are looking to create a breakthrough in the tech industry by sharing our environmental mission and tech-focused approach. By attracting young and diverse talents, we benefit from more creativity and innovation from our teams, taking us one step further in reaching our goal to reshape the industry.

Q Many people expect automation to replace certain job functions. How can the property industry tap on robots?

Robots are among us, but instead of viewing these negatively, we can use robots to our advantage. By employing these to take over mundane and tedious tasks, talents can focus on higher-value and more rewarding tasks that will require their creativity and knowledge. Through automation tech such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, property practitioners can also streamline projects to optimise profitability.

Q What roles do you foresee being lost to automation, and which roles can’t be automated? Why?

Project management and cash flow might be one of the first roles to be automated, allowing teams to focus on other areas of the business. Software development can also be automated to accelerate staff and contractor connections. Lastly, we believe that automating the management of buildings or developments can come in handy and may be the way to go, especially during a pandemic.

That said, there are just some roles that simply cannot be replaced by automation. We will always need human employees to carry out roles that require the human touch such as engineering.

Creating an emotional connection with clients is also part and parcel of a booming business, as is maintaining effective communication with stakeholders within the business. These are things robots will never be able to replicate.

Q Will there also be an emergence of new jobs due to automation? What are some roles where an increase in demand is expected?

We’ve seen new jobs rise out of the automation boom, such as digital transformation specialists, Internet of Things (IoT) specialists, and information security analysts. In the coming months, we’re expecting a rise in demand for data scientists & analysts, digital building engineers, smart building engineers, and heads of innovation. These roles will prepare the property industry for the future, where the role of smart technologies and data will be key.

Q How can workers in the industry pivot to the more in-demand roles? And, what can companies do to help? Among all these, where does HR sit?

To pivot to in-demand roles effectively, workers must actively upskill to meet the needs of these roles. Companies can support employees by rolling out training programmes, or providing financial or educational assistance to those who are keen on pursuing these roles within the company. HR can further support employees by devising a proper training and upskilling plan for all employees.

Q Within the industry, what are some particular areas (proptech, urban planning, etc.) where new ideas and talent are most acutely needed for us to move towards environmental sustainability? Why?

Right now, there is a great need in proptech for fresh ideas and talent to spur innovation. This will lead to the creation of more quality platforms and integrations that support green certifications and energy monitoring. On a broader scale, there is also a greater need for more stakeholders within built environment organisations who can affect change across the company. By having changemakers onboard, only then can we successfully move towards our end goal of environmental sustainability.

Q How can companies attract talent to these roles? And, what is Switch Automation doing?

Companies can firstly tap on local universities with mechanical engineering, environmental engineering, sustainability and other related programmes to recruit fresh talent. They may also reach out to existing employees’ networks to ensure credible applicants. At Switch, we do these and more. We also promote our open positions on LinkedIn and target relevant LinkedIn groups to get our positions in front of the right talent.

Q While younger workers may bring fresh ideas, older ones are able to give better insight through a wealth of experience. Given this, how can HR leaders in the industry ensure a balance of both?

The data-hungry younger generation brings with them a multitude of fresh, creative ideas and curiosity. On the flipside, veterans in the industry generally have spent more time in the industry and can offer a wealth of experience and advice on the do’s and don'ts of the industry.

HR teams in every company must ensure a well-balanced system of hiring the two generations to create a culture that is inclusive, yet forward-thinking.

To do so, it’s important for HR practitioners to put together recruitment practices that will best help them identify talents who are well-suited for the vacant roles and will bring value to the company. Mentoring programmes are also great for bringing the two generations together. Veterans can be paired with new joiners to create a nurturing culture, and to promote knowledge sharing.

Sufficient training and retraining must also be rolled out to ensure employees of either generations achieve similar levels of competency.

Photo / Provided [Pictured: Deb Noller, Co-Founder and CEO, Switch Automation]

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