How Charter Hall is working through the COVID-19 crisis

The COVID-19 crisis has hit the real estate sector quite hard and ASX-listed commercial property investment group Charter Hall is certainly feeling the pinch.

In early May, Charter Hall Social Infrastructure, the company’s investment trust which owns more than 400 childcare centres, said it would undertake a $115 million equity raising to help it deal with the financial impact of the pandemic.

Flexible work practices for staff have been in place for quite some time at Charter Hall and around 600 staff were moved to remote working environments overnight without too much fuss.

“It was heartening to see people picking up the tools and using them in new ways. A few things we did have to tweak on the fly," Charter Hall’s chief information and technology officer, Sheridan Ware, told CIO Australia.

For example, its service desk had to move to a remote model overnight, which went fairly smoothly with a few small tweaks, she said.

But the real challenge has been servicing Charter Hall’s tenant customers at 800 of its properties across Australia. The company owns 178 properties in the retail sector, which has suffered due to government-mandated social distancing and lockdowns.

In April, the federal government announced several measures to help renters including a temporary hold on evictions and mandatory code of conduct for commercial tenancies to support businesses affected by the pandemic.

“There are tens of thousands of tenants and tens of thousands of employees in our buildings. The government put out a code of conduct…which just really means that landlords and tenants are going to share some of the responsibility for small and medium sized enterprises around rent payments going forward.”

Ware and her team have ensured that Charter Hall's web platforms and CRM system capture retail tenants’ requests for rental abatements or adjustments, which are then processed by its financial management system.

“It's been great for our analytics teams...[to get a] near real-time view of the impact that it is going to have [on] our investments because we have investor customers as well. That’s been one area where we have had to completely pivot a team into focusing on that work,” Ware said.

Meanwhile, as people start returning to work over the next few weeks and months, Charter Hall is providing biosafety equipment such as thermal scanning to make building entries as contactless as possible, said Ware.

“We are also looking to [better] space utilisation so we don’t have over-densification and [provide] the opportunity for people to practice social distancing.”

The power of the incremental

Although Charter Hall hasn’t put any longer term technology transformation projects on hold due to the pandemic, some tech staff have been asked to focus on more immediate tasks to support tenants.

“COVID-19 has brought to the fore something that we hold up all the time but we don’t do a great job of living everyday when it comes to transformation and that’s the power of the incremental,” said Ware.

Ware rightly said that multi-million dollar, multi-year tech projects are more likely to fail “just because they are [too] ambitious.”

“But what we have seen as we have pivoted the teams into COVID-19 response is just how much transformation is possible in a very short period of time if we break it down into digestible chunks," she said.

Charter Hall's technology staff, customer, process and finance teams were given a clear mandate and have risen to the challenge.

"There's so much curiosity, creativity, hard work and determination and empathy [for people] who need some form of financial relief in what is an unprecedented and very difficult time.

"We want to carry this forward in everything that we do...we've got to keep that focus on the incremental going forward so that people who are adapting...[to the] change can do so in an easy manner," Ware said.

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