Once upon a time – in 1984, to be exact – the principal in a leading New York management firm spoke candidly about computers: “We don’t use them. I don’t think they add anything. To me, it’s just busy work – garbage in and garbage out.”
That was more than 30 years ago, and while such a position would be ludicrous now (and was thought a bit outrageous even then), there is no doubt that technology has changed dramatically over the years. Where boards once thought of e-mail and Skype as strange and exotic, members today regularly use online file-sharing, scheduling apps, automated message systems, and resident-only computer forums. Some are low-cost, some are even free, and this technology is saving everyone time and effort.
Here’s a sampling of popular technologies that could convince even the most tech-phobic boards to make the switch:
The three-building condominium complex Woods III, in the Westchester County town of Peekskill, was one of countless communities in the path of hurricane Sandy. As the killer storm barreled up the East Coast in October 2012, Woods III board president Robert Sullivan had to alert the residents of all 344 apartments to be prepared.
“We didn’t have time to go door to door to tell people to get their furniture off their patios,” recalls Sullivan, a Manhattan attorney. “People in these situations may not think of taking flowerpots off their upper decks, but hurricane winds can turn them into missiles. So we sent out messages with our RNS,” he says, using the abbreviation for a Resident Notification System.
“When it was first introduced to us a couple of years ago,” Sullivan says, “we thought, ‘What can you do with it?’ But we found you can do a lot. When we do snow removal, for instance, the residents have to shift their cars out of the way for the snow-removal equipment to go through, so we let them know with an e-mail, a text, a call, or all three,” depending on resident preferences. “Or if we have an overnight freeze we can say, ‘Hey, folks, be careful on the sidewalks tomorrow morning.’ It’s a cover-your-rear-end thing: we’ve warned them about the weather conditions.”
The granddaddy of apartment-building notification systems is the familiar BuildingLink, the product of a 16-year-old New York City firm with the same name. A web-based property-management platform used in more than 3,000 buildings nationwide, it has 400 customization options for notifying residents about deliveries and homeowner meetings, sending them memos, keeping an archive of building documents, letting residents make maintenance requests and post to online bulletin boards, and much more.
The downside is that BuildingLink can be expensive. (The company, which tailors its system to each client, does not make its prices public except to potential customers.) “Big buildings use BuildingLink,” says managing agent Carl Borenstein, principal at Veritas Property Management. “Small buildings don’t have the money to avail themselves of that service.”
In the case of Woods III in Westchester, property manager Robert Ferrara, president of Ferrara Management Group, cobbled together a basic RNS that “isn’t a brand name, but is something we do through our office. The technology’s not all us – there are parts of it we get from an outside service” that he declines to name for competitive reasons, since “it took me almost a year-and-a-half trying different options until we found this one that seems to work well for us.”
Brian Scally, vice president and director of management at Garthchester Realty, uses One Call Now in some of his buildings. Using a contact list created manually (or via an imported pre-existing database), this RNS can deliver voice, text, and e-mail messages to specific apartments, groups of apartments, or the entire building. It can deliver messages in a predetermined order, send them immediately, or store them for sending at a later time. It also has voice- and text-recognition abilities that can translate up to 19 languages for voice messages and up to 52 languages for typed messages.
“I can send to certain floors or to certain sections,” Scally says. “So, if I know the A line is going to have a water shut-off, I can record a call and say to those residents, ‘This is Brian. The water is going to be off from 2 to 5 P.M. so please plan accordingly.’ And it will robocall people either on their cell or home phone – whichever they gave me to call – and it will leave a message either with them or their voicemail.”
Ultimately, says Sullivan, having an RNS saves time, paper, and perhaps even money. “If you wanted to notify people, you had to get someone from the management company to print out flyers and stick them under homeowners’ doors. Or you mailed stuff at 50 cents a pop. So every time you wanted to tell the residents something, it was expensive.”
There is one notable disadvantage, cautions Ferrara. “Residents now feel that every little thing should be put out in a notice to them,” he says. “It’s ultimately the board’s option as to what they think is pertinent to release and the timing of when that information goes out. Sometimes if you release information too early it might create an issue you wouldn’t think of.”
Compared to traditional elevator or lobby postings, RNS is “more direct and more personable and, so far, the feedback from residents is great,” says Debra Piñon,board president of the 124-unit, two-building co-op at 2221 Palmer Avenue in New Rochelle, New York. “They’re getting almost real-time information,” she says. “There’s a little delay, obviously, for preparation of the communication, but now they don’t have to wait for a letter in the mail or a posting in the elevator that they might not see until they’re going out or coming in.”
Traditionally, project managers have been paper-pushers. But now when a board member, property manager, or outside contractor is spearheading your new renovation project, he or she can push those same papers digitally. And so can your accountant with your financials, your board secretary with your meeting minutes, or your managing agent with your arrears reports.
The most common file-sharing services are probably Google Docs and Dropbox. Both are free in their basic form and let you upload files – Microsoft Word documents, PDFs, images – to a private online account where invited people can view, download, and comment on them.
“As a board, we’ve been using Google Docs to share and comment on meeting minutes,” says Joy Weinbaum, board president at Cambridge House, a 77-unit co-op in Riverdale. “One new board member this year said, ‘Let’s just put the minutes up on Google Docs as they go through the review process,’ and it was done. There wasn’t even a discussion really.”
Weinbaum found that rather than the continual “back and forth” of e-mail, “You can enter a comment” – which everyone can see immediately – “and then the document-owner can accept or reject the comment.” Google Docs also has the affiliated free services Google Drive, allowing you to access your stored files from any smartphone, tablet, or computer; and Google Sheets and Google Slides, allowing the same with spreadsheets and images, respectively.
Property manager Borenstein prefers the more advanced ShareFile, from Citrix Systems, which, among other features, lets you tailor file storage to be either on premises, “in the cloud” (i.e., on a remote shared computer), or a combination of both. It also lets you encrypt files in order to enhance security.
“We have monthly management reports and agenda packages for board meetings,” says Borenstein, “and instead of sending large files we’re able to send people a link” to the viewable/downloadable file. Additionally, for security reasons, “with ShareFile you can set the link to be live for a finite period of time – a week, a month, six months – or indefinitely. You can also make it password-protected.”
ShareFile isn’t free, but the cost is nominal. “It’s based on the number of users,” Borenstein says. “For 10 to 15 users” – which is plenty to cover most boards and their professionals – “it’s about $200 a quarter, so under $1,000 a year.”
Another such project-management tool is Basecamp. A free version is available to try out, and if you like it and want to use it for further projects, you can upgrade to one of three unlimited-use packages. Basecamp for Us, at $29 monthly with no per-user fees, is probably all that a board would need to shepherd a capital-improvement project, though the company also has a $79 a month option and, if you’re really big, a $3,000 a year version.
Westchester board president Sullivan, for one, appreciates the space-saving properties of such management apps and software. “In the 1990s, I had a closetful of 4,000 pages of paper,” he says. “A lot of board members feel they need to save every document, since you never know what you might need. But now when your manager sends you a 50-page report, you can just download it and keep it on your laptop” or in the cloud.
As to whether these should be used in conjunction with such electronic-signature apps as DocuSign or HelloSign, Ferrara notes: “Some boards prefer to do actual signatures on paper. But we have a couple of boards that have used electronic signatures and it seems something they were happy with and it was easy to use in the long run.”
Given the famous Swiss expertise with timepieces, it’s no surprise that one of the most notable free apps for scheduling board meetings comes from Zurich. Doodle is “the best scheduling tool for helping people pick a time to get together,” according to the computing magazine PC, which calls it “a no-brainer way to pick a time to meet that works for everyone. Easy, simple, highly utilitarian.”
“Doodle is a nice tool for boards,” agrees Borenstein. “Some boards will schedule their next board meeting at the end of their current board meeting, but unfortunately sometimes things happen and they cancel, and now you’ve got to figure out, ‘How do we get a new meeting date where we’re all on board?’ And with Doodle you [essentially] can say, ‘Hey, we’ve got these five dates and times available, so everybody put in your first, second, and third preference,’ and when there’s a majority, you’re able to schedule a meeting.”
The free version connects to your calendar and keeps track of these “polls,” as it calls them. The ad-free Premium Doodle, for $39 a year, comes in two flavors: one for individuals, another for companies and organizations.
“Doodle is fantastic,” says Mary Mossberg, board secretary at the six-story co-op at 461 West 44th Street in Manhattan, whose board uses the free version. “It’s so easy to use. You just type in dates and times you want people to consider, and as they respond, it populates the chart. You see everyone’s name [down the left-hand side] and a green checkmark for the times and days [running across the top] when people say they’re available. You can see immediately what works for people and what doesn’t work.”
Other such apps include NeedToMeet, Rally.co, TimeBridge, YouCanBook.me, and Meet (at https://sunrise.am/meet/), all free. Among scheduling apps for large groups or complex situations are Appointlet (from $15/month for one user or from $45/month for shared accounts), MeetOMatic ($19.99/year), and ScheduleOnce ($5/month per user).
Talk to Me
One-way communication with residents is important for such things as water-shutoff announcements or reminders about house rules, where no comment or reply is needed. But many things, such as proposed bylaw changes or major projects, require input from shareholders and unit-owners. And sometimes residents just need a forum to vent, offer suggestions, solicit consensus, or maybe even sell a used bookcase.
For that, board member Mossberg’s building uses BigTent, a free service from Care.com that offers registered users a simple way to communicate online with private groups, such as building residents.
“BigTent came about for us,” says Mossberg, “because the board was trying to implement a flip tax. We came up with a few different structures, but to pass any of them we had to call a special meeting, because it’s changing the bylaws. So people at the special meeting did not like our initial proposal and were kind of up in arms and thought there should be a simple forum for discussing these things rather than hearing about them at a meeting.”
BigTent provided the desired forum. “But after the initial reason for it was satisfied, and the flip tax was passed, it hasn’t been used,” Mossberg says. “It was there because people screamed for it, and now they don’t use it. I still like it, and it satisfied the screamers. But in the end, screamers are just going to scream.”
Adds Borenstein, “You can have a moderator to filter the messages” – eliminating inappropriate or insulting language, violations of privacy, and other breaches.
Weinbaum, the president, says that when her board first rolled out BigTent, “we just used it to post building notices like, hot water being turned off [for plumbing work], and we continued to post notices around the building.”
But the board then did a survey on BigTent to gauge how shareholders felt about getting their monthly bullet-point summaries of board meetings digitally rather than on paper. “Those who responded said it was something they wanted,” Weinbaum says, “so after our annual meeting in December, we distributed our last set of paper notes and said that going forward we were putting everything up on BigTent. After our January board meeting, we posted our summary digest electronically and didn’t distribute it on paper. It’s been two or three weeks and we haven’t heard anything either way. No one’s said, ‘Why didn’t I get my printed minutes?’ and no one’s one said, ‘Oh, good – electronic minutes are here.’”
The advantages, she notes, are that “we’re not producing as much paper, and it cuts down on our super having to distribute [summaries of] meeting minutes under people’s doors. The super’s no longer tied up doing that.”
Property Manage Me
The apps mentioned so far are consumer-level products that the average co-op or condo board can use. But property managers can choose from a wealth of professional software: the bill-paying program AvidXchange; the real-estate operations, accounting, and ancillary processes of Yardi Systems’ Yardi Genesis2 and the Yardi Voyager programs; and various New York-centric property management tools, including image-scanning, inventory control, and contract cost analysis of MDS Explorer, from MDS.
“AvidXchange has taken the paper element away from the daily data entry and approval process and has allowed our personnel to focus more on the auditing details of the invoices,” says Matthew Cleary, director of accounting operations for Douglas Elliman Property Management, speaking of one such system. “The integration with our property management software, ease of invoice approval, accountability, and tracking reports greatly enhance the productivity of all users who can immediately learn the software without a tutorial.”
Ultimately, says Sullivan, speaking of communication and scheduling apps, “Boards should think in those terms. It makes your life easier. It really does.”