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Habitat Magazine October 2020 free digital issue

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Management on the Front Lines: Technology

Governance and building management have become, almost overnight, virtual experiences. Many management companies had tech solutions in place when the coronavirus pandemic hit, while others had to scramble to make the switch. Drawing from nine roundtable discussions, we highlight the tech solutions that have become “the new normal.”

When everything shut down, how did you use technology to manage your buildings?

David Amster The biggest thing we've done is remote communication. Basically, the manager’s desk phone is on their cellphone. So even though we're working at home, it's just like we're in the office.

 

Josh Koppel And I don’t have to run around, wasting hours, traveling to buildings and then traveling home. I feel like we're getting a lot more done online. It's nice to be in front of your computer with easy access, getting every answer in a second. It's been a pleasure.

 

Virtual meetings have become the norm now. How effective are you finding them to be?

Eleni Magoulas All our board meetings are held via Zoom right now. We've been doing that since March. The boards really seem to like it. I actually find that the meetings are faster now and they end sooner because you're on Zoom. Everybody kind of just wants to get whatever is on the agenda done and spoken about and get off.

 

Aaron Weber And you can record.

 

Magoulas Yes, which we do.

 

Weber We've done conference calls. We haven't done video chat meetings yet, but we have hopped on conference calls, which is effective.

 

Amster We find that virtual meetings are a lot shorter. Because people are home now, they stay more focused. They're not going off on different tangents. We actually had some boards say that they'd like to continue this after the pandemic is over.

 

Alvin Wasserman We’re on Long Island, and we manage properties from Flushing to the Hamptons, so it's over a 100-mile radius that we're covering, and our property managers could live anywhere on the Island. Having virtual meetings has been a blessing. It's been great for the managers to not have to leave a meeting at 10 or 11 o'clock at night and take a long drive home. Coincidentally, we were somewhat prepared for it because one of our managers late last year was expecting a child, and she asked, "I'd like to work from home."

 

Gene Ferrara It saves travel time to and from the property. So it'll allow managers to take more time to really focus in on the meeting and exactly what they're discussing at hand.

 

Andrew Lazarus I think leveraging the technology is going to be very important going forward. Moving into this unprecedented situation has meant that we had to figure this out very quickly. Of course, there was a learning curve, but we've been doing companywide Zoom meetings on a daily basis, which has just been terrific to have the entire company to collaborate that way.

 

Ferrara Overall, Zoom meetings have been really positive. All the board members like them. We had our first annual meeting last night, which was done via Zoom. We had to hold a training session for the residents as well, and they were very positive through the experience. I wouldn't be surprised, once everything is over, if some boards decide to keep the virtual meetings.

 

Michael Rogoff It works well. There is definitely a minor learning curve, but now that my parents have Zoom accounts, I think anyone can handle it!

 

Do you think anything is lost by not meeting in person?

Amster I don't know if you want to say “lost.” There's a personal interaction that is missing, but I think people stay more focused this way.

 

Lazarus Every building is different and has its own community of shareholders or unit-owners. And so it's important to just really work with each client individually and try to develop the right plan and policies that work for their building.

 

What about building inspections? Are your managers actually able to visit buildings?

Magoulas Our managers try to go on off hours, when people aren't walking around. They meet with the super, or they do virtual inspections with the super on FaceTime. We found that we were doing that more often. As things got better and the numbers went down, the managers really wanted to go to the buildings. So they wear their masks and gloves and go in.

 

Amster If things do get back to somewhat of a more normal situation, you really can't get away from actually being at the property and seeing it with your own eyes and seeing things you want to see – not what somebody else is showing you.

 

Turning to your own company’s technology, what are you using that has enabled you to run smoothly?

Magoulas We are using a program called AvidXchange for paying vendors. In many buildings, a check needs to be signed by two board members, and the pandemic made this challenging. This platform allows for an email to be sent to a board member, he or she logs in, sees the pending invoices and can approve for payment. AvidXchange sends out the payment, and it uploads into our system. We've seen maybe 60% to 65% of our vendors are already getting used to using it, and I anticipate that almost everyone will be using this to submit their invoices. We now submit our invoices through it as well for anything extra, other than our management fee. We find that it's very easy. If you sign up as a vendor, you can either receive a check or it can be put in as an ACH into your account. So vendors are getting paid quicker, with less red tape. There's also a tracking system on who approved what and when, when the check went out, and when it was cashed.

 

Amster We have just been in the middle of upgrading our software, and there is a package within it that allows you to basically pay bills without checks. That will be something I can see happening before the end of the year.

 

Weber The biggest feature we've been using is the payments feature of our software. So we've been going to each shareholder and walking them through it to set up online payments. It's the most secure form of payments, and it clears the next day. We're doing this to avoid any cash-flow issues. We don't want to go into a negative balance in our bank account, which would cause overdraft fees. They know that their transactions are going through every month for their maintenance fees, and moving forward it's going to be much easier to manage maintenance-fee payments because it eliminates the manual labor of taking checks, depositing them and then transcribing it into our system.

 

Getting rid of paper checks certainly makes things run smoother. Could you imagine telling your clients that paper payments won’t be accepted anymore?

Magoulas We don't accept checks in the office, regardless. Everything goes either to a lock box or on automatic payment as well.

 

Weber We implemented our technological upgrade in March 2019. So we're also able to pay our vendors remotely, and we're able to accumulate very, very useful data. So we make educated decisions based on the financial data. And it's been really helpful.

 

Communicating with your buildings has taken on more importance now than in pre-pandemic times. Do you think governing and managing buildings will continue using these tech tools post-pandemic?

Rogoff Absolutely. There are tremendous advantages involved with utilizing this sort of technology to run the day-to-day operations. And it was probably meant to happen sooner rather than later anyway. The pandemic just kind of forced everyone's hands. It's definitely more convenient. I just don't think it's going to go to a totally virtual environment going forward. It's going to be somewhere in the middle.

 

Lazarus I think the need to communicate with our staff, the building staff and our clients has never been more important. Buildings that may have been a little bit slower to adapt to the email blasts or the electronic communication, and were accustomed to still having notices slipped under the door or printed out at the building – they may suffer.

 

Mark Levine The property management field has been behind the times with technology. This was a good equalizer for everybody to move forward. From a board's perspective, I think a lot of the board meetings were more of a social gathering than an actual business gathering. Taking that away is really refocusing things. As Josh and others have said,, the hours that you're saving can be translated into moving forward with projects that may have stalled in the past. It’s the convenience of technologies, the convenience of having time back.

 

Steven Furman It's been a real eye-opener to many boards that have been slow to look at technology and have relied on notes under the door, or old-school ways of communication. This has been a game changer.

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