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Better, Stronger, Faster... The Scoop on Electronic Communication

 These days, there are few people who don’t have a business website, a Facebook account and even a Twitter handle. It’s the same for buildings.  

 As the rise of online social media invades nearly every aspect of our daily  life, co-op, condo, HOA boards and savvy property managers have also embraced  the medium as a powerful new tool for connecting and communicating with  residents in their communities. Email listserves, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds  and—more recently—custom mobile apps, have supplanted the mailroom bulletin board as the primary  means of inter-building information exchange.  

 It didn’t happen overnight, however. Boards and management companies have modernized and  broadened their means of communicating with residents through trial and error  while exploring the benefits and maximizing the usefulness and impact of these  new tools.  

 “Generally, the trend is for most associations to have a website. As part of our  routine service we set up a website for every one of our communities,” says Elaine Warga-Murray, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, and CEO of Regency Management Group  in Howell. “It’s been our experience that once the website is set up, when a homeowner calls  the office with a question we can direct them to the website and walk them  through finding and/or printing the information that they were seeking. In  addition, once the website has been established, it makes the managers life a  lot easier in that they can use the website site to communicate with homeowners  (who register) through a global email system.”  

 There are no current statistics showing what percentage of buildings in the New  Jersey area are using websites to communicate with their residents. But local  board members and management companies report that most of the larger buildings  have some form of web communication ranging from email blasts (emailing the  entire building at once) to full websites.  

 An Online Presence

 “In my opinion 85 to 90 percent of the buildings in New Jersey use a website or  some other sort of technology to communicate with residents,” says Wendy Qualy, a property manager at Sterling Properties in Livingston. “Technology has taken over our lives and practically everything is now accessible  with PDAs, tablets and PCs. It’s extended to all genres and ages. Now you see little kids using iPods all the  way to the older generation.”  

 Companies like AtHomeNet, BuildingLink.com, HOASpace.com, NeighborhoodLink.com  and Pilera, are a few of the providers that offer websites to community  associations and HOAs. Some management companies also provide the service to  their communities as part of an overall package.  

 On most progressive residential buildings that are more computer friendly, the  condo’s website is used to alert residents about what is going on at the property from  when the lawn is being mowed to when streets are being paved to when certain  projects are being done.  

 Residents can also send work orders, track work orders, check for packages, pay  assessments and pull up their own personal payment history. Some buildings have  even put message and chat boards onto the sites so that residents can “speak” directly to each other about the building and other matters.  

 “We find a lot of communities being able to disperse information through their  websites,” says Ashish Patel, president of the Nashua, New Hampshire-based management  software company Pilera Software, whose New Jersey clients include communities  in Springfield, Montclair, Ewing, Morristown and Franklin. “For example, they can send out a document, they can upload a new document then  email to all of the residents as well as links. We see a lot of board meeting  minutes, forms, financials, annual meeting reports and packing forms, things  that residents quickly need access to.”  

 “The primary function is that of a communication tool,” says Nancy Hastings, CEO of MAMCO Management in Mount Laurel, “Whether it is access to forms, information about community events or  notifications about projects. In some instances residents have the ability to  review their account information and submit requests for service. At another  level there are some website functions that boards are using to archive their  documents and board materials. I also find in the South Jersey area there are a  lot of smaller homeowner associations that don’t necessarily budget or provide websites to its tenants.”  

 Buildings are also using their websites to advertise available parking spots and  other amenities. Some are allowing current residents to advertise their units  as rentals or to sell their furniture or other household items. Those looking  for dog walkers, cat feeders or house sitters may find luck in their own  building with a few clicks of the keyboard.  

 Pilera’s software has functions that feature unit detail that has one screen with easy  access to the unit’s occupant, lease information, car plate registration, maintenance history, rule  violations and specific notices sent with simple administration of contact and  communication history of building occupant. Pilera has also designed a control  panel that quickly broadcasts awaiting packages, dry cleaning or office  messages to a connecting display monitor to instantly inform residents.  

 Individual websites have become virtual shopping centers, real estate agencies,  city clerk offices and chat boards all in one place. For some lucky residents,  there’s absolutely no need to leave your front door anymore.  

 “There are so many benefits of a co-op and condo using a website,” says Patel. “We’ve done some cost benefit analysis and they end up saving money by using  technology. For example with our system they can do emails instead of phone  calls. Phone calls can cost ten cents per call, but it’s cheaper than doing a mailing and a lot cheaper. And having a system like ours  allows them to save all the data and keep a history of all of the  communications that they do.”  

 Other systems can also text emergency announcements and make automated calls.  

 Some condominiums have video monitors in the elevators which broadcast fun and  important events that are going on throughout New Jersey. With those video  monitors, they have the ability to go beyond the basics and even create their  own building news channels if they want to go that route.  

 “With the popularity of smart phones it is much easier for managers and board  members to communicate via email and also via text for quick communications,” says Warga-Murray. “Another use of smart phones and digital technology is that managers are able to  take photos on site when something is noticed and record repairs in need of  work tickets, work in progress, completed work and violations and send the  information directly to the appropriate individual or data base. Additionally  digital photos help record specific conditions on site.”  

 Even if your building gets a snazzy website, you can’t simply rid yourself of all paper documents.  

 Gripes and Snipes

 In every building, there are always some people who aren’t comfortable with going online for just about anything. Some don’t even own a computer or an email address—and there are few buildings that keep a computer room in the basement filled  with old public computers that no one uses anymore.  

 “I’ll see board members, especially older ones who are too afraid of technology,” says Patel, “But things have gotten a lot simpler for them to use and they should not be  afraid to use new technology. It’s the future.”  

 That means that the buildings still have to be sensitive to those who may not  have virtually arrived in this century—and prefer everything to be done via snail mail and actual newsletters or phone  calls.  

 “If a resident is uncomfortable with technology one of the things we do is say ‘that person should automatically get a phone call,” says Patel, “Like if a board meeting is happening. They can send out a message through our  system and we’ll call the ones – like the elderly population that doesn’t have an email - and let them know what’s going on around the building.”  

 In a few years, even those who don’t own a computer may have to give in to progress and head over to the local Best  Buy or nearest Apple store.  

 “I think the number one challenge from a board member’s perspective is getting your community to participate and use the website on a  daily basis,” says Hastings. “One way to combat that challenge is for people to sign up for a push  notification. That way you’ll receive an email that let’s you know something on the website has changed or if there’s a new post on there.”  

 “A lot of communities I’ve noticed are leaning toward Facebook because such a broad spectrum of their  residents are all ready on it,” says Qualy, “But our company hasn’t touched base on that yet because the drawback is that you can have lots of  negative comments that aren’t necessarily true and you have to constantly keep up with it. That’s why our company hasn’t gone down that road.”  

 Password-Protected

 “We ask that our board adopt a resolution regarding the use of email and digital  technology,” adds Warga-Murray. “Email is a permanent record so we suggest the email be professional and only  include information that what members wish to have made part of a permanent  record. It is also a good idea to identify what data and information be sent by  email and what information should be sent as an attachment in a PDF file.”  

 The best foundation for a strongly-built community, though, is for the place to  be well-managed. Communicating what’s happening in the building is the key to building trust and community spirit. 

 Danielle Braff is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New  Jersey Cooperator. Staff Writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this  article.  

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Comments

  • The coop I live in has a low-security website, created withword press - the board doesn't want to spend the money for an enterprise level, secure platform. All shareholders use the same password and there is no logout function. If you speak at board meetings your name goes i the minutes which are posted in the "password protected" area. So if you don't want your name published online, you have no choice but to be silent at meetings. Is that legal?