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.”
“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.