Better, Stronger, Faster... What We All Need to Know About 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, condo, co-op and HOA boards, along with 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.

“I think the whole website thing started on the apartment side and condo owners were beginning to look for more online services,” says James Zaratin, a property manager with First Realty Management in Boston. “It was a niche market and a lot of IT [information technology] people saw that as an opening and started putting together easy-to-manage portals that would be accessible for the condominium and HOA side. So now these services allow people to submit maintenance requests online, pay their condo fees online, they can pull all of their association’s legal documents like the condo docs and meeting minutes—anything that they would have to call and make a request to the management company for in the past. Now they can just log onto their website, type in a password and pull it up. It takes a lot less work on our end and it’s a lot easier for the residents. It’s time saving for them when they can just do it at their own leisure and go online whenever they want and just pull it up. They enjoy having that information at their finger tips.”

Websites are Gaining Ground

There are no current statistics showing what percentage of buildings in the New England 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.

“From what I’ve seen by just being in the industry right now is that 60 percent of the condos in New England have websites and 40 percent don’t,” says Zaratin. “That tends to be growing a bit because a lot more associations are using management companies as opposed to being self-managed and most management companies, at least the larger ones, are able to offer a web service to their associations.”

FP3 condominiums in the Seaport District of downtown Boston has a top of the line website that features a super slick flashy design, great photography and high-end functionality. The Clarendon condominium located on the Back Bay/South End border of Boston boasts an award-winning website that has been lauded for its stylish, functional and information-packed style that showcases an interactive neighborhood map.

Companies like AtHomeNet, HOASpace.com and NeighborhoodLink.com are but some 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.

At 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. “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.”

“It’s been my experience with the properties that we manage and have dealings with, I would draw the distinction between inward and outward facings on their site,” says Michael Feeney, webmaster for First Realty Management in Boston. “An inward-facing site being more like what you would think of the Internet. It is something that is closed off, not a public site or a service. Typically you see a lot of outward-facing when you go and search for information about a property by address and you come across that the association has put together a site that seems to be primarily for communication but then they are also trying to put out newsletters. You see this a lot with self-managed sites or smaller properties and usually they are putting out more information than they ought to make public.”

Saving Time and Money

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.

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 co-ops and condos 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 England. 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.

Not a Paper-less Society

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

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.

“There is a need out there for all types of automated or web-based management systems and systems for communication,” says Feeney. “I also think there’s an increased expectation on the part of the property owners. In their personal life, they are used to having a great deal of control over their personal finances online and through their ability to communicate both in their day jobs and through their personal life, so it seems only natural they would actively look out for that integration with their home life.”

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 New England Condominium. Staff writer Christy Smith-Sloman also contributed to this article.

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