Connect to Communicate Communities Turn to the Web to Solve Communication Problems

Connect to Communicate

In today's world, it seems that everywhere you look someone is walking around with the latest gadget in hand, be it a BlackBerry or iPod, to make them "more connected." I am guilty of the practice myself, particularly with my latest purchase of a BlackBerry. I am now able to check my E-mail anywhere in the United States, whether it be in my car, at a property, or (much to my wife's chagrin) while I am on vacation. Today, the keys to being successful in the property management profession are entirely reliant on modern technology and being perpetually connected and in communication.

The Best Tool for the Job

One of the best ways to communicate with a large number of people is via a Web site. Most companies maintain Web sites as a way to promote their company or, in the case of property management, to enhance communication. Even individuals are maintaining sites on the Web through the relatively recent emergence of blogs, where they can post anything from pictures of their families to their opinions about the war in Iraq. A blog is a user-generated Web site where entries are made in journal style and displayed in reverse chronological order. But blogs are just one example of how technology has revolutionized our lives.

There's a reason why the Web has become so vital to us: It's fascinating to see what you can uncover when you "Google" a word or phrase on the Internet. (For the uninitiated, Google is a search engine that uses Internet keywords to return Web sites that meet a search criterion, and the name Google has stuck as a synonym for "search".) You can find information on just about anything imaginable. An indication that Google has entered the mainstream is that Webster's Dictionary added "google" as an entry in their latest edition.

Why the Reluctance?

With the Internet's popularity always increasing, why is it that technology is having such a hard time becoming integrated into the property association management industry? And why is this fact particularly true as it relates to Web sites? Is it due to the lack of interest? Lack of money? Fear of technology? Lack of time?

One of the most common complaints we hear when we assume management responsibilities for a new association is that the previous management company and/or board of trustees did not communicate with the homeowners. Not only does this make the management company look bad, but it also reflects poorly on members of the board who selected that management company to manage their association. To enhance the communication among the board, management, and homeowners, a properly maintained Web site is a logical tool to address the situation and fulfill this critical need in every condominium association.

To solve the problem, if an association elects to launch a Web site, association financials, important notices, and condominium documents are just some of the items that can be posted and viewed by every homeowner who owns a computer, in the comfort of their home at any time of the day. Making them more attractive, most Web sites geared toward homeowner associations include a calendar feature that allows important dates to be posted, viewed, and automatically E-mailed to all homeowners who register for the site in advance of an important meeting or other event.

The Web can also increase the likelihood of obtaining a quorum for a meeting, which those of you who live in or manage condominium associations know is very difficult to obtain. To achieve this end, communities are turning to Web sites that allow owners to vote and attend meetings electronically. In this scenario, owners who are unable to attend a meeting in person are still able to vote and view minutes, so a quorum is reached more easily. To maintain security of the information, registrants receive a secure password from the company that hosts the site.

If there is a catastrophe at the association, such as a large insurance loss from a fire, a Web site is key to providing important information to the residents with the simple click of a button. By posting information, FAQs, and documents on a community Web site, where they are readily available, owners may be able to avoid having to contact the company or the board with questions, thus saving time for both the owner as well as the property manager or board member.

A Case in Point

Michele J. Jenness, President of the Village at Maplewood, an association Great North manages in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, says, "The use of the Web site improves the communication between the board and homeowners, which is something that homeowners have requested in the past. This is a great tool and helps keep storage of the printed documents to a minimum. For on-going document storage, it is useful for posting minutes of board meetings and maintaining an archive for referral when a subject re-surfaces." She believes the Web site shows the real estate community that "we are an organized and cohesive homeowners association, which makes a positive statement with regard to a buyer's choice to purchase within our village."

If a community develops and launches a Web site, the site will improve access and communication for homeowners. But to have a successful site, regular updates are of the utmost importance to keep the site fresh and consistently interesting. This may pose a challenge for associations, which may have difficulty finding and retaining a volunteer to maintain and update the site on a regular basis. A Web site cannot stay current and relevant if individuals are not involved and contributing to it on a consistent basis. The person tasked with maintaining a Web site should keep information updated and adapt the site as changes occur. When new technology becomes available, adapting the Web site to reflect the newest trends will keep users interested and keep the Web site fresh and on the cutting edge. In the case of the Village at Maplewood, the community has a wonderful volunteer, Joanne Jones, who has donated her own personal time to collect information and decide where it should be posted on the site. She is in constant contact with the board to be certain that the most up-to-date information is being supplied to homeowners.

Having someone like Joanne is key to the success of the Web site. The self-proclaimed "maintainer" of the site, Jones says, "It is really quite easy to keep the site up to date. The board of directors E-mails me all documents, notices, etc., that they would like to post on the site. I decide in which category of the HOA Library to place the document or notice and send it on to the administrator. Every so often, I check the various categories of the HOA Library to make sure everything is 'alive and well.' I think that, with our E-mailing system and the Web site, we have greatly improved communication to VAM homeowners."

Money Is Always an Issue

Opponents of Web sites for community associations believe that designing and launching a site is too expensive. I disagree. The cost to host a Web site for an association of 100 units should be approximately $65 per month. There should not be an expensive site set-up fee because companies often use standard templates that allow the board and/or management company to upload desired information to the community's site without having to actually create and program a site from scratch. These standardized sites are user-friendly and appealing to the eye. Admittedly, they do not have fancy video playback capability or any other moving parts, but they serve their purpose of enhancing communication.

Another concern expressed by some owners and trustees is that many unit owners may not have Internet access in their homes. This is a valid concern, but residents who do not own computers can access the Internet and community Web sites at libraries, Internet cafe, the office, or even via a centralized computer in an on-site clubhouse for little or no charge. Moreover, the younger generations are completely Internet-savvy, and as those younger generations grow older, this issue should be less and less a point of contention.

Technology is the way of the world today. Associations should embrace new technology and take advantage of its benefits, rather than shy away from it and miss out on all it has to offer.