ACMO-CCI’s Condo Conference (2022) hosted many informative sessions, and the one we’ll be summarizing today is “Working Smarter”. The session’s panelists provided some great ideas as to how working smart can give companies and corporations a leg up beyond just working hard - and with the current pressures, everyone can (and should!) take all the help available!
Buckle up for a lengthy post, because we're starting by explaining technology's place within Condoland (including how tech use can help solve common issues that property management faces), how to find the right solutions for your needs, and how digital governance technology will shape Owner's Meetings and Board Meetings to come (spoiler alert: the future of hybrid meetings may be upon us!).
Working smarter is more important than ever in a condo industry that has been deeply affected by several factors including: staffing shortages and employee turnover, increased pricing that affects our overall corporation budgets (including reserve funds that may be underfunded, including new construction RFs), and governance (including meetings).
This session was moderated by Luis Hernandez (Partner at Rutherford Mathews LLP), and panelists included: Nicholas Chirametli (President at City Sites Property Management Inc.), Chris Jaglowitz (Principal at Common Ground Condo Law), and Ben Zelikovitz (Co-Founder of GetQuorum).
The first topic was technology’s place within a business, which was passed to Nicholas for discussion. He began by referring to some very large companies (Uber, Skip the Dishes, air bnb, Slack, etc.) and identified that the element they all have in common is that they bridge gaps, each doing something technologically unique in the way that it connects a business with a consumer and thereby solving problems for its users. Luckily, there are many similar tech-based solutions that are applicable to property management by bridging gaps and solving problems.
Nicholas identified that there are generally three reasons why management companies lose clients, though the reasons may be limited to one or even a culmination of all three. These reasons include:
Communications issues (such as those between Property Managers and Boards and/or Owners),
Property maintenance issues (ex: services not being completed on time and aggravating Boards/residents, such as: legislative code changes not being executed, window washing, garage washes, load tests, elevator testing, etc), or
Financial accounting issues (such as providing reliable financial statements, timely payment processing to prevent construction liens, etc.).
Technology is currently available to help Property Management companies and Managers avoid the above pitfalls (and more!). For communication, companies such as BuildingLink, Condo Control Central, and Condo Communities allow managers to interface with owners by sending electronic notices, newsletters, issuing service requests, tracking parcels, visitor parking permits, and more. Thankfully, many condos already have a service such as this. It is especially important to ensure that these systems, or similar databases, are shared between the Manager and relevant corporation staff (ex: concierge) to ensure that information is accurate (ex: off-site addresses for off-site owners).
Furthermore, Nicholas also suggested the use of other communication tools, such as:
DocuSign for sites that don’t have an office or don’t have all Directors living on-site. Luckily, DocuSign isn’t expensive, and its use helps Managers ensure that documents are signed in a timely manner so property maintenance can be carried out in a timely fashion, too.
For Microsoft Office users, Nicholas also reminded that part of the Office suite includes SharePoint, which allows for easy document sharing (such as: contracts, meeting minutes, management reports, rules, regulations, etc.) with relevant parties (such as: supervisors, head office, Boards, etc.). This is especially useful to Property Managers and management companies when it’s time for the corporation’s audit, as it can allow auditors to easily complete their task off-site. Though Microsoft is inexpensive, it does have a fee - unlike Google Drive, which is free for users (up to a certain, albeit reasonable, limit).
Beyond Google Drive, there is also Google Suites which also features Office-like software such as: Documents, Sheets, and Slides, which allows for live simultaneous collaboration between users from any location - a very powerful tool for many circumstances, including property maintenance planning (more below).
Luis noted that this is exactly how the panelists prepared for their own presentation and how he’s worked together with others - so they’re all sharing their applied advice with everyone!
When planning for routine property maintenance, Nicholas suggested the use of an annual property planner to set and schedule all the different services throughout the year. Gone are they days where you can look at an Excel sheet [for this] . . . we now put that online so all our managers have access to that calendar, and that calendar sends alerts to our property managers about 60-90 days in advance” as reminders that estimates are needed and coming due, or that paperwork such as a Budget, PIC (Periodic Information Certificate) or Preliminary notices, need to be completed and distributed shortly. Processes such as these help assure new clients that service will be carried out in a timely manner.
There’s even innovative tech software that assists Property Maintenance Companies with soliciting estimates from vendors by using RFPs/RFQs to a larger or select vendor market that allows managers to see the actual market value of the work required. Of course, systems such as these can be built out for more than just property maintenance - all it takes is a little innovation to see how we can work smarter!
Lastly, Nicholas discussed his final topic - financial management. Of course, timely payment processing is paramount, however, there is also the issue of check fraud - which is more common on sites that don’t have a management office and cheques are being sent to these sites in an unsecure fashion. The use of electronic fund transfers can help prevent this, as well encourage faster payment processing.
An online payment processing system means that cheques are not sent by management to clients or to vendors, rather, clients (Boards) are approving the cheques online and the funds are electronically sent straight to the vendor’s bank account - meaning “there’s no possibility for a cheque to be intercepted and changed, and there’s no risk of having the property manager go to site, drop off a cheque, and lose that cheque”. Such a program may also be beneficial to vendors, who often employ people to drive around and pick up cheques - all time and money that can be saved by working smarter with technology. Ultimately, software such as this also means that users (Boards, vendors) can approve and receive funds from anywhere at any time - so your dream of having a remote beach-side office is one step closer to coming true!
There are many solutions out there that have identified a weakness or frustration within the industry; Nicholas suggested that all managers (and others) should “zone in on what kind of product, what kind of technology, what kind of service is right for you and your condo corporation . . . When you’re looking for technology, when you’re looking for a new product, there are a few tips that I’d like to give and try and help you with your search. The first is: does the technology actually solve the problem or is it in its infancy stage? Is it an idea? Is it actually formed yet? . . . Can you do a demo with that product [and] can you see what it actually does and assess if it is really good for you and is it going to solve the problem that it’s intended to?”
Secondly, Nicholas added that users should consider whether it is “a sustainable product? Is there a lot of competition on the market for this kind of product? . . . The third is bandwidth. Do you have the time to learn this platform? Does the platform give you training? Are you going to bang your head against the wall trying to figure out how to use the product?” Effectively using bandwidth may require consideration as to how several tools can be condensed within one platform - as long as that platform provides the right support to the user.
At this point, the session was turned over to Chris, who agreed that electronic payment processing was appreciated by vendors such as himself, who also want to work beach-side (we fully agree, Chris!). He also noted that this is the first time that The Condo Conference hosted a session devoted to technology, and that the crowd that the session gathered shows that “there is certainly demand for it from director’s perspectives, from the service providers, from the managers, the frontline managers and their firms. Everybody needs technology, and everybody’s needs are a little bit different”. Chris dove deeper into the use of technology for condo businesses by looking at tech selection and implementation, especially in recognition of “a personal productivity angle”, teamwork (what firms are doing for their teams), and board efficiency.
Chris shared his tips for selecting tech: “first of all, recognize what you need to find: identify something specific that’s bothering you, or that’s wasting a lot of your time, or that’s driving you bananas. Then, look at that and think about it. And here’s the next thing: it’s jumping to three. There’s no silver bullet, and the shiny objects that [claim to solve everything] - be wary! . . . [Consider:] does this thing do something specific? Is it something we can implement, that we can leverage, and that we can actually make effectively to help us move the needle? Here’s the other thing: in terms of moving the needle, you don’t need the silver bullet. It is probably sufficient if you just say ‘what can I do? Is it ok if this thing saves me 5-10 minutes a day? Remember, there’s five days in the week - seven for most condo managers of course! - and then four weeks a month”, and so on.
In the end, that little time savings you’re going to get adds up and moves the needle quite a bit over a year! Ultimately, that’s time you can use for other tasks (and we all know that there’s always plenty), or be used to achieve greater work-life balance by having more time with family, for hobbies, or vacations.
Chris reassured the audience that “you don’t need to change the world overnight - just a small incremental improvement in anything that you do”. He also reminded everyone to “be very specific and do your homework and your research, but as part of that research, look at what you’ve got right now. When you think of how many of you are using [programs such as] Microsoft Office or Google Suites, there is so much there, under the hood, that you’re already paying for that you probably didn’t even know can do scheduling, task planning, all these different things. [You] don’t need 10 different tools, [you] can use some of the stuff that [you’ve] already got [through] current subscriptions - so do take a look at your own tech”.
Furthermore, Chris suggested that, for those with a team (whether its colleagues in similar roles or if you’re in a leadership role), it’s important to ask people what the problems are, including what’s bogging everyone down the most, or a problem that persists on a regular basis? Talking about these problems and figuring out a plan to solve it is imperative in leadership roles, but it’s especially important to ensure that the solution fits the bill, which is achieved by keeping the team involved throughout the process.
In terms of implementation, tinkering is important and can include: live fire exercises to verify if the solution is robust enough, whether it’s intuitive, efficient, saves time, is cool or more of a hassle than it’s worth? “You actually have to invest the time in building it out and then learning how to use it and learning how to use it better in order to really reap the benefits of it”. Chris also stressed the importance of sharing knowledge about good software tools, which can be done at Managers Meetings or other similar venues that other contractors may use.
Chris finished with an excellent point: “technology has got to be a larger part of everything that we do because that’s the only way we can leverage our time and deal with the increasing regulatory burden, the time burden, and everything. It’s not the silver bullet, but it’s going to help. Share your successes, talk to your team, build out the tech and leverage it”!
When it was Ben’s turn to present, he acknowledged that this was the first in-person event that he’s spoken at in approximately three years… and exposed a little trade secret that occurred during webinars: “when people are giving presentations on webinars, they’re all cheating: they’re all reading speaker notes… you don’t even really have to know your material. Whereas here, you should probably have an idea about what you want to say”. We’re sure a lot of people will have “post-cheating” challenges as we reintegrate back into the “real world” post-covid, but for what it’s worth, we think all panelists did a great job at this seminar (even without a cheat sheet!). Ben complimented his co-panelists’ “wonderful broad perspective on the application of technology to Property Management”, and stated that his presentation is going to “focus a bit more on digital governance as it relates to owner meetings and boards”, which was mostly due to the pandemic having a “transformative impact on every industry”, including property management.
It’s important to understand what what this “transformative impact” means for the property management industry, thought of as “an industry that was skeptical of technology and was forced forward by the pandemic to embrace new technologies and new things that they would never have imagined”, ranging from package processing to bookings for amenities, and specifically governance meetings. As a result of the pandemic, “the number of condominiums and homeowner associations all across North America that are leveraging technology is increasing day over day”, therefore “there are states and provinces all over North America that are updating legislation to allow for electronic voting and virtual meetings almost on a monthly basis”.
Despite several states (ex: North Caroline) and provinces (ex: Alberta) that have recently passed permanent legislation, “Ontario seems to be kicking the can down until next year before deciding whether or not there’s going to be permanent change”, though the CAI North America believes that “almost one third of all condominiums and HOAs across North America have some form of bylaw that allows for electronic and virtual meetings” - meaning that “we are continuing to see strong growth in this area”.
Though yet unsure as to whether we're post-pandemic, Ben believes “we can all agree that the emergency aspect of the pandemic is over, but there are still lingering concerns. . . are we in a stage now where the technology for virtual meetings has proven that it’s better than the alternative in-person meeting, or are we still at a stage where the hangover from the pandemic is driving the need for virtual meetings?”
While he couldn’t choose which stage of the pandemic hangover we’re currently in at this point in time, Ben did state that “we’re certainly still seeing strong demand for virtual meetings and strong growth across the board”, which includes three dominant formats:
The “old school” in-person format,
The exclusively virtual format, and
The hybrid format (which has been a strong point of debate and discussion during the last year).
A “hybrid format” has “some combination of an electronic meeting held in conjunction with an in-person meeting, [where] the critical part is that all attendees and all voters need to have full ability to participate in simple motions in voting matters and in Q&A” - it is not just simply live streaming your meeting. While Ben did not originally think that hybrid meetings would have been the future, he stated that “the reality is that we’re going to go back to hybrid and people are going to want to go back to in-person”, noting the room full of in-person audience members that he was addressing. Therefore, he now stated “confidently that hybrid is the future”, evidenced by the fact that 5-10% of the meetings he attends are hybrid, and that number has been increasing.
For those considering hybrid meetings as the format of their corporation’s future, he suggested that the property managers is clear with vendors as to the meeting’s format type, and stressed that it is critical that hosts are able to “manage the in-person components of your attendance and making sure that it integrates seamlessly with your virtual component. Having a good handle of who’s in your room is (after audio-visual) the most critical part of hosting a hybrid meeting”, as is ensuring that you are treating in-person and virtual attendees equally (ex: when distributing motions, consider that half should come from the virtual audience and the other half from the in-person audience).
Ben also touched on the future of governance as it relates to electronic voting, and after noting that this may be a contentious point, he believes that “the intent of electronic voting amendments to The Act was to drive electronic voting in meetings as opposed to using it in advance”. Though he did not debate its application, noting that “there are several cases where an advanced vote as opposed to an advanced proxy may be beneficial”, Ben added that “the application of electronic voting, in our opinion, is to be used during meetings”. He believes that this can be done through a “BYOD” method - “bring your own device”. “We are looking forward to the day when voting is done instantaneously on your own smart devices, but you have to be able to accommodate for every single owner”, which may include supplying voting devices to owners who do not have their own smart devices, or having a kiosk.
Additionally, having a strong chairperson is paramount for hybrid meetings; the chairperson should not only attend the dress rehearsals, but also be “mindful of the differences of communicating to an audience over technology. It’s astounding!” Ben shared his top tips for hybrid meetings, which included:
ensuring that there’s a strong wifi connection in the room that you plan to host the meeting from,
having good audio-visual equipment (that may include a projector to tie the two audience types together) and using two sets of microphones so that both what the head table is saying and what the audience is asking may be recorded,
Offering voting at the meeting rather than exclusive proxy use prior, ensure that proxies are properly tabulated prior to the meeting, and that registration is appropriately conducted.
Ensuring that the recording is clear, in case it needs to be relied upon during contentious circumstances that may arise post-meeting.
Additional tips may be found on GetQuorum's active blog post "How to Run a Great Hybrid Annual General Meeting". Shifting away from Owner’s Meetings, Ben dove into Board Meetings, where the virtual trend is likely to continue.
Ben belieces the top reason to continue virtual meetings is likely for the property manager’s efficiency and lifestyle, remembering his “time on the board, when we’re going into the third hour of our board meeting and arguing about red, green, or blue colours on the wall. I look at my poor property manager that’s here, it’s 9:30 on a Tuesday night… why isn’t this person at home?”
Hosting virtual board meetings means there is “lots of opportunity to decrease costs and make it easier on vendors to participate, your regional managers to attend, and to make your meetings run a little bit more efficiently”.
One point of consideration for virtual Board Meetings revolves around whether they should be recorded. Recordings may catch some poor behaviour, so hosts should “make sure that everyone is aware [that they’re being recorded] and that you consulted your legal counsel”. As Ben is not a lawyer, he did not comment on whether recordings form a record of the corporation.
The session summed up with the panelists sharing some of their favourite tech-tools for efficiency (ex: expansion tools, screen grab and editing tools, and integration tools) before turning to the audience for a Q&A session.
We’re sure you’ll agree that this was an informative session with real-life applicability that we can all benefit from, so don’t hesitate to start identifying problems and exploring solutions until you find one that really, really works smart for you!