The term “digital divide” is often used to describe the differences between people who have access to computers and technology and those who do not. For community associations, however, the digital divide is the gap between the capabilities of the electronic world and the management needs of the physical world. In a culture where people recreationally experience very realistic virtual societies via Minecraft and Fortnite, it can come as a shock to community residents that maintaining physical buildings and infrastructure takes so much time, money and real human attention. How does a community leverage the best of technology while understanding its limits in providing actual services? And how does a manager address data creep in such a way that technology is an economical tool and not a trap of task-creep quicksand? This issue of Quorum will explore many of the different ways that technology is changing the business of community management. It is possible that this article will raise more questions than it answers, but it is hoped that you will have a new perspective on a variety of issues.
Isn’t There An App For That?
As technology has spread into every facet of American life, it has encroached into community amenities and services, too – from sensor-activated lights and toilets in the community centers to computer-controlled ventilation in condo stairwells and the automatic regulation of pool chemicals. Vendors are using computerized work order and invoice systems; insurance companies, auditors, and government agencies are requesting information to be transmitted and manipulated digitally. It has become more and more normal for us to expect that there is a technology solution for every problem. The speed and efficiency of information transfer through texts, email and websites means that resident requests can be transmitted to management and contractors almost instantly. Residents have even proposed that covenant inspections be performed using Google Earth or drone footage. It seems like a small leap to see if the federal government will lease time on spy satellites so that managers never have to leave their desks to check a home’s shutter color. It can be a challenge for a manager to evaluate technology and determine what is best for an association. Every new app carries a cost, and it is the job of management to determine whether the costs outweigh the benefits.
Respecting Resident Expectations
Residents tend to fall into two general groups: (1) older people who matured in a world of TVs with knobs, and (2) those younger ones whose coffee machines have more computing power than the Apollo 13.
The older crowd is often most interested in cost containment through technology than improved services. Many are planning to age in place with fixed incomes. They want community assessments to stay as low as possible and those who have spent some time around computers instinctively feel that technology may have the answers. They are prepared to wade through complicated spreadsheets that can be generated with Microsoft products, and they often request more information and more analysis because they feel that it is easier than ever to develop. This can lead to a situation where a manager is tasked with providing even more data because, with Google, we can get more data – even if an experienced manager does not feel that more research is really necessary. Managers find themselves having to defend practices and policies in a world where Wikipedia seems to have more expertise than the person who has actually been running the community for a decade.
On the other hand, the younger crowd are today’s first-time homebuyers. They have embraced technology in every aspect of their lives – they put the individual “i” into iPod, iPad, i-everything. This group, “digital natives,” wants information and they want it immediately, but they also want it provided in 140-character increments. If information can’t be simplified to fit into the size of a cell phone screen, they often don’t want to deal with it. They have 500 Facebook friends but don’t know their neighbors well enough to ask them to bring in a trash can if they are out of town on trash day.
Residents who have moved fully into the world of telework and information technology can present special challenges for management. Home-based offices are popular, but home-based workers are often troubled by the sounds and sights of routine maintenance that happen during the work-day: “The maintenance crew is pruning the shrubs while I’m trying to work!” or “I can’t hear my teleconference over the sound of the leaf blowers!” And, heaven help us if the cable goes out in the neighborhood – telecommuters need an uninterrupted flow of data and are quick to blame management if that flow is blocked for some reason.
Other physical impacts of the digital age are the problems associated with the on-demand home-delivery economy. As recently as 30 years ago, the Amazon was just a river in Brazil, but today it is a global commodity provider. Suddenly, streets and alleys that were big enough for your average sedan are the cause of complaint from dozens of delivery truck drivers who just can’t make that turn. Trees need to be pruned higher to accommodate the height of the trucks. Add in a snow pile here or there or trash day and we basically have Armageddon.
Finally, there are issues of security and access. With the spread of palm-sized doorbell cameras, as well as community building security cameras, residents are receiving more information about what is happening in and around their property, and requiring more information, too. Some residents of high-density areas are concerned that their own conversations and actions could be picked up on their neighbors’ Ring camera. Access tokens or cards for lobbies, pools, fitness centers, parking garages, and other community amenities create their own set of challenges when it comes to issuing, renewing, maintaining or terminating privileges.
The management role, as noted above, is to focus on the balance between the benefits of technology and its cost. There is no question that over the past few years in the realm of community management, there are a variety of new tools that integrate resident information, payment histories, requests for services, work reports, etc. Managers and residents alike can be tempted by the attraction and convenience of software, but the reality of performance and the learning curve(s) needed to optimize the technology can be daunting.
The technology journey does not always end the way a manager expects. For example, certain covenant inspection software products can be utilized on an iPad or a cell phone while in the field, and a management company invested in iPads for its staff because of the larger screens and ease of use. It was soon discovered that a manager with an iPad in the community became a target for residents who wanted to talk about violations and community issues – thus extending the time needed to perform an inspection, whereas a manager holding a cell phone was just another person wandering around with a cell phone, and thus not subject to the same level of potentially negative interaction with residents. Who could have foreseen that even with its more limited screen size and function, the cell phone would be a better inspection tool than the iPad?
And, who remembers the dream of the paperless office? With the ease of generating documents, more reports are being created and disseminated than ever. Cloud storage and servers are finally taking the place of more physical file cabinets, but paper files on each individual home and community feature are still part of management contracts, and so office supply stores are still making money selling folders, labels, and tabs.
Technology provides new ways for residents to access board meetings and records. Some boards are moving toward virtual board meetings where the board and residents can call into a conference number. As the desire to meet from the convenience of an office, living room, or drinking establishment increases, the very nature and definition of “meeting” is starting to change.
Are we approaching the time when a board meeting can be scheduled during lunch hour instead of after business hours? Does a meeting require an actual physical address? Can everyone, including the manager, just call in? Should a meeting be broadcast, live streamed through Facebook, Twittered, or otherwise recorded? How will audio and video recordings of a meeting be treated in conjunction with minutes and the formal “paperwork” that has been the norm for a century of HOA management? The review of books and records is also set to transform, as many records are now never printed – so how does a resident have an opportunity to look at them as a book and record of the association? Some managers are printing out electronic records to comply with resident document requests and then charging for copies of the documents that would otherwise not exist on paper; others are requiring interested residents to view documents on computer screens so that electronic documents need not be printed. Anything that used to be on paper can now be just easily created, manipulated and stored electronically if resources permit.
IT in IRL
The essential competency of community managers is managing the real world. Information Technology offers tools that will and must change the way communities are managed. Individual communities will need to examine their own acceptance of these technologies, and their associated costs and benefits.
By Aimee Winegar, CMCA, AMS, LSM, PCAM
Aimee has worked in the field of community management for 30 years. She is currently a large-scale manager for Community Association Services, Inc. in Frederick, MD. She sits on the Quorum Editorial Committee of WMCCAI and is co-chair of the WMCCAI Maryland Legislative Committee.