Posted by Merrie Turner Lightner, Esq. on Wednesday, March 9, 2011
How we created an “almost” paperless property management office
In truth, the “paperless office” was just another dot.com fantasy promise. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t cut down on our paper use, and there’s never been a better time to Green your office. Today, the Internet, cloud computing, better software and hardware and lower costs have aligned to help business reduce their paper-print on the world, while improving work product.
With 26 years as a professional property manager (www.LightnerGroup.com), I spent years working to keep our overhead low and our efficiency high. Having started our business in the early 80s, we had the benefit of launching LPG at the same time the personal computer became an affordable small business tool in the Bay Area where technology has always been seen as part of the solution, regardless of the problem. We began Lightner Property Group with the benefits of computerized accounting, computerized property management files, and a computerized lease, which could be modified at will. We were networked as soon as we had two computers.
But this reliance on technology has come with a price. Because technology has grown up with us, rather than before us, we have been forced to make decisions to rely upon a technology before the market was given sufficient time for one path or another to win the marketplace.
Case in point – the cable wars. There was a time when Ethernet cable had not yet won the hearts and computer ports of the technology world. There was a time when a technology named token-ring by IBM had equal footing with Ethernet. Token-ring was a faster and more reliable technology according to those “in the know”. In reliance on that information, Lightner Property Group made the decision to invest in token ring, a more expensive and larger footprint technology. End result: bad decision. Token-ring is now part of technology history right next to film camcorders and 8-track tapes.
That process of competing and mutually exclusive technologies has been played out in a multitude of areas since the 80s. We’ve seen it most recently in CD technology, e-readers and phones. Many unanswered technology questions remain to be answered. So, how do you make informed and economically reasonable business decisions, while maintaining a cutting edge footprint? By taking advantage of the trial and error of others in your field.
There are many articles, such as this one, which will provide you years’ worth of information and experience for the sole investment of 15 minutes of reading time. There is no better investment you can make and no better return on investment to be achieved.
Recently we made the decision to reduce our paper print, as well as create a work-flow that was transparent and as fool-proof as we could design. We were interested in reducing our costs, greening our office, and reducing our risk as a company which operates in a highly litigious environment and business arena.
Two years of trial and error resulted in a shared working platform that’s efficient, transparent, includes task redundancy, is easy to use, flexible and almost paperless. Grueling as it was, we achieved our objective.
In the end we developed a powerhouse of tightly integrated, supportive and redundantly designed tools. Our tools are client-centric, while aligned with company policies. And each element of this electronic equation is essential to the ultimate success of our almost paperless office.
Shared Virtual Workspaces
The skeleton of our virtual workspace is Central Desktop (“CD”) (www.CentralDesktop.com ). Lightner Property Group creates a private, password-protected Internet workspace for each client and then invites the client and client approved vendors (generally attorneys and CPA’s) –– to use this highly supportive and collaborative tool.
Email reports and discussions are posted in this virtual workspace instead of cluttering and becoming lost in individual mailboxes. Conversation threads are found and can be viewed in a single location, rather than opening and closing a dozen email messages. A centralized location for files, discussions, databases and task lists allows Lightner Property Group clients and vendors to access essential data and information – 24x7x365 with only a web browser and internet connection. Clients have access to their historical and current building financial information in a single location. They do not need to gather and store documents and information, as that is done by the system, automatically. Historical information is as accessible as current information and will remain that way.
Lightner Property Group benefits as well. Electronically executed lease documents are uploaded just once and reside in a secure virtual library, hugely reducing paper waste and the time required to make repetitive paper copies. Team members can even create and revise Word and Excel documents stored on the Central Desktop site, from directly within Microsoft Office. Users document and organize, link and reorganize their research. They can also create custom databases for storing information, and stream-lining the workflow of their business information documentation.
Important too, Central Desktop provides a time ticket function for billing purposes, as well as a calendaring system that’s tightly integrated with Microsoft Outlook, allowing staff and clients to maintain a single calendaring system. These are just a few of the available built-in tools for day-to-day usage. Because Central Desktop is very flexible, we can customize each client’s virtual workspace on a case-by-case basis.
Lightner Property Group staff and clients enjoy the benefits of teamwork without distracting complexities. And they save paper, time and money in the process!
Because case documents are often transmitted using Portable Document Format (“PDF”) technology, it is essential to have a tool to create and manipulate PDFs. While most people use Adobe software, it is also expensive and a known resource hog. If you are in the market for a PDF alternative, we have found FoxIt Phantom (www.foxitsoftware.com ) to be a cost-effective and computer-resource-friendly alternative.
The iPad Revolution
If there is one personal device I think every property manager should have, it’s Apple’s iPad. The iPad allows me to read, highlight and annotate financial statements and reports just as if I was reading them on a piece of paper with pen in hand. I can also create research notes writing with either a keyboard or in handwriting. My iPad also allows me to take notes during site visits, just as if I were using a pad of paper. Though a bit heavy, it is the perfect size. Within a year or two, I expect that all of our resident managers will operate with iPads. They will enter the results of their daily building inspection as they conduct the inspection, rather than waiting until they are back in their home office. Leases will be signed on an iPad, in the apartment unit. Marketing materials will be reviewed on an iPad or electronic picture frame that is left within the available apartment unit.
A few apps that make the iPad truly useful include Penultimate, Noterize, Noteshelf and iAnnotate. These applications are particularly helpful for building notes and PDF review. Not all of the iPad tools are created equally. Finding an app that allows for smooth writing is a feature that is particularly troublesome to locate. Penultimate and Noterize are two apps that have been able to successfully master the feel of writing so that it is comfortable and reminiscent of actual writing.
Forms are king in property management. Property managers need information documented in a consistent fashion. Many of us are buried in paper forms that are mailed or faxed, or even scanned and emailed only to be printed out again. A couple of apps not only allow PDF document review but will also allow you to create forms as PDFs and then complete the form by hand, using your finger or a stylus.
For research, the key apps include File Browser, Good Reader, Evernote (a must-have) and DropBox (a must-must-have) for file access. DropBox installs on each of your computers and devices, making files in the DropBox accessible on each of them. Other useful apps include QuickOffice, Index Card (for case development brainstorming), DocuSign (for contract signatures), Popplet, iThoughtsHD, GoToMeeting and iBooks.
Pen or Stylus?
Handwriting in a paper-free world necessitates new writing instruments. Unfortunately, there are few decent choices right now. I keep wondering why one of the high-end producers (Mont Blanc where are you?) hasn’t heard the call for a high-end stylus for those of us who enjoy the process of physically writing.
As the price of styluses is relatively low, I recommend you purchase one of each of the most often used products, experimenting until you find the stylus best for you. My favorite for now is the Pogo, but this is a highly subjective purchase and only trial and error will lead you to the right instrument for you.
The Kindle isn’t a Second Choice
There are times when the iPad is not as user-friendly as the Kindle. I find the Kindle is better for al fresco reading, longer reading sessions and for reading unplugged and disconnected. It also weighs less. If you know you will have some down time, toss the Kindle in your purse and you can be reading anywhere. Of course, you can always combine the two, using the Amazon app on your iPad to transfer your Kindle’s documents and books to the iPad.
Electronic Signatures Made Easy
Lightner Property Group has for a long time used DocuSign for electronic lease signing. E-signatures are faster, far more convenient, easier to collect and nearly fool-proof.
I can’t count the number of times we’ve had to ask for physical documents to be resigned. Thankfully, DocuSign doesn’t allow an incomplete or incorrect signing job. DocuSign offers an iPad app and can be used on a smart phone, making it even more convenient.
This means case contracts are fully and accurately signed within days not weeks, and staff is free to focus on what counts – client support and customer service.
You don’t have to Re-create the Wheel
A firm’s selection of technology partners is as important as its hiring decisions, but the vetting process takes a lot of time and trial. Thinking about it, I realize that Lightner Property Group has been heading in this direction and perfecting our toolbox of procedures and tools for decades, with a load of questionable decisions and detours along the way.
Save yourself the struggle and take advantage of the lessons we’ve learned.
What lessens have you learned? What advice can you share?
Ms. Lightner is an attorney who’s managed both commercial and rent-controlled residential income properties since 1984. She served as a Rent Board Commissioner in San Francisco for twelve years. Her unique qualifications have been sharpened by fifteen years' experience in deposition and trial.