Why and How to Take Your Office Paperless
From applications to leases to rent payments, the multifamily housing industry is going paperless. Three people who know what it takes to get there share their thoughts.
A paperless office — and an entirely paper-free community — might sound like the future, but it’s actually the here and now.
Paperless processes exist for applications and leases, rent payments, community notices, move-in/move-out inspections and service requests — any communication and documentation you need from and for your residents can be made available online. When that happens, the risk of fraud and errors decreases, and employees save time, which means the company saves money.
Moving all of these tasks online isn’t necessarily hard, but it does require an investment in technology and training — and patience.
What Are the Benefits?
Alexis Vance, vice president of sales and marketing at Alliance Residential Company, sees online applications and leases cutting down on user error. “Before, we were hand-keying information. When we are able to automate it, not only is there the time savings, but the accuracy of your information is improved.”
Going paperless for rent payment — moving residents to paying online — can also help with fraud prevention. “I’ve read some reports just this year that people are learning when the bags are being taken to the bank and they are watching the drop box,” says Michael Wise, director of marketing and leasing with property management company RAM Partners LLC. “So if the client is willing, we’ve removed or sealed up the drop boxes,” Wise says.
Eliminating rent checks has other benefit as well. Chase Harrington, chief strategy officer with management software company Property Solutions, says his company’s clients average a 50 percent decrease in delinquencies and a 65 decrease in the time staff members spend processing payments.
Harrington also touts the time-saving capabilities of going paperless. He says staff at the Cardinal Group’s student-housing communities have cut the time to fill out a traditional lease from 25 minutes to less than 5 minutes by making it an online process. Because the leasing season is tight in student housing, this helps with the crunch.
Finally, Vance says that once Alliance moved from paper to tablets, community employees were better able to interact with and inform potential residents. “Now you can truly customize the experience around your customer - we can share details around their particular interests, share our favorite neighborhood hotspots and provide on-the-spot follow up. Understanding the impact a paperless approach has on the customer experience is critical to successfully integrating the initiative into your service strategy."
When processes change, employees as well as residents can be resistant. “It’s a shift in mentality. That’s the largest challenge,” says Harrington. “You’ve really got to champion it and find individuals who see that it’s better to let go of the paper.”
Proper employee training can go a long way in helping staff members make this shift. “We did a lot of staff training, webinars, hand-holding,” Wise says. “The assistant managers can get nervous because they have the little box they play in, but we want them out there doing what they do best. They are people-oriented, great at getting leases. Then, we shove them in a room, shut the door and tell them to count checks.”
But at Alliance, Vance says that employee adoption of paperless procedures has been positive because it's an initiative embraced at all levels of the organization. She has, however, had to work through several hurdles, such as the initial investment and system integrations. For example, the platforms for the online application, screening program and payment solution must all interact seamlessly when various providers are involved.
Wise has seen similar issues: “You take paper away and it can get hairy sometimes. Different types of software don’t speak to one another, or there’s a glitch.”
Long-time residents can sometimes be resistant to paperless processes, particularly when paying rent online. Though, in the end, both Wise and Vance have found it’s not that difficult to get them on board.
Vance says that in some of Alliance’s more traditional markets, the company moved to paperless a little slower. “We were very conscious of the audience themselves and if they’d be open to it,” she says. “We ran parallel with print pieces and legacy solutions for a while, but, eventually, we were absolutely able to make the shift to paperless. They aren’t walking into the office with a service request; they’re doing it online, or they’re chatting [online] with us.”
At RAM Partners’ properties, Wise says his teams generate a temporary username and password for residents to nudge them online, particularly for rent payment. “If paying online is easy, then getting them set up to pay online has to be equally easy,” he says.
While going paperless can free up community employees to interact with residents, the bigger reason to do it is that it’s what an increasing number of residents want. “We see the student demographic embracing it wholeheartedly,” Harrington says. “When they go into these conventional communities to rent, they now have an expectation of paperless.”
Harrington, Vance and Wise will share more tips for how to transition to a paperless community during “The Paperless Office: The Journey from Theory to Reality” session at the 2015 NAA Education Conference & Exposition, June 24-27, in Las Vegas.