The Paperless Office

11 minute read

After years of talk about the paperless leasing office, some companies are finally making the jump. But to succeed, they’ll need to sell some key constituents on the change. Here’s how they’re doing it.

For Blue Ridge Cos., the process of going paperless has been a journey.

It started almost five years ago, when the High Point, N.C.–based company launched a paperless online-leasing campaign. By eliminating paper and encouraging prospects to use the resident portal, Blue Ridge was able to secure 85 percent absorption, though some of its communities are 95 percent to 100 percent paperless.

While increasing its online leasing rate to 85 percent portfolio-wide is a significant accomplishment for Blue Ridge, its Vice President of Portfolio Operations Gina Carter knows that bigger challenges lie ahead. The company’s goal is an entirely paperless onsite operation, with digital payments, work orders and invoices all processed electronically.

Blue Ridge isn’t alone. Whether they’re motivated by greater information security, cost savings, onsite efficiency or a desire to go green, many other apartment operators around the country want to eliminate paper onsite.

But getting there is easier said than done. To complete the paperless transition, apartment firms need to be able to sell the value to residents, suppliers and staff.

“To be successful, first of all, you need to have the right technology program,” says Vanessa Siebern, Vice President at FPI Management. “Then, you really need to get buy-in. If you don’t have buy-in from the site, you’re not going to be able to perform.”

While residents can be lured with raffles and other enticements, selling skeptical onsite staff—specifically maintenance—is a little harder. “I don’t like to just roll any initiative out and say, ‘This is what we’re doing and that’s how you have to do it,’ ” Carter says. “I like to explain why we’re doing it and embrace the buy-in.”

The consensus seems to be that stakeholder buy-in is critical if your company is going to successfully forgo paper. And through trial and error, executives have found methods that work.

Bringing Residents Along

Carter says that although many Baby Boomers have embraced Blue Ridge’s online technology platforms, she finds that the more mature demographic is where her staff spend the most time helping to set up email addresses and assisting with the online application process.

“We continue to train our associates to be the experts when it comes to assisting those who have questions and who will consistently monitor our procedures built around online leasing to ensure they’re as easy to understand as possible,” Carter says.

You can’t be truly paperless if your residents are paying with a check or money order. Yet, as Carter’s experience shows, bringing those residents, particularly older ones, into the world of online payments continues to stymie many apartment operators.

“It can be a culture change for people, especially if you have an [older demographic],” says Melissa L. Smith, Chief Administrative Officer for Fogelman Management Group.  “Some [seniors] don’t have emails; many have but are slower to trust new technologies and provide personal information.”

To help pull those residents into the paperless world, Fogelman has kept later office hours to help sign up reluctant customers and teach them about the resident portal. Still, some residents want to pay with money orders or through their own banks. “So, you still have to provide other payment options,” Smith says.

Greystar takes a variety of steps to encourage residents to use a paperless approach to leasing, which begins with the application process. “Our goal is to have 80 percent of our applicants start and complete the leasing process online,” says Stephanie Puryear Helling, Senior Director of Operations, Real Estate Strategic Services, for Greystar.

“Once applicants become residents, our goal is to have 90 percent or more of occupied apartment homes registered for the resident portal,” Puryear Helling continues. “[Our] portal provides a convenient platform for residents to quickly pay rent, sign renewals and submit service requests online 24/7. There’s also a social feature within the portal where residents can engage with one another and the community.”    

“If we notice that a resident is accessing the portal, there’s a greater probability that they’re going to participate in online billing and service requests,” adds Johanna Sheldon, Senior Director, Customer Success—Property Systems, at Greystar.

To encourage residents to create a portal account and lease online, Greystar adopted an electronic awards program. “If a resident completes certain activities, such as renewing their lease or paying rent online, they can obtain point values toward various incentives. The program engages our residents and incentivizes them to participate in online, paperless activities,” Puryear Helling says.

Greystar is focused on helping residents opt into e-bills to expedite recurring payment of items such as rent and utilities. The company now offers e-money orders, available across all property management software platforms and accessible to residents at over 22,000 retail locations nationwide.  

“The benefit of this approach is a more secure payment method for both the company and the resident, and it eliminates several steps, since the money is transferred into the resident’s account electronically from the retail location,” Puryear Helling says.

Carter wants Blue Ridge’s residents to pay online because, despite news reports of security breaches, she believes that customers’ personal information (and money) is better protected when they pay digitally than it is when they pay with “paper” funds.

To drive online payments, Blue Ridge launched a social media campaign April 1 to remind its residents that they can go online 24/7 and renew their lease, pay their rent and input a service request.

“We’re going to offer incentives, such as if you pay your rent online during the month of May, you’ll be entered in a drawing where you can win $500 or free rent for one month, depending on the community,” Carter says. “The second piece will be motivating residents to set up recurring payments, which could help double absorption.” 

The Supplier Conundrum

The paperless process doesn’t end with residents.

Blue Ridge wanted a paperless solution from order to invoice to help efficiently process supplier bills. “With a single portal, we’re able to control the pricing, the number of orders placed weekly and which vendors are used,” Carter says. “We can also layer in an approval workflow that helps alert supervisors of high-priced or overbudgeted purchases before they’re ordered.”

Capstone Real Estate Services sees great potential in adopting a platform with which suppliers can upload their invoices. “The purpose behind this is to avoid having our site teams manually receive invoices and enter them into the system,” says Tina West, Certified Property Manager, COO, for Capstone Real Estate Services.

In Blue Ridge’s system, suppliers can upload their invoices into the portal and then log in to see if the invoice has been approved or paid. Blue Ridge also wants to reduce the number of invoices it receives from its suppliers.

Carter says one example is carpet cleaning, where the service provider might send one invoice for every apartment they clean.

“When you think about it, if they clean 15 apartments in a week, [we’d have to process 15 invoices],” she says.

Getting a supplier to submit fewer invoices can be a challenge, but the program Blue Ridge uses charges vendors per invoice, so they’re more inclined to combine expenses and send fewer bills. 

“It forces the vendor to be more efficient in their [invoicing] and then reduces the number of invoices we process, as well as helps to eliminate duplicates,” Carter says. “We definitely receive questions and initial concerns as to why we’d want to move in this direction, but we explain to our vendors that we’re being progressive. Once the system is in place, they’ll see the benefits, too, including saving money on their end by not having to mail multiple invoices, not to mention quicker turnaround when receiving payments.”

Greystar has added e-invoicing to its paperless initiative with a goal of obtaining 80 percent or more invoices issued electronically from suppliers.

“A tremendous amount of paper is used for supplier and utility billing, so converting to e-invoices can make a positive impact on the environment,” says Sheldon. 

As has Blue Ridge, Greystar has found that going paperless also benefits its suppliers.

“E-invoicing eliminates paper invoices, postage costs and time spent correcting errors and tracking down payments,” Puryear Helling says. “Suppliers can reduce expenses and can, in many instances, get paid faster. Invoices are received instantly without the concern of lost paperwork. Suppliers can also review the payment status of invoices submitted.”  

Carter contends that fewer invoices also means greater accuracy, because suppliers are uploading the bills into their clients’ automated system, thereby eliminating the chance an invoice number will be input incorrectly, which can happen when they’re entered manually.

“We’ve been really successful, and our management software has complemented our aggressive approach,” Carter says.

‘Pulling Teeth’

Right now, 88 percent of Blue Ridge’s large suppliers are using the company’s automated invoicing system. To arrive at that point, however, the firm had to do more than get suppliers and onsite teams onboard. “We realize a big change like this takes a little time for complete buy-in, but Blue Ridge has really competitive employees and they’re always willing to rise to the next challenge,” Carter says.

When Blue Ridge adopted a paperless spend management system, the single-sign-on feature (one login for all vendor catalogs) was extremely important. “We wanted to make the process of going paperless as easy as possible for everyone, and we knew having a single sign-on would help, but this was something else ‘new’ that we had to train everyone how to use,” Carter says. “I guess, with growth and opportunity, there can still be times of resistance because we become so familiar with how things have always been.”  

Still, the company has overcome those challenges. “In order to push this change through quickly, we did have to enforce a few new procedures,” Carter says, “but we seem to be going strong now.”

Other companies have faced resistance from their maintenance teams.

“The maintenance guys have been a little bit harder to sell it to,” says Steve F. Hallsey, Managing Director for Wood Partners. “Nearly every company is using some sort of sophisticated purchasing program. As more companies have gone to this, we’re finding better-qualified maintenance people. But it’s still [like] pulling teeth to get them to use the systems.”

For some maintenance techs, their apprehension lies in going from paper to digital devices they must carry around. It’s a serious culture change.

“Some of the maintenance folks like having their big whiteboard [to track unit turns],” says Diane Batayeh, Village Green’s CEO. “They’re putting up all those units that needed to be made market ready on the board, collaborating with their team, looking at it every morning and tracking their progress. As we’re inputting data about maintenance jobs digitally, we’re not necessarily talking to one another.” 

To assuage maintenance fears about losing paper at Village Green, Batayeh told her teams they weren’t going to take legacy systems away from them. 

“You can continue to have your whiteboards, but we also expect you to know and use this digital platform,” she says. “Over time, I think what will happen is that they’ll get more and more accustomed to it and it will become less of an impediment and more of a habit, and they’ll recognize the benefits and efficiencies it drives.”

Greystar, too, has helped its maintenance teams reduce paperwork and complete service requests more efficiently through the use of new mobile technology. The goal is to have 90 percent of service requests completed using a mobile device and software applications.

“Our maintenance teams can quickly assign work orders in real time, open and close requests and monitor response times using mobile technology,” Puryear Helling says.

Owner Ambivalence

Fogelman plans to roll out a paperless system in its maintenance shops during the next year. But without paper ledgers, service technicians need a device, be it a tablet or even their phone. The question is, who pays for these devices?

“The technology is there, but we haven’t provided phones for every member of our service team,” Smith says. “There’s a cost that has to be incurred for those purchases and we have to get our clients on board.”

FPI, too, is dealing with this issue. Right now, the company is in the testing phase of a program that enables maintenance staff to input all of their data through their smartphones. 

“There are cost issues, especially when you get to larger buildings that have multiple maintenance staff members,” Siebern says. 

While some owners continue to resist going paperless, Batayeh has found a way to sell the transition to those who are ambivalent.

“Some owners like paper and other owners love the thought of paperless,” Batayeh says. “The way we’ve sold it to those on the fence is the ease of access to information. There’s total transparency with paperless. When they need something, they have immediate access to it.”

Batayeh says having a shared data storage source with clients has increased Village Green’s efficiencies “tenfold.”

Delese Noble, Director, Construction Administration and Accounting, Pinnacle, says the transparency and visibility not only enables her associates and her clients to have access to everything in real time.

Onsite Acceptance

Once you’ve sold your residents, suppliers, investors and maintenance team members on the virtue of going paperless, convincing managers and leasing staff to come aboard becomes relatively easy. In fact, when changing systems, apartment executives often find that managers and leasing staff welcome the conversion to paperless. 

“There’s more of a process when they get the paper applications because they have to take that information and put it into the system themselves,” Siebern says. “Without paper, it’s easier.”

Capstone’s West sees a similar reaction. “The onsite team is generally pretty receptive to going paperless,” she says. “I think there’s some fear with learning new technology, but for the most part, you don’t get pushback or resistance from managers when it comes to automating the processes and reducing the time with paper.”

Greystar provides its team members with ongoing training and a variety of tools and resources to help support adoption of paperless systems.

“We focus on rewarding community teams and regional property managers whose portfolios have had the highest level of participation with their residents,” Puryear Helling says. “We’ve implemented a monthly promotional campaign with tools, marketing campaigns and resident-facing collateral that can be used to promote all the benefits of paperless activities to applicants and residents.”

If there are issues, training can help. To get Blue Ridge’s communities on board, Carter personally conducted training with every community manager, assistant manager and service manager in the company’s portfolio.

But Wood Partners’ Hallsey, like Batayeh and Siebern, finds it’s fairly easy to convince office staff to go paperless. In fact, in their world, it’s almost expected.

“The generation that’s doing our leasing right now has grown up with the tablets we use for leasing,” Hallsey says. “You actually look archaic if you don’t have this technology available for them.”

To read more on paperless related articles: A Customer Service Enhancement? and Going Paperless: Lessons Learned.