Last modified on May 21st, 2020

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has created some serious challenges, it has also ushered in a new era for community association management by bringing people and processes online, a change that will likely prove to be permanent. 

Many individual managers, boards, and companies have already seen positive short-term impacts as a result of implementing new technology and improving their business processes. But which of those changes are here to stay?

To answer that question, Beth Gilbert, who is the Senior Director of the Community Association Market at AppFolio, interviewed community association aficionado Cat Carmichael.   

With a 30-year background in community association management and financial services, Cat is the CEO of Strategy 123, a community association consulting firm, as well as the Immediate Past President of the Board of Trustees of CAI (Community Associations Institute). 

Listen to her interview with Beth to find out what long-term changes may be in store for the community association industry as a whole.

  • “Progress comes when people stop saying, ‘But we’ve always done it that way,’ and start saying, ‘Now there is a better way, and we’re not going to go back.’”
    Due to limitations on in-person interactions from COVID-19, many community associations have been forced to experiment, whether that means embracing new technology or updating inefficient business processes. Cat predicts that many of those changes will prove to be beneficial enough that they become a permanent way of doing business.
  • “Frankly I think the front desk is going to go away. I don’t think that management companies are going to let people drop off paper checks anymore or come in and fill out an application to rent a clubhouse. I think those services are obsolete. They’re gone because we have a better way of doing things.”
    Community associations exist to provide value to homeowners and residents, which means that service will always be a priority. But because of COVID-19, the way in which these services are performed has shifted away from in-person and towards online channels. Cat predicts these online services and transactions will prove to be far more convenient and stick around in the long run.
  • “Board members, if your governing documents restrict your freedom and flexibility to use online tools to conduct business, change them. That is well within your ability.”
    Cat pointed out that many associations have governing documents that were written well in the past, before the technology we have today was available. Online payments, online voting, or even online board meetings weren’t possible when these documents were drafted — so it may be necessary for boards to amend them so they can take advantage of the benefits offered by technology.
  • “There were many companies who were better prepared going into this.. because they made investments early on. But it’s not too late for the companies who didn’t. If they’re not the leaders in these types of things, they certainly have ample evidence that it’s now time to follow.”
    Not every company chooses to be an early adopter of technology. Some prefer to wait and see how the industry widely adopts new innovations before making changes to their business processes. But according to Cat, the time to adopt technology that allows critical community association processes to be carried out online is now.
  • “You’ve got to lead with courage, you’ve got to lead with conviction, and you have to lead with fairness and reasonableness. And do it empathetically. I believe our industry will come out better in the long run.”
    Since everyone has been personally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for empathy amongst community members, boards, and managers has never been greater. Throughout the interview, Cat offers words of wisdom for those who have stepped up to provide leadership during these times.


Episode Transcript

This interview has been edited for length & clarity.

Beth: Hi Cat, thanks so much for being here with me today. I’m so excited to spend some time and talk with you about what you’re seeing out in the industry today. Tell us a little about your background in the association management industry space, and then we’ll get started with our questions.

Cat:  All right, sounds great. Thank you very much. First, I wanted to thank you for allowing me to lend my voice to this conversation. There has been so much great information that other thinkers and subject matter experts have brought to make us all better and help us get through this, and I feel that this service for our listeners is super important. 

I am a community association aficionado. I have been serving the community association industry for about 30 or so years and I have a background in community association management and financial services for community associations. I take my roles very seriously in that regard and I am currently serving in a national leadership position on the board of trustees for the Community Associations Institute.

Beth: Yes, you definitely have a wealth of experience that I think is going to be so valuable in our discussion today. Let’s spend a little bit of time talking about the impact that COVID-19 has had on the community association industry. How have you seen the industry impacted?

Cat: Well, first of all, the beautiful thing about this industry is that we are extremely resilient. Service to community associations has proven its lasting value and importance under the best and under the most challenging of circumstances. So at its core, there’s always a need for professionals and volunteers to contribute to a community to make it great. Those are the things that will never change, which is why as you know, most new developments are in planned communities. 

But what has changed is the way in which services are performed. There is an understanding that you must be able to pivot. This shared crisis showed that management can take many, many forms and can be effective no matter what we used to do. Progress comes when people stop saying, “But we’ve always done it that way,” and start saying, “Now there is a better way and we’re not going to go back.”

To me, the biggest impact to our industry is the loss of the person to person network. Our industry thrives when we share information and learn from each other in person. With conferences canceled, educational lunches canceled, or member training postponed, we have to figure out a way to protect our industry’s greatest asset, which is the power of the network of the people who work in it.

Beth: Have you seen some shifts occurring that allow us to overcome some of those hurdles that you just mentioned? Without the face to face time, and without the connection with industry events, what’s shifted that has helped us through this do you think?

Cat: Well, I think one of the best things is just the incredible access to information. People who previously held these types of seminars and conferences have just put it all out there. There are ways through CAI, through our law firms… through our business partners, that information is available for free to all those who seek it. And that type of connection has made some people even have a higher profile than they may have had before, because they’re publishing every day or they’re doing webinars every week. That’s just what we have to do and we have to keep ourselves connected to the people who need to be served by us and who need to learn. 

Beth:  Absolutely. That’s great. What do you think has been the biggest learning for the industry by going through this?

Cat: Well, as I said we have a very resilient industry. Managers and homeowner leaders have always been great at responding to a crisis, whether it’s a natural disaster or an economic one. But I think the greatest thing we’ve learned is that we must be flexible. There’s no room for rigidity anymore. This is not the way it used to be. So we have to be able to figure out a way to take care of our properties, not from a desk and not being able to go out and see them. It’s really tough for managers who can’t go visit their communities and their buildings, but they’ve figured out a way to do it by using each other, by using technology, by using video, by using a number of other things that have kept the business of the association going forward while taking care of the people who live in the association.

Beth: Once this crisis is behind us, how do you see it impacting or changing the association management industry next year and beyond or even later this year for that matter?

Cat: Well, that’s the great news. The feedback from people who have had to change, and found new ways of doing business, has been overwhelmingly positive. Some of the changes I believe are going to be permanent. One of the most obvious changes is going to be how we work the physical space of our communities. Out of our offices. There’s going to need to be a redesign of office arrangements to allow for physical distancing. More people working from home have proved that it’s equally effective to manage communities that way. There’s some roles within a management company that don’t lend itself as well to remote work, like doing property tours or doing architectural work, but there’s some things that you can do like check writing and invoice approval. If you’ve got an online AP tool, those can be done remotely as well. 

There’s a lot of other practical innovations that management companies have had. They’re staggering their start to work again workforce. Some people work Monday, Wednesday, some people work Tuesday, Thursday. They are changing how office space is shared so that they don’t need as much office space anymore. I think that that’s going to be a permanent change. There’s also going to be some change to roles that community management professionals play as we realize that some jobs have become obsolete. So CEOs are starting to have to retrain those workers to do other types of services for community associations. And frankly I think the front desk is going to go away. I don’t think that management companies are going to let people drop off paper checks anymore or come in and fill out an application to rent a clubhouse. I think those services are obsolete. And I think they’re gone because we have a better way of doing things.

The second biggest request, or the second biggest change that I see — this is my personal plea to all of our elected officials — please make the necessary changes to the laws in the state where you’ve been elected to match the current state of affairs. We know how effective it has been using some of these tools to manage community associations, yet laws on the books still insist that people receive paper ballots or that they meet in person at a physical location. That’s just not the way the world is operating anymore. So I have a dual plea here. First to board members. Board members, if your governing documents restrict your freedom and flexibility to use some of these online tools together and to conduct business, change it. That is well within your ability. Legislators, I know you’re busy. I know you’ve got budgets that you’ve got to change, I know all those things have to happen, but we’ve now proved what the future is. Fix the laws so that we can operate in a manner that makes common sense for the community.

Beth:  Are you seeing communities already changing in this direction, Cat?

Cat: Absolutely. Once community board members learn that there’s a better way to do things, and yet it’s their own governing documents that could be standing in their way, they want to make it better than they got it. With all due respect to the people who wrote the documents in the ’90s or ’80s when the communities were formed, they didn’t know you’d be able to tap your phone in a couple of places and make a payment. They just didn’t understand this stuff. But now we’ve proved that it’s right and this is the easiest thing that communities can control. And as long as the law doesn’t stop them from doing these things, I’d say invest in making those changes so that you can have the freedom of choice to manage your community the way you see best.

Beth:  And what you’re actually saying is so true for any industry. This transcends all industries. We’ve all had to think about how to do work differently in light of this, and leverage tools that we may not have used before, and the same goes for this industry.

Cat: I completely agree. And I’m hopeful that there’s one more thing that this change has left behind and that’s empathy. You have to have empathy for one another and an understanding of what we’ve all gone through and that goes back to the community association and its culture. You can be reasonable when it comes to rules enforcement, and you can be reasonable when it comes to assessment collection. These are humans who’ve just gone through a trauma. There’s some stress associated with that.

Please lead with heart, please be empathetic. I honestly hope that people’s patience and empathy stays as we come out of this on the other side.

Beth:   That’s so great. I love that Cat. The empathy side of this is so true. We’re all living this. This is not just one part of the country, or even just the United States. It’s everywhere. And that’s something that we have to think about. This is real. 

Cat: That’s exactly right. We have to rush. We normally would rush in to help victims of an economic or a natural disaster like a hurricane, and yet we’re all having to rush in together. But you’re right, it is a common understanding and a common shared experience that I’m hopeful would lead to greater empathy.

Beth:  Absolutely. You mentioned technology in this and thinking about ways of doing things differently. How do you see the relationship between association management professionals and technology changing or evolving?

Cat: Well, we all know now that there are better ways to use technology to manage community associations and this is where the rubber really meets the road. There were many companies who were better prepared going into this than others and so they were able to respond quickly with a lot less stress, but that was because they made investments early on, but it’s not too late for the companies who didn’t. If they’re not the leaders in these types of things, they certainly have ample evidence that it’s now time to follow.

So I think that technology is more affordable than it’s been. It’s accessible to everyone. So let’s just talk about a couple of things that have changed and I’m hopeful for the better. Conducting board meetings online. Nearly everyone has learned how to do this. 

Smartphone apps and using text messaging — everyone lives on their phone, and conducting business this way’s easy too. As I said before, you could touch your phone in a couple of places, you’ve made a payment, touch your phone in a couple of places, you’ve cast a vote, touch your phone in a couple of places, you’ve requested maintenance. I mean that’s just the way the world operates now.

There’s online communication with your board, there’s excellent assessment and delinquency collection platforms, there’s online socializing. You can even send a message from your phone to a printer and have them print and mail a letter. That stuff is irrefutably better for everybody and I’m hopeful that that’s a change that stays as well. That list could go on and on.

Beth:  Right. Those are great examples and I’ve been hearing so much about the board meeting side of it, and how to keep those going and ensuring that the proper decisions are being made in communities right now. Moving onto online platforms has served very well for that. And I think it’s also offered some benefits for the management company, for their staff to be more present and be able to participate, without having to be disruptive for their own personal lives, right?

Cat: I think that’s exactly it. I mean, right? The bane of our industry is night meetings. It is. Nobody likes them, especially professional managers. We can have meetings, not only virtual, but during the day, just like everyone else attends webinars and seminars and is listening to this one. Community association management is super fun. It is a great profession. It is so fulfilling to take care of communities and enhance the value of homes and those types of things, but working a full day and then going to a meeting at night where those people are starting to socialize, it takes the business component out of it and it’s tough to get it back.

But when you are online, you’re sticking to your agenda. The person who has the floor has the floor. I personally logged into my own board meeting for my association last week for the first time, and I’ve lived here for over a year. And that’s because of what you just said. It was easy for homeowners to participate and listen, it makes them better customers because they’re better informed, and makes the manager’s experience better. Bravo to those folks who invented the online meeting tools and taught people how to do it.

Beth:  Absolutely. That’s so great. So what is one practice or habit that has made you more successful in working through this uncertainty?

Cat: There’s no doubt it’s been continual learning. You’ve got to be a lifelong learner, not only in this profession, but in this crisis. There are so many smart, strong voices that are coming from all over the country and the willingness to share information has been unbelievable for me. I take it, I process it, I share it with my clients. I just shared some reopening best practices from a friend of mine from New Jersey yesterday. I wouldn’t have known that he had created something so cool, but because we have this relationship and I was hungry to learn it, he happily gave it to me and I’ve already shared it with someone else. So continual learning. Spend an hour a day picking the webinars that you think are going to bring the most information. Read the article, download the blogs, read LinkedIn. There’s so many amazing sources. Not everyone’s viewpoint is going to align with yours, but that’s what conversation is all about. It opens the mind and it opens the door as to doing things better and differently.

Beth:  That’s so true Cat. I think one of the things that’s just been so prevalent right now is everyone wants to learn what everyone else is doing to figure out could it work best for them. So you’re right, the learning of this time, no one’s an expert of how to go through this. So we’re all taking our experiences and trying to piece it together to take nuggets of what they can introduce or what they can try.

Cat: That’s 100% right. What we thought a week ago is different. So you’re not one and done when it comes to learning and you’re not one and done when it comes to sharing knowledge. We are figuring this out, but we are figuring it out, that’s the cool thing about it. The brain trust of this profession is amazing and I just keep learning every single day something new.

Beth:  That’s so great. If you could share one piece of advice or tip to association management professionals, what would it be?

Cat: Well of course we all know we are going to get through this. We do know that. We will come out of this, I’m hopeful, in a smarter, wiser, better place. But the most important thing I think that our management professionals need to do is really model the way. They have to show people how to do this great. And they have to be willing to take chances and they have to be willing to potentially make a misstep. But you’ve got to model the way, you’ve got to show, you’ve got to lead with courage, you’ve got to lead with conviction and you have to lead with fairness and reasonableness. And as I said before, do it empathetically. And I believe our industry will come out better in the long run.

Beth:  And that would be a huge win to have gone through this experience but come out stronger, come out better, come out doing things that you probably never would have thought you would be able to implement in communities, but because of having to think differently, you’re able to.

Cat: That’s absolutely right. And if we can then recognize and appreciate the roles of the individual groups that serve community associations, we will be far better.

Beth:  That’s a great point Cat. I think one of the things about this is thinking about the individuals that are involved in this, and their perspective. You talked about empathy earlier as well, and having empathy for everyone’s roles and responsibility. Do you see people having more awareness of that as they’re dealing with the management companies, association members, as well as the board members or the committee members? Is everyone looking at things a little differently?

Cat: Yes, I wish it were universal. There are still people who have short fuses and there are still some people who look to scapegoat and things like that. But generally, yes. I feel that as long as someone is the leader and reminds people continuously of the similar stresses and the similar pressures but yet [that we have] the same goal. We all want the outcome to be the same. We want the community to be great. So yes, I think that there is a greater understanding. But it’s okay to provide those reminders from time to time because people may forget.

Beth:  Well, I appreciate you spending this time with me. As always, it was so great to learn from you. And I love what you just said, because what we’re trying to do here in this series is just making sure we share learnings and help these communities be great and take this situation and come out better on the other side. So I appreciate you, Cat. Thank you so much.

Cat: I appreciate you too. Thanks for what you’re doing for communities across the country.

Beth:  Thank you.

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