Last modified on August 28th, 2020
By Megan Eales Monroe
Adjusting to the new reality of remote and virtual work has been a challenge for most property and community association management companies. However, for efficiency-minded teams, it has also revealed significant areas of opportunity.
For example, take Pelican Property Management — they offer clients a wide range of expertise, including HOA and Condo Management, as well as residential and commercial. By forcing their teams to pivot quickly, implement new technology, and revisit existing processes, the COVID-19 situation has pushed them to challenge the status quo.
Recently, in a conversation with Beth Gilbert, Senior Director of the Community Association Market at AppFolio, Pelican co-founders Jordan Levine and Joe Rector shared how they have made the best of the situation to find ways to run their business even more efficiently.
Listen now to find out which of these short-term changes and adaptations are here to stay, not only for Pelican, but for the property management and community association industries at large.
In this ongoing series we’ll share how real estate industry experts are adapting to the new normal of COVID-19, taking steps to protect their business now, and paving the way for future growth. You can listen to our first episode here, and don’t forget to check back for new interviews soon.
- “I think we’re going to have the ability for people to be able to work remotely more when we go back, and it will be a good thing.”
Joe and Jordan agreed that their team was able to be just as productive, if not more, when working at home versus in the office. Their managers enjoy the flexibility, and Pelican will likely continue to allow their team to work remotely long after the need for social distancing is over.
- “It’s unbelievable that our accounting department, through SmartBill, and through bill pay, eCheck… 95% of what we do, we don’t have to be at the office for.”
The Pelican team anticipated challenges when their accounting team went fully remote. However, since they had already implemented technology that enables residents and homeowners to pay online, plus tools like SmartBill that lighten their administrative burden, their transition was surprisingly smooth.
- “We started online voting, and it works… We’ve been talking about this for years. Sometimes out of a bad situation, great things come.”
Out of necessity, the timeline for many improvements Joe and Jordan hoped to make in the future was accelerated. Moving to an online voting system for community association boards is just one example.
- “Take this time, it’s valuable, and analyze the different parts of your business.”
The number one piece of advice that Joe and Jordan emphasized throughout the interview was to capitalize on this time of change, and to use it as an opportunity to take a magnifying glass to business processes and find areas for improvement.
- “Because of our partnership with AppFolio, we’re basically on par with national companies from a technology standpoint… Our competitive edge is there and it’s better than ever. I see us getting out of this doing incredibly well.”
Maximizing efficiency has proven to be Pelican’s secret weapon. Because they have been able to leverage technology to scale their processes and ramp up team productivity, they have remained highly competitive, even during this challenging time.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Beth: I’m so happy to be here with both of you today. I know we have some exciting things to share with what your company has been able to do. And let’s just start off by asking, how has your company been impacted by COVID-19? Jordan, why don’t you start?
Jordan: Our company in particular, other than moving remotely rather quickly and jumping through some hoops in getting that done, it hasn’t really affected us that much. There are things that are popping up now with different homeowners on the community side. Different programs that we’ve put in place as far as COVID relief program for homeowners that we’ve had to come up. On our most recent call, what are we going to do about the pools this year? And that’s an issue that we’re going to have to work through. But from a company standpoint, you know, we’re running better than we ran before. More efficient than we’ve ever ran. So we’re doing quite well.
Beth: That is so great to hear. Joe, can you speak a little bit about how that’s been able to happen? How are you better now as opposed to before?
Joe: Sure. Well, for one, we’re all working remotely as everybody knows, and we’re keeping a closer eye on how everything is flowing through the company, from work orders, to our outside vendors, to our internal processing… how work is flowing throughout the company and being divvied out to the administrative staff. It’s sort of forced us, this is the silver lining of it all, to track all that with a finer comb. You know, we really are combing through things ’cause it helps your comfort level, being away, you’re not physically there, you know. And Jordi really had come up with a system using AppFolio, putting work orders in to divvy out some of the duties, especially administratively, that allows him and I to read what’s coming through and oversee the big picture from a much better standpoint than we were doing I’d say.
Beth: And how did you get to that point, Jordan? What prompted you to get there?
Jordan: Out of pure frustration. I think our heads were going to explode after the first week. The first operations worked fine, remotely. The system works great, but I think Joe and I had at least a dozen phone calls and we were asking each other, what is so and so doing? And then we’d get a call from a manager saying, I put in a request and the person ignored it. And I’m thinking, well, we didn’t know about it until it blew up.
And nothing got done. And then all of a sudden I’m looking at the work order system and I’m thinking, you know, it’s basically a work order. So at one point, it was a monumental change to do it remotely and to get everybody on board.
And basically after the first week, you know, Joe and I kept up on it because you had to get people to buy into it.
If it failed, then you knew it was going to be a complete disaster.
It was really more on our administrative side, the folks that are in the office all the time doing the administrative duties, like writing letters, architecture requests, answering homeowners, and whatnot. You know, we basically view it as a maintenance work order now and it’s no different than assigning it to our maintenance tech. …It allows both of us to sleep a little bit better at night. And it’s amazing because it’s something that we won’t turn off once we get back to normal.
The cool part about it, is the administrative folks like it even better because it’s all organized for them. All they have to do is type their name in and they know what to do that day.
I look at it every morning and every afternoon. Every time I just go on to see what everybody’s doing and how it’s getting completed, you know, just general workflow. But I noticed that like there were people getting stuff done and we needed more work. So I emailed all the managers and said, Hey, you know, come on, put some work in for these people. And they did.
Beth: It sounds like you’re more efficient now.
Jordan: Definitely. Joe and I were having this conversation yesterday — one of the managers mentioned to us that she really enjoys working from home, that she feels like she’s getting more done. And Joe and I agree.
It’s still good to get together. I think there is a creative side, a little better creative side when we’re all together. But there’s a lot of inefficiency, too, in, you know, people walk around the office and they have a conversation here and then you add all those five minutes up and that’s, you know, like an hour and a half worth of time.
So it’s neat to see that people are buying into it. I think we’re going to give the ability for people to be able to work remotely more when we go back, and it will be a good thing.
Beth: So Joe, how did you make the transition? This is not a small feat, to take your staff and just move to a completely new environment. What did that look like for you?
Joe: You know, at first Jordi and I were both a little timid on it. But really it was a flip of a switch — Everybody went home, everybody was productive. There were a few little IT things here and there that we had to trim up and make perfect, but things are really flowing well. Everybody’s communicating pretty well.
But, you know, when we’re doing this transition and everybody’s working from home, we’re not together anymore. We’re not always on Zoom calls. I can’t always see your face. I can’t always sense the tone of your communication. So really, really focus on the tone of your emails and make sure they’re not too sharp, but pleasant.
And what Jordi and I both said to everybody is, please pick up the phone and call each other. If there’s any sort of confusion, anything that you might feel like you might be misreading, just call each other. This is the time more than ever to pick up the phone and hear the other person’s voice and how they’re explaining this situation. We just knew in our heart of hearts that it would help people with hard feelings… because things get read out of context, text messages, emails, and everything, you can’t sense the tone again, you know?
Beth: Absolutely. It’s almost like going back to the basics, like basic human interaction, and remembering that before all this technology, the phone was it. Jordan, what are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from this?
Jordan: Patience, I think, is the most important part. What Joe was saying is a hundred percent. If we were all in the office together, somebody could easily go over to another person’s office and say, “Hey, this is what I meant,” or “Can you help me out with this?” And when you put it into an email form or a text message or something like that, it just doesn’t come off that way.
So, what we’ve learned is I think it’s almost better for us to run interference between people as well.
So if a manager is timid about asking a bookkeeper to do something, I’d rather them come to me, or Joe, and, you know, we’ll try to figure it out, and again, it allows us to look at the entire system.
The other part, as far as from a Zoom video conferencing, we learned very quickly that you can’t have the entire company on a Zoom call. That is miserable; I mean it’s completely out of control. So what we do, once a week, we break it up, we meet with the managers, then we meet with the accounting department right after the managers. And then Thursday’s the day that we meet with the administrative department.
And then at the end of the week, we kind of bring everybody together for a happy hour. We’re trying to figure out how to keep that fresh. That’s the only thing… We had games on the last one and, you know, we have to keep thinking of new ideas when we all get together.
But divvying that up has worked better than having everybody on it at the same time. So, yeah, so that’s, you know, it’s easier.
And going back to Joe’s point, thanks to you guys, what amazes me more than the managers working remotely — which is, it’s fantastic, everybody’s got access to the system — but our accounting department? I mean, it’s unbelievable that our accounting department, through SmartBill, and through bill pay, eCheck… 95% of what we do, we don’t have to be at the office for.
Beth: And how’s their experience been? Were they shocked that they were able to do it? How is the accounting team’s experience?
Jordan: You know what, I don’t know that they were shocked, because that’s what they were doing. We were basically working remotely before, we were just in the same office but it didn’t matter.
This was only turned on maybe less than a year ago. And thankfully it was, because if it wasn’t, then we would have to be figuring out some routine of getting people in the office and making sure that they were social distancing.
You know, it’s amazing. The improvement in that side is something that we love and will help you guys explore further.
Beth: That’s great. Joe, you mentioned the work order needs, the adjustments and leveraging the work orders for more than daily management. Are there any other processes that you’ve been able to change that have changed for the better during this time?
Joe: I think, again, we’ve learned all how to communicate a little more effectively. Our business has changed greatly, probably not so much internally, but with our clientele. Everybody’s home now. With multifamily, homeowners associations, condo buildings — all of a sudden, everyone was home all the time.
Everyone’s hearing other people’s Zoom meetings, or their yoga class, or their dog barking during the day that they never noticed before because, from 8 to 6 PM they’re not home usually. Different smells, you know, people are cooking a lot more. Communal living is communal living, but [until now] you haven’t noticed that your neighbors are cooking lunch every day and everything.
It’s taught us to be a little more empathetic to our clientele, and in putting yourself in their shoes and learning that everyone’s life has altered so much. We’re dealing with phone calls that haven’t necessarily come in before, and it’s interesting. I think we’ve handled it so well. The administrative staff as well as all our managers have just really done well with understanding people’s needs, reaching out to them, and following up.
We implemented something [new] — we said we want everybody to get back to somebody by the same day. We said, you know, we’re all home, let’s see if we can do that. If you can’t do it on the same day, let’s try 24 hours. But for the most part, we’re seeing everybody’s pretty much handling it within the same day, which I think is an excellent response time, even down to our maintenance staff.
Beth: That’s amazing. You mentioned your communities and your clients… How have you been able to communicate with them? Have you done anything differently? How are your clients doing?
Joe: Right back to what I was saying, everybody’s home, everything’s a little different. We’re all learning to live with each other in sort of this hybrid way right now, this hybrid COVID way. But I think for the most part, people have been pretty understanding of each other. Quarantine’s getting a little old for some people, but we’ve had leaks and things where people aren’t necessarily comfortable with us coming in their unit. So we’ve stopped the leak obviously, but said, you know, rain check on when you want your ceiling repaired, and people are understanding of that. And I think everybody’s learning to pause a little bit more, without knee jerk reactions.
Jordan: It’s helped us look at things that Joe and I had talked about for years. We always knew the burnout ratio for community managers was basically the amount of meetings that they would have, like nightly meetings or monthly meetings. They’ve inevitably been forced to do it through Zoom now, through video conferencing.
And I think now the genie’s out of the bottle. These boards were pushing back against that before this happened and now they’re beginning to see how effective it really is. And I think from a manager perspective, we actually talked about this a couple of days ago, where we won’t necessarily give a discount for doing video conferencing, but maybe we’ll give you an extra one or two meetings.
The more buy in we get with this type of communication to meet with our boards… it doesn’t have to be every single meeting. If you have a monthly meeting, maybe it takes six of them and you do them remotely.
And for the manager, I think it’s a less burnout ratio for them. So that, from an internal standpoint, is something that we both have been talking about for years. The other thing is, we were bound to the state laws at this point for annual meetings. But that might change. I mean, they’re going to have to, if this goes on for much longer.
Joe: They’re going to have to pivot.
Jordan: If they’re about to have some annual meetings, then they’re going to have to. The other that comes along with that is balloting and online voting. Right now, we started online voting… and it works. You know, we get it out to everybody. It’s not the most perfect and ideal thing, but right now it’s fantastic, you know, you can send it out and people can vote and we don’t we don’t have to do a huge mailing, which was going to be a problem for us in this time.
We’ve been talking about this for years. Sometimes out of a bad situation, great things come, and I think that these are a couple of the really good things that are going to come down the pike.
Beth: Absolutely. Let’s think about the future. I think it’s hard sometimes to imagine what the future is going to look like, because there’s so much uncertainty right now, but how are you preparing your business for the future?
Joe: We know that people can work remotely. We know that at least within Pelican, our company is a young company; a lot of our employees are young. We all have young kids, young families, busy lives with sports and everything, moving around. I think working remotely is going to help. And even with these virtual meetings, it’s going to help significantly.
You know, you don’t have to chime in to these meetings every two minutes. You could be sitting there with your earbuds and stirring the spaghetti while you’re being productive in a meeting. And for me, throughout this entire thing, I’ve noticed, you know, just the multitasking capability is unbelievably amazing. Like, wow, I’m hiking on a Zoom meeting right now with my phone in front of me and that’s pretty cool.
Joe: Yeah, and it works.
Jordan: You know what’s more effective honestly than being face-to-face? It’s the screen-sharing. It’s so much more effective than when we used to sit in our boardroom and I would put it up onto our screen, if I wanted to show somebody. I think half of them weren’t paying attention, or they didn’t have it on their computer. Like now, it’s right in front of you, so if I need to show something, it’s great.
Beth: Is there anything else you would add to that, Jordan, for the future of your business?
Jordan: Absolutely. You know, it’s interesting, the future of our business and maybe the future of the relationship with you all. We had a meeting with your automated AP person, and it’s pretty neat to see. At this point, we can sort of see the scalability of our business. Moreso now because we have been working remotely for six weeks.
[With] the automated AP, as we grow, I think we might tip toe into that. But I look at what we’ve done with the administrative side… There are opportunities to come together on ideas, utilizing what we’ve basically done in the work order system, for general tasks, like violation letters, architectural reviews, and that kind of thing. As we hone in to see how we can simplify it and standardize it, maybe we can work with you all on that type of a program. I think utilizing artificial intelligence — that’s going to be huge for us. Because we’re already seeing it.
We prided ourselves — every phone call that came into our office, we’d pick up. And now we can’t do that. And so it’s going to our automated system. Automated systems are not perfect… But I think artificial intelligence will play a key role in helping us manage that workflow better.
What’s come out of [using] the automated system is that it’s sort of filtering things down to the right people. And so when we go back, we might not pick up the phone immediately. We might just get better at directing people to the right places. [Then] we respond, or have some artificial intelligence respond, or a combination of both, which I think it will be. That’s the future of our business. It’s exciting to see it.
Beth: It’s always so exciting when I get to talk to both of you, because I get excited about the opportunities that we have as well. And I know that excites you too. One more question. If you could share one piece of advice or tip to another association management professional, what would it be? Let’s start with you, Joe.
Joe: I would say probably to utilize the work order system as Jordi so geniusly invented, to track everyone’s work to see who’s productive, who is doing what really well, and to sort of track everybody and be able to manage their productivity even better for them. And, you know, as leadership in the company, that’s big for us, to be able to see what somebody is really shining at and what somebody can grow in. And this sort of allowed us to do that a little bit, to be able to see the workflow and track that on a next level.
Beth: Yeah. What about you, Jordan? What’s your piece of advice?
Jordan: This is the time that you can all sit back and take time to go into AppFolio and look at places that you’ve never been to before. Go to the forums, sit back, take a couple of minutes every day and look at some things that your staff is doing. And it’s a great time to say, wow, why aren’t we doing it that way? Ask the question.
There’s always somewhat of a better way of looking at it. And by no means are we doing everything perfectly. We have a lot to work on. So, you know, take this time, it’s valuable, and analyze the different parts of your business. Joe and I, we’re lucky enough that we collaborate on that.
Specifically what we’re working on this week and last week is the architecture request. I mean it’s amazing how people were sort of doing it any way they wanted to do it, and it’s a bit of a mess. And we’re getting it cleaned up, but we have the time to focus on it now.
There’s actually a work order in the system to all the admins now and instructions on how to clean up all the statuses, and what we want to do. And I think we’ve been collaborating with you guys pretty well on how to make some meaningful changes to that system as well.
If we didn’t have this time, we wouldn’t be looking at those parts of our business. So, my advice, take a look at all parts of your business.
Beth: I think that’s great, because you could get overwhelmed in situations of uncertainty and not knowing, but like you said, if you pause and actually give yourself the space to really look at what’s happening, amazing things can come out of it. That’s what I’ve heard from both of you today, that you have really leveraged this time to just be more productive, and be more efficient in the work that your teams are doing. And it sounds like you’re going to come out of this ahead going forward.
Joe: We feel that way.
Jordan: In fact, we took this time, we’re redesigning our website. You know what I mean? It’s just this is the time to do it.
Joe: Yeah, we’ve been working very hard on that.
Jordan: So, you know, just looking at all parts, it’s given us time to look at all parts of the business and figure out what’s working, what’s not. And there’s always room to improve.
So when we come out, we’ll be, we’ll be far ahead of our competition.
You know, we’re not a huge company. There are a lot bigger companies out there that have their own systems. The amazing thing, because of our partnership with you guys, is that we’re like basically on par with companies that are far larger and national companies from a technology standpoint. I mean, they’re all touting how they’re doing their accounting, you know, remotely. And we have it, it’s already there, it’s right there.
Our competitive edge is there and it’s better than ever. And I see us getting out of this, you know, doing incredibly well.
Beth: Well, thank you so much to both of you, Jordan and Joe. It’s always a pleasure to speak with you. I’m happy that you’re able to spend some time with me today to just share your story during this time. And I appreciate all that you shared today. So, thank you.
Here are a few links to check out the content and resources mentioned in this episode:
The Results Are in: How Community Association Professionals Are Responding to COVID-19
4 Business Continuity Tips From Community Association Management Professionals
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