The Paperless Office
Using Technology to Get Organized
While most boards and managers may be wizards of organization who never so much as lose their car keys, there are plenty of us struggling to get organized — to clear out the years of accumulated paperwork and debris that will ultimately compromise our ability to run an efficient, organized building.
The Tech Connection
It may be true that with the advent of e-mail and computerized management tools, the days of back offices crammed with floor-to-ceiling filing cabinets are on the wane in New York — but there is still room for a great deal of improvement. While just a small percentage of buildings are staging complete overhauls their filing and document management systems, many more have taken small steps and have started to eliminate sheaves of paper containing data that can more easily be stored on a computer.
There are a number of ways that boards and management can use technology to get organized, cut down on office paperwork, and improve their building’s financial and administrative profile.
Some think that in a decade’s time, more than 75 percent of people will be using such technology to clear out the paper in their offices but will there ever be a time when a paperless office becomes a reality?
A Helping Hand
One easy way for a building to cut down on the file cabinets in their offices is to hire a company to do most of the paperwork for them and manage the operation off-site. There are several so-called back office companies in New York City that handle the day-to-day, month-to-month and year-to-year bills and reports and keep track of a building’s finances.
“We’re devoted exclusively to doing all of what we classify as ‘back office’ work, meaning all of the bookkeeping necessary for the co-op corporation, condominium, or rental property landlord to manage themselves,” says Harold Wolf of the Back Office, Inc., a board services support team in Manhattan.
“We do the billing, we bill common charges for condominiums. We collect the monies from the tenants and deposit those monies into the appropriate bank accounts of each co-op or condo. We pay all of the bills for these organizations. The bills will either be sent directly to our office, or go to the offices of various organizations and they will forward them and make copies, and we issue checks and payments. We insist on not having authority to sign them, however — for obvious liability and transparency reasons.”
Then each month, says Wolf, his company provides a full set of financials to these organizations, including month-to-date and year-to-date general ledgers, a summary of income expenses, a cash receipt journal, a cash disbursement journal, and a ledger of each tenant’s individual account.
“These are all delivered to co-op or condo in a form of report,” says Wolf. “We send it to them so they can reference it and distribute to members of the board.”
Another such back-office firm is Total Personal Services Administrative Group LLC in Garden City, Long Island.
“It started off being an administrative family office for affluent individuals,” says Nancy Akeson, one of the firm’s managers. “ We would pay bills and take care of all the bookkeeping. A few of our families owned buildings, or were on the boards of buildings, so with that in mind we ended up handling some of these entities as well.”
Any good back-office firm will of course interact with the client building’s managers, but firms like The Back Office and Total Personal Services do not act as a management company. Their responsibilities end with the paperwork.
“In some of the smaller buildings [30 units and under] we will take care of all the receipts of the maintenance payments, pay all the bills, and interact with the manager,” says Akeson, “but we do not act as a management company. We will do all of the work that usually a co-op doesn’t want to do. We’re simply a back office for the building if they need us.”
Barry Korman is a managing agent who is known around town as “The Paperless Office.” He and his company have dedicated themselves to establishing a way to eliminate much of the paper that offices use by putting everything on computer.
“If someone wanted to,” says Korman, “they could run their office and manage their building themselves with one drawer of files and not accumulate a ton of paperwork. For a managing agent, [computerization works because] you never lose documents — everything is scanned in and indexed, and you can do a search and find any document you need.”
For example, if a shareholder is planning to do some alteration work on his apartment, Korman can have the building’s alteration agreement scanned in and e-mailed or faxed to the shareholder, then scan in their completed request and signed contract. Digital photos of renovations can be downloaded into the building’s files. When the first of the year rolls around and you must send letters about window guards, all this can be done by computer.
Computerizing Cuts Costs
The cost of a system like the ones Korman uses is far less than anyone imagines.
“Anyone can do this themselves,” says Korman. “All of these programs and hardware are easily obtainable and costs less than $2,000 for software and hardware and even training. When you’re talking about running a building, you are talking about a huge amount of paperwork. If you scan a document and throw it away, you can put it in several files and you don’t need to worry about losing it. That’s when you are really sophisticated. But it’s not being done too often and I don’t know why.”
Of course, the back office companies rely heavily on computers as well.
“We use computers, or we could never do this otherwise,” says Wolf. “If you have to sit and do this with pen and pencil and paper, it’s utterly impossible. We can do 50 properties in the time it would take someone to do one property by hand.”
When you deal with paper, it’s very easy to misfile something — and depending on the size of your building, you might never find it again. By contrast, when you file something on a computer, there are search functions that make things a cinch to find, even if they’ve been filed incorrectly in the computer.
“There is always a danger,” says Korman, “because computers can crash — so you must back up religiously. Buying a backup hard drive or setting up service with a server that will back things up every day is very inexpensive, and there should be no reason why you should ever lose any of your records.”
When paperwork continues to pile up, it not only creates a clutter but it can cause a myriad of problems down the line.
“We eliminate the major problems,” says Wolf. “If there are any issues concerning a board, or anyone running a board, it’s usually on the bookkeeping end, because that’s where the real problems tend to be.”
For an example of just how bad things can get when organization and transparency aren’t made a top priority, just look at what happened with the New York City school system in the past. Because of their inability to keep records accurately and organized, the whole system was thrown into chaos about five years ago — and is ripped off regularly by unscrupulous individuals who use the system’s disorganization to their own advantage.
“The one reason why our business is successful is when we process mail, it comes to a system and scanning and voice system that really reads the mail and then it stays in the system so people can’t manipulate the bills,” says Akeson. “I think we do it pretty well. What we produce at the end of the year is paid bills, tracked balances, a monthly check summary and also a reconciliation showing what has cleared and not cleared. Those are important.”
Truth, or Fiction?
So, will there ever really be an office that doesn’t need paper at all?
“People speak about paperless offices, but the truth of the matter is, no,” says Wolf. “It’s just talk that shows you are modern in your thinking — but the issue of a truly paperless office, I just don’t go for it. People like to look at actual reports and not simply have them flash up on the screen. It’s not something we’re promoting, and we’re not against it, but I don’t think it’s something that will happen.”
One issue that can hobble or frustrate a building’s attempts to modernize their bookkeeping is lack of technical expertise and understanding. After all, once you have the computer and scanning equipment, it is still important to learn how to use them properly.
“No one seems to file anything these days anymore, and people are out there buying scanning systems thinking they can just do that, but the problem is they are still not saving the scanned information into proper files in their computers,” Akeson points out. “It’s the same problem with manual paperwork — it may be filed in a drawer, but not properly.”
In fact, Korman recommends any building that is going to try to reduce paper waste and become more computerized should save hard copies of everything they scan or store electronically for one year, just to make sure that they are doing it correctly. Plus, he says, there is always some paperwork you’ll need in hard copy form.
“A paperless office is really about 95 percent paperless,” says Korman. “There are a few documents you need to keep but for the most part, you can keep things on a computer.”
What it comes down to is something that buildings—whether organized with military precision or teetering on the brink of a paperwork avalanche—have known deep down forever: organization and good housekeeping are a huge part of a building’s ultimate success and administrative health. So whether you overhaul your system entirely or just implement a few new measures to keep things in order, be sure you’ve got a game plan and everyone is on board before you start scanning.
Keith Loria is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.