The whole truth

There's an inherent collision of technology and risk occurring within multifamily operations, and it's growing greater by the day. It may be time for apartment legal teams to collaborate with IT.

197

Technology is exciting. It has the power to unite. It has the power to transform. With the right technology, companies are more productive, more efficient, and more profitable.

Technology can also be scary. As Edward Snowden and his National Security Agency leaks reveal, the Internet age exposes companies, individuals and their data, and heightens risk.

Whether or not you view rising government surveillance as a sign of a greater Orwellian state, your personal and business information can be exposed if not adequately protected.

Consider the recent hacking at the Target stores which exposed 70 million Americans to the theft of their personal information, credit card accounts, mailing address, phone numbers, and emails. After this data breach, Target is now offering one year of free credit monitoring and identity theft protection to all customers who shopped at its U.S. stores–a cost sure to expand into the millions of dollars.

Multifamily’s day of reckoning with the full reach of technology is not far off. A similar data breach would bring any multifamily operation to a grinding crawl creating financial liability, placing reputations in peril, frustrating staff and significantly impacting NOI.

Safeguards begin with legal review. It’s important to gain legal support over standards, policies and practices, while keeping stride with IT advances and popular culture.

Property offices are transforming at a rate never seen before. From cloud-based property management systems to leasing office tablets and employees bringing their personal mobile devices to work, the explosion of tech brings convenience, albeit significant risk. How can companies protect their residents and business information? How best to ensure proper policies are in place, as well as boost team compliance and data privacy?

Not long ago, property operations were paper-based. Residents’ personally identifiable data (PII) was locked in a file-cabinet, monitored daily by on-site staff. Now, this data is ubiquious. It is stored in the cloud in property management system records, it’s found in emails on your employee’s smartphones and inboxes, or sitting unsecured on a tablet-based application.

IT may express concern that staff is using rogue file-sharing applications and personal online document management systems to store and share confidential business and resident information. In the bring-your-own device to work age, employees access business systems from unsecured, personal devices. What about the office printer that has someone’s lease sitting in open-air on the paper tray?

Your employee email boxes are cluttered with saved emails that have no place but must be held in the event they are needed for questions or even litigation. Even so, they would be difficult to locate, aggregate, and assess during any eDiscovery process.

Even if your IT department has created a secure network, it’s a challenge to access the information from multiple locations, or securely share information with residents, third-party business partners, lenders, and service providers. Syncing the best technology with legal oversight can help multifamily operations take control of this anarchy.

Currently 46 states have laws regarding data-breach notification requiring multifamily companies to pay for any incident of data theft. Depending on the number of people affected, these costs can easily exceed $100,000–let alone the cost of litigation.

To be competitive while balancing risk, legal teams must be educated and engaged in their company’s IT plans, and multifamily CEO’s should embrace this collaboration. IT road maps are ever more rife with risk, and decisions about when and where to invest needs to account for more than cost, ROI, and support.

Robust systems will protect business information, reduce risk of theft, and secure information transfer and storage. Unless multifamily business establishes a cooperative collaboration, while understanding legal guidelines, exposure remains.

The dichotomy remains: employees and residents expect more while assuming their data is secure and used properly.

Security first

Ensure operational and resident documents are backed-up and secured with a system that makes centralized, digitized record management possible. A good system should allow for the secure transmittal of documents to third-parties. It should be regularly audited for compliance with information security standards such as SSAE16 audits. Get legal review and establish policies and procedures around how documents should be stored, retained, and who should be able to access them.

With significant increases in litigation, acquisitions and dispositions, compliance and budget constraints have most legal departments scrambling. Such pressures tax resources. There are also the standing challenges to reduce costs, increase efficiency, control outside legal spending, and address risk across your entire portfolio. Corporate legal departments need innovative ways to automate manual processes, reuse knowledge, eliminate rework, improve compliance, and reduce administrative overhead.

Transitioning property operations from the legacy world of paper to the new digital age of centralized information will revolutionize the way your entire portfolio functions–benefitting both legal and IT.

Your legal team will benefit from standardizing policies and procedures, and your IT department will benefit from improved security and streamlined deployments across all properties. Both departments should work together to form the right strategy to fit your needs and identify the right technology partner to implement.

Selecting the right tech provider is vital–one size does not fit all. The ability to design a customized system that mirrors an existing operation requires a proven provider in system consultation, design and deployment.

One example of an effective workflow system is the multifamily-specific collaboration of SyndicIT Services and HP Autonomy. Their WorkSite product follows the dynamic of multifamily with information management and operational automation. It automates document-centric processes across multiple property locations.

WorkSite is already in wide-use by 80 percent of the AM Law 100 and over 500 corporate legal departments. The next big thing taking hold in multifamily, WorkSite allows apartment operators to achieve of number of goals.

Intellectual property management

By improving efficiency and visibility into the filing process, WorkSite provides a tool whereby multifamily operators can leverage their IP, grow the portfolio and defend against infringement. The system keeps all documents, receipts, and correspondence related to a property acquisition, contract, individual vendor, property, and residents, organized, versioned, stored, and secured.

Your properties can easily collaborate and share documents across multiple locations and automate processes to reduce delays, clarify task ownership, and ensure timely filing and management of key dates.

Manage overall compliance

In today’s ever-more regulated multifamily environment, it is particularly useful to enforce governance policies that proactively manage content prior to a triggering event. Worksite enables apartment management teams to deliver comprehensive responses based on visibility into key electronic assets. With all documents in a centralized, secure location managers can effectively respond to requests by regulators, business partners and auditors.

Streamline acquisitions, dispositions

Instead of last-minute rushes to overnight meeting materials, teams can post information directly to a secure digital file which can be accessed from any Internet-enabled device. Communications are managed centrally instead of redundant emails and phone calls.

Committee workspaces allow groups to collaborate securely online. Such workspaces also deliver an electronic equivalent to the data room or war room that is required during property transactions.

Policy-driven governances

Worksite means teams can develop, manage and apply policy to electronic information across a wide range of file types, including audio and video. This gives a transparent view of the fully corporate and property landscape, and enables the automatic classification of records, application of compliance and retention policies and defensible deletion of content to reduce risk.

One advantage aside from its broad adoption and track record is its seamless integration with Microsoft Outlook. Teams don’t need to learn yet another system–Outlook can continue as centralized hub for secure records management. Worksite improves productivity and enables critical content to pass freely and securely outside your firewall. Important transactions are done anywhere, any time, and at less expense.

The deployment of such a system and the engagement of a proven vendor is a great first step at bridging the gap between IT and legal. IT should take the first step in auditing systems for exposure, and then position legal early in all future system review. IT might also work to educate the legal team on use and access standards for proposed solutions. Together both teams can locate a supplier that will serve as an educational resource to help your company formulate a strategy for enterprise-wide digital content management.

Encourage your legal department to work with IT to create a documented policy that details the issues to be considered, and ensure that only third-party audited IT suppliers are chosen for heightened data security. Milestones in which to launch such discussions include cloud migrations, data center consolidation, or importing documents and data from acquired properties.

It is time for the current state of information anarchy to end.

When planning the future of your property operations and selecting the right technologies, don’t forget the legal team. They will ensure that compliance and business objectives take a center position to data storage and handling.

Your legal team should also offer messaging to your onsite employees to ensure they are using their personal devices in an approved manner, protecting on-site data, and not sharing confidential information in any unauthorized emails or file-sharing applications.

Your residents deserve protection. Your business cannot afford risk. Your legal team has the right minds to ensure success.

Author: Lauryn Schimmel is managing director of SyndicIT Services.