With online revenue management and leasing and mobile-phone rent payment and maintenance requests becoming de rigueur in the apartment sector, it’s not uncommon to hear talk of technology “depersonalizing” the industry. Sure, high turnover still persists at the on-site level, but progressive operators say that getting wired is actually helping reprofessionalize their workforces and fine-tuning the processes by which they recruit, hire, onboard, and train their staffs. To take a deeper look into the technologies, systems, and programs powering some of the more successful human resources (HR) programs in the biz, Multifamily Executive checked in with Houston-based Camden Property Trust’s senior vice president of strategic services Kristy Simonette and Greensboro, N.C.–based Bell Partners’ HR tech brain trust of chief information officer Dhrubo Sircar and senior vice president of human resources Mary Copeland. Here’s what they had to say on powering up their people:  

MFE: Camden is always receiving awards as one of the best places to work in America (including being in the Top 10 of Fortune magazine's list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” two years in a row). How does technology help power Camden's consistent, award-winning approach to fostering a great workplace?
Simonette: Since we are so geographically dispersed, we rely on technology for frequent company communication to help us foster our culture. Communication is challenge when you work in a decentralized environment the way that we do with a corporate office, six regional offices, five district offices, and 200 communities.  With so many locations and offices, we invested in LifeSize video conferencing about three years ago, and I'm not sure how we had lived without it! It keeps us really connected, which helps us be consistent.

Credit: Camden Property Trust

MFE: I wonder if there are similar challenges and solutions at Bell Partners?
Sircar: Bell is in 16 different states, and there is almost no way we can operate without having a new way of operating. Even in the same office, on the same floor, we are rolling out video phones and push-to-view technology. 
Copeland: Yes, our COO, Bob Slater, writes his “Take 5” column for the employees every Tuesday and Friday, and we are looking at incorporating more video clips into that moving forward. Some of those communications are serious to announce a company change or initiative; others talk about strategies from another industry or relate a TV show from the night before to what is going on at Bell. It’s just a great way to reinforce the culture, the core values, and the mission.

MFE: So YouTube isn’t just a time-killer, huh? Video really is becoming more ingrained as an internal communication platform?
Simonette: Definitely. At Camden, we are doing “Bird News” video broadcasts.  Named after our hummingbird logo, Bird News was started last year as a way for us to capture and communicate Camden’s breaking news to all of our 1,800 associates. Bird News is shot “on location” and has featured messages from executive leadership to announcements of major project launches to recognition of our top sales winners. John Selindh, Camden’s VP of Marketing, is always the reporter, and he ends every news update with a silly request that those who participate in his broadcast do “The Bird,” which is basically just a surprising and funny dance scene set to some quirky music. It’s a great way to keep people tuned in. The video clips are short, never more than three minutes, and they can be accessed by any employee from our company intranet.

MFE: OK, when it comes to serious IT for personnel and HR initiatives, what do you currently have plugged in? Are there any HR-focused systems or softwares that Camden or Bell really likes right now?
Simonette: We have extensive employee self-service software so employees can access and manage their own information: view their paychecks, set up for direct deposit, monitor and manage their 401(k), and submit for paid time off, plus more—all electronically. We also have the ability to complete annual performance evaluations with all the workflow happening in a paperless environment. This is a great feature for employees as well as supervisors, since it creates efficiency and the electronic documents are stored as an associated document with the employee’s electronic file. So there’s no more pulling personnel records: Those are all online and accessible based on security roles and rights.
Sircar: We’ve made a significant investment into Microsoft SharePoint. Information is the glue that provides people with the knowledge of how to do their work. In the past, people would send attachments by e-mail and communications were just forwarded and replied to. All of that is breaking down. We use SharePoint along with [Westport, Conn.–based] Synergy's implementation applications to do just that: provide synergy behind the way people collaborate.
Copeland: One cool thing we have is an online brag board where associates can go and give kudos to a colleague for a job well done. It’s one of those things where, at the end of a hard day, you can read the brag board and reenergize by seeing all of the great things that are being done on a day-to-day basis across the company, things that you would otherwise never see or hear about. SharePoint has taken away a lot of the frustrations that people were responsible for day to day in terms of information sharing. Now, they can just go on Synergy and use the search function. It has really helped improve the lives of our associates.
Sircar: It’s also an evolution that is moving us away from VPN. E-mail and web conferencing and voice mail and data access are all going into the cloud and will be available online from anywhere. That is a ripe move for the future.

Credit: Bell Partners

MFE: We’re hearing a lot lately about behavior-profiling software. Do you believe technology can help to psychologically identify candidates who are best-suited for specific job functions or even match up with a company’s corporate culture?
Simonette: In the second quarter of 2009, we introduced a pre-employment assessment for our leasing consultants, which historically is the position with the highest turnover. The program provides an online assessment that compares the job candidates with a profile of characteristics and behaviors unique to the Camden DNA to be successful in this position. Reviewing potential job candidates with this profile provides valuable information about the candidate’s alignment with the success factors of Camden’s superstars. 
Copeland: We’re doing something just like that at Bell, too. We use profiling systems from [Dallas-based] PeopleAnswers to determine if candidates are a good cultural fit. We don’t use that, obviously, as our sole determinant for a new hire, but it is one of the items in our hiring toolbox that we look at when trying to determine how to hire the best candidate for an open position. All of these profiling systems are different, but one of the things we liked about PeopleAnswers is that they create tools for onboarding based on an individual’s learning style and various skills. That’s vital information you can also use in targeted training and continuous development.
Simonette: It also reduces turnover. In 2010, 40 percent of our applicants were recommended as eligible for hire, which allowed us to focus only on those candidates who would be the best fit for Camden. We have reduced turnover by nearly 50 percent among our leasing consultants, which tells us we are doing a much better job of finding the right person the first time around. As a result, we have expanded the assessment to our maintenance supervisor and community manager positions. Our assessment also provides supporting materials for managers, including candidate-specific interview questions and coaching and development techniques customized to each candidate. It’s a powerful tool if attracting the right type of talent to your company is one of the keys to your success.

MFE: Can even seemingly minor technologies—like the animated icons on the "Camden Values" web page or the Bell Partners online company store—have a positive impact on recruiting, hiring, and retaining great talent?
Simonette: Well, we think so! The animated icons are refreshing! I think they give prospective employees a glimpse into our culture.  The people you see on our website are real Camden employees, and you can see their pride in our company and Camden’s values. Technology made it possible for us to deliver that to a public audience. Many of our job applicants comment on that feature of our website.  It is a fun little surprise and a unique way for us to showcase our values, which are the foundation of our culture.
Copeland: We have had huge success from the company store. We have a recognition system where you can earn Bell Bucks and spend them online—we even have baby Bell products on there! We want to make sure the influence of Bell extends beyond the employee, beyond the associate, and into the family. Let the family feel love from Bell just like the associates do.

MFE: Wow, that doesn’t sound depersonalized at all. Thanks, everyone, for taking some time to talk about your systems today.
Simonette: Thank you.
Bell Partners HR Tech Brain trust: Yes, thank you.

Editor’s Note: For more in-depth coverage of how technology is powering up multifamily human resource initiatives, check out Tech Specs in the August issue of Multifamily Executive.