The day-to-day life of a property manager—while not quite as predictable as that of, say, an accountant—does revolve around certain cyclical tasks, like building inspections, staff meetings, and keeping boards informed of what is going on with various projects in their buildings. That’s not to say that there isn’t an occasional emergency, of course; a boiler fails, a visitor slips and falls, a vendor doesn’t deliver. And while any good manager takes these challenges in stride, there’s little that could have prepared managers for what they would face with the arrival of COVID-19.
The novel coronavirus is called ‘novel’ for a reason. It’s a newly emerged public health threat that you can’t see, smell, taste, or feel—at least until you’ve contracted it. It’s there, everywhere, and at the beginning of the pandemic, no one knew exactly where. It created paralyzing fear for both our leaders and individuals, particularly in New York City, its first epicenter. In a hyper-urban environment where people were packed in like sardines to begin with, physical distance between loved ones, neighbors, and strangers went from being a luxury to being a requirement. The many nonverbal cues we receive and interpret from facial expressions disappeared behind featureless masks; no more smiles from the porter when he came to deliver a package to your apartment.
The mental and emotional stress foisted upon literally millions of people in what many would agree was often already a stressful environment has frayed nerves, shortened tempers, and in some cases ignited conflict between neighbors and between residents of co-ops and condos, their boards, and their management agents and staff.
The stress has extended to the smallest of things. One manager reported that when the board of a building she manages decided to ban domestic helpers from entering the property, she received a call from an irate shareholder. The shareholder told her in no uncertain terms that she “hadn’t picked up a vacuum in 50 years—and wasn’t about to start now!” Another reported that he had to set up support groups for the staff in his building because the stress of traveling to and from the building and the nervous behavior of the residents were causing pervasive, chronic feelings of fear and despair.
The truth is that never before had property managers and their client communities faced a crisis of this type, presenting itself in this way. It seemed part science fiction, part war story—except the enemy wasn’t an alien invasion (at least, not exactly) or a foreign occupying army. It was an invisible, incurable microbe that often brought suffering, and could easily bring death. The zombie apocalypse had arrived.