These days, pretty much everyone has a smart phone, which means they have a computer in their hands all day, every day. That makes it difficult to take true vacation days, to 'unplug' on the weekend, and to “leave work at work.” Our work lives and our home lives have merged as we all find ourselves checking email at the dinner table, as we brush our teeth, and as we wait for the train. But even with it becoming ever more difficult to get off the grid, our home is still a place of sanctuary. We get home, kick off our shoes, settle into the couch and get to eat an entire bag of cheese puffs free of judgment. It’s where we raise our kids and where we keep our cherished possessions. These are the comforts that our offices don’t afford us. Even if we’re reviewing work documents in bed, we are still in bed, not at work.
However, for employees of a co-op, condo or homeowner’s association—property managers, maintenance staff, and doormen—your home is their work. Your home is the place they have to clock in to, and because you entrust these individuals with your safety and with the upkeep of the quality of your home, it is vital to make sure they are well managed, efficient and happy.
Stay In Your Lane
The human resources side of multifamily property management in both urban and suburban settings can include on-site custodial, accounting, maintenance, mail room, and security staff, to name a few. These are the folks who make the property run smoothly. The pretty flowers that appear in the planters and flowerbeds every spring, and the always-gleaming floors in the common areas don’t happen magically; there is a person or persons behind those special touches, as well as behind the nuts and bolts of each and every managed building.
A good property manager can be the solution to keeping the whole thing on-track, providing guidance to employees, handling challenges or coworker disputes and making sure your building purrs along. “Typically, if a community is large enough to have on-site staff beyond the community manager, the manager serves as the point of contact for all employees and reports to the board,” explains Andrew S. Fortin, senior vice president of external affairs for Associa, a nationwide property management firm. “The board’s role is to set broad goals and a budget for the operation of the community, and the community managers job is to work with the board to carry out those goals. The process works best when the board functions as a board and the manager functions as a manager.”
Randy Rosen, CPM and president of Rosen Management Services in Chicago echoes Fortin almost exactly when he says, “The day-to-day management of the staff should be left to the property manager or the property management company. The board can and should provide input, but the board should not micromanage the employee, because it gets confusing. If an employee thinks that they can befriend a board member and undermine the manager's authority, that's a recipe for disaster.”
Use Your Words
When managing employees, Rosen says the most common mistakes he sees is property managers make nearly all boil down to communication—or lack thereof. Good communication means connecting with employees on a regular basis to give them both positive and corrective (note – 'corrective' doesn’t necessarily mean negative) feedback; it also means not talking about a staff member behind their back to other employees. Good communication also means offering the full staff the “big picture” goals—not doling out little dribs and drabs of information on a need-to-know basis. “Let them know the overall goals of the board and the association and the 'why,' says Rosen. “Why procedures are established, and why things are being done the way they are.”
There's plenty of data to back up Rosen's assertion. A 2015 Gallup survey of 7,200 adults found that approximately 50% had left a job at some point “to get away from their manager.” The study found that workers want, more than anything, is good communication. As The Wall Street Journal reported, “Gallup found that workers whose managers hold regular meetings are three times more likely to be engaged—that is, feel involved in and enthusiastic about their jobs.” The survey results also indicated that “goal setting and managing priorities is important for workers content with their managers. The survey found that workers feel like they’re given little guidance for understanding what’s expected of them. Clarity of expectations is perhaps the most basic of employee needs and is vital to performance.”
It’s easy to apply this Gallup survey to “business people” and executives, but communication is such a fundamental necessity that it crosses over to our gardeners and maintenance employees who not only want guidelines and goals to be set, but also to feel like there is an open channel of communication between themselves and the building or property manager.
“It is important to listen and act on suggestions that are brought to the supervisor from the staff,” explains Rosen. “Not every suggestion brought can be implemented, but the reasoning as to why the suggestion will not be implemented is important to discuss with the person who brings it forward and not to discourage them from bringing the next one because the next one could be the best thing since sliced bread.” Scheduled one-on-ones or department meetings can help foster an atmosphere of strong communication and illustrate that employee ideas, grievances and feedback are heard and respected. “
Fortin expands on that challenge by explaining that the natural tension that exists between association boards and residents can make it difficult for a manager to thrive. “Remember, a manager is an agent of the board hired to help carry out operational activities. Oftentimes residents may not understand that a decision to repair common elements like a road or pool is a board decision, not something the manager or management company has authority to do on its own. In that sense, I think the most important thing we can do for our managers is make sure they understand their role, how they serve the board and when an issue is within their authority and when it is the board’s decision to make. On top of those roles you also have duties that will vary by community and by contract. So ensuring a manager and their staff understand their role, responsibilities and the interaction between the manager, board and residents is of critical importance to a manager’s success.”
An inexperienced manager’s communication learning curve can be steep. Richard G., a building manager in Chicago had an issue with the building’s evening doorman. “I was young and new, he had been working there for something like thirty years. I really respected his tenure and the fact that the tenants knew and trusted him, but he seemed like a terrible employee.” Richard caught the doorman sleeping on the job, heard reports that solicitors continued to enter the building (“there were menus everywhere,” says Richard) and, shortly after Richard was hired, the doorman started showing up late without explanation or apology. “It was a noticeable shift in behavior, and I saw it happen. I wanted to keep him on, and though his errors were minimal, I didn’t want the problem to progress.” Richard finally had a one-on-one with the employee and found out he was having marital problems that impacted his work.
Rosen points out it’s important to “understand and be considerate of the fact that employees have a life outside the job. Having qualified back up personnel when someone is ill or has a family emergency is key.” Some of the more common challenges that arise among staff members can be conflicts between staff members. Power struggles, lack of respect between equals and personal problems can all erode the moral of the whole team and cause lapses in service and breakdown in structure – it’s important that when noted, these behaviors are cut off before they grow. “Inexperienced managers may procrastinate about speaking with an employee who is exhibiting unacceptable behavior,” notes Rosen. “Then the others will think ‘well if he or she can do that then why can’t I?’”
Not surprisingly, it is those macro issues—employee relationships, power balance and communication—that are the more common challenges that arise among association staff members. Micro and more specific problems like scheduling issues or poor attitudes typically stem from breakdowns of that bigger picture, which can result in costly and inconvenient turnover. “Serving on a board, working as a manager or as an employee in a community can be a thankless job. Each person has a role in helping the community function effectively and because actions affect people in their homes, it often stirs strong emotions,” says Fortin. “I think a well-trained manager who has an understanding that their role in supporting the board and employees in serving residents is the best way to motivate employees. But understanding that a great manager not only help protect the property values in the community but also work to build a strong sense of community keeps folks focused on the big picture.”
A perfect property manager might be someone with the right nature and tone to bring together a building’s employees, board and residents, but there are skills specific to handling hiring, firing, scheduling and performance reviews that might not be second nature to even the most efficient and effect leader. Rogers suggests online courses paired with labor lawyer consultations are a way to keep an employer doing interviews and dealing with a diverse staff out of harm’s way, and Fortin explains that using an organization like Associa provides a robust foundation and support system for managers. “Employee instituted ligation is a huge issue for any employer. In the case of Associa, our size is an advantage to our employees and our clients. We have a human resources staff that provides support to our branches on handling specific issues in their offices. We can provide assistance with recruiting, counseling or other matters that may arise at the branch level.”
Clear communication and strong management, paired with a few perks can help retain employees who feel deep job satisfaction. Rosen suggests providing incentives for getting tasks completed ahead of schedule, as well as including employees in decision-making and big picture inclusion can maintain a happy, healthy staff and get an apathetic, unmotivated staff back on track. “ Have employee appreciation days…recognize employees in front of their peers for a job well done.” He suggests something as simple as getting a choice parking space for a month can make other employees take note.
Though it might take a little bit of work to ensure it, prioritizing the work and life balance for your employees means your building will be healthy and thriving, which means you can truly unplug once you get home.
Rebecca Fons is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.