The data is in: striking a balance between our personal and professional lives is a key component of happiness and general wellbeing. But how does one do that when one’s job is potentially a 24/7 situation?
Take multifamily residential management, for instance. Pipes can burst at any time of the day or night. Boilers can stop working on a Sunday in mid-February. It’s just not a ‘9-to-5’ job. Truthfully, it never was—a fact that was thrown into even sharper relief with COVID and the enormous challenges that it brought to bear on the profession. So how do managers stay on top of their professional role, serve their client communities, and avoid burnout? We spoke to some industry veterans for their take on keeping it together.
As in all things, a little balance is good—vital, even. According to the many professionals we spoke with, achieving that balance as a residential community manager may depend on personality as well as intention. In other words, this job may not be for everyone.
“Essentially, an effective work-life balance is an equilibrium between a person’s professional life and personal life,” says Steven Reichert, regional director for FirstService Residential in New Jersey. “It involves the effective management of time, energy, and priorities to ensure that your duties to your job do not overshadow personal life and vice versa.” Otherwise, burnout is likely to happen, which will not serve the community or the manager well.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” says Dan Wollman, CEO of Gumley Haft, a management firm based in New York City. “I worked in accounting and shipping before real estate, so I had very demanding jobs. My personality is suited to this type of work, so it wasn’t a difficult transition for me. I know how to balance the stress. We—my wife and I—raised five kids in addition to working. Admittedly, my schedule did cause some stress in the home, but my wife was in the business, too, so she kind of understood it. She was a CFO of a real estate management company. I just don’t sleep that much.”
Donna Ciota, a senior community manager with Associa Chicagoland, believes structure is an important component in achieving work/life balance. “I have clearly defined boundaries within my work life,” she says. “I stick to a regular schedule that I try not to disrupt. Every morning, I leave my home at 8:00 a.m. and leave work at 5:00 p.m. I try not to alter these hours. After office hours, I only work as a community manager if there is an emergency at one of the associations I serve.”
Ciota explains further that she works in a hybrid position. “I am an on-site association manager 20 hours a week. The remainder of my week consists of two portfolio associations and numerous associations that are financial oversight only. I segment most of my life between family, work, volunteering, hobbies, and socializing. I apply that same concept to my work life by compartmentalizing the communities I work with. The on-site management community office hours are Monday and Wednesday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Friday. I work for one specific community only on those days, unless there is an essential item or emergency. Outside those times, within my regular work hours, I work for the other communities.”
“It can be very difficult to balance the demands of a constant and often irregular work schedule with the need for more family time,” says Bruno Bartoli, director of management services for Evergreen Management Group located in southern New Hampshire. “It can be particularly challenging for portfolio managers who juggle multiple associations simultaneously.” To ease the strain of serving more than one property—a reality for many managers—Bartoli adds that “it’s imperative that one fully understands the agreement between the management company and the association and the responsibilities outlined therein, to make sure that proper attention is provided while not over- or under-serving the client.”
Changing Times, Changing Seasons
As is the case with most situations today, technology has changed the face of real estate management. It’s both a blessing and a curse.
“The job is way more demanding today than when I began in the industry,” says Wollman, “because now clients and vendors have 24-hour access. When I started in the business, there weren’t any cell phones. No internet. With the advent of email, text, and cells, my job goes on all the time. Truthfully, email changed everything because it’s 24/7 and in real time. You can send emails from a plane. I go to bed around midnight. The last thing I do is I look at emails, just in case of an emergency. Then, in the morning I’ll look again, first thing, and I’ll have 15 emails which began arriving about 5:00 a.m. Habits are different than they were in the past. When I get on the railroad to my office at 6:00 a.m., I start sending and responding to emails. With the establishment of email as the main way of communicating, there was a change in expectations on everyone’s part. Everyone expects to hear back from you in a reasonable time. The truth is that it can be hard to keep up.”
Bartoli, who works in New Hampshire, lives what he calls ‘a four-season life.’ His work schedule, while always busy, does reflect changes from season to season. “Our busy time of year begins in the spring,” he says, “as we’re able to start exterior work projects. Our outdoor work and construction cycle is limited due to winter weather. Fall is also a busy time due to budget preparations, approvals, and annual and budget meetings. We also must ensure that exterior work is completed before the weather gets too cold. Associations with common pools or outdoor activities are busier then, too. We have a compressed time frame to make sure that they open by Memorial Day, remain functional in the face of ever-increasing regulations, and are closed properly by Labor Day. Regulations in our area make the pool an even bigger expense and time commitment. This can be exacerbated by the increasingly limited number of pool vendors and operators who can service the pool during the season.”
With the 24/7 nature of today’s real estate management game, many professionals in the field are in danger of burnout.
Reichert notes that burnout is becoming increasingly common for HOA managers. “Management and board members must deal with complex situations, and sometimes with difficult residents. Recent events such as the pandemic, the Surfside condo collapse, and inflation have added even more to their already full plate. The best way to avoid burnout,” he says, “is to deploy effective strategies. Strive to have a ‘deep bench’ of effective leaders, abundant resources, and provide consistent training and education for managers and board members.”
“Expectations for managers are greater than ever,” says Ciota. “Associations expect more from everyone these days. Taking on too many projects, regardless of size or scope, makes it easy for a manager to become overwhelmed and burn out. I minimize the chances of this by discussing projects and requests with my supervisor to prioritize tasks. Always be truthful and state if you can or cannot handle everything. Set your limits, and stick to them.”
In terms of personality, job success, and potential burnout, Wollman sums it up: “If you’re a person who requires a lot of positive reinforcement, this is probably not the job for you,” he says. “When I interview people I tell them this. I can count on one hand the number of times a client has called and said what a great job we did. I personally don’t need the reinforcement, but others do. That’s one reason why the level of burnout is very high in this industry. Work/life balance can be difficult. Clients only call when they have a problem. You have to solve problems all day long. You are a problem solver and a facilitator. The facilitator part is the more difficult part, though, because you’re depending on others to complete their task for you to complete yours. When they don’t, it’s your problem and it can be very frustrating.”
For those who thrive on that problem-solving, facilitator role, however—and who prefer every day to be different from the one before—a career in multifamily management may just be a dream job.
A J Sidransky is a staff writer/reporter for CooperatorNews, and a published novelist.