Episode 23: Leading the work-life blur ft. Chris Litster

29 min. listen

Published on March 3, 2021

When the pandemic started, many of us thought it would be a much shorter ordeal—guessing that it would last around three months before our lives would get back to normal. It’s been about a year since the original lockdown, and we’re still in it.

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We all know that property managers are used to handling challenging situations—and this is no different. That said the past year has been hard. Most of all, it’s difficult to maintain balance and a strong culture at work, and many business have felt these pangs at different moments. But there’s still been a lot of growth in the property management industry for those who’ve figured out how to best adapt and lead their teams through it.

In the grand finale of Season 3, we welcomed Chris Litster, Senior Vice President of Buildium, Propertyware, and Kigo to explain his leadership approach and what’s worked for his team throughout the pandemic.

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The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Could you tell us about your recent article in Fast Company?

Chris Litster: We published it because we saw that there were some things going on from our remote-work reality. There were some things that I saw that weren’t working. And there were also some new things that I thought were working that I figured we’d want to talk about them. As a side note, I have the very first edition of Fast Company up in my attic from, God, I think it was ’91 or ’92. And when I had the opportunity to get published in Fast Company, we jumped on it. So it was a bucket list item for me.

How has leading teams changed over the past year?

Chris Litster: It was funny because at the beginning, we thought we were going to be doing this for three months. And when we first started this, there were these mistakes that I actually made thinking that I had to have the answer all the time. I felt I needed to be the rock. And the reality is—what I ultimately found out—is I was pretending that I was having all the answers (because nobody had all the answers).

And when I (myself and our leadership team), finally just said, “nobody has the answers here, so why are we pretending?” We can still be a rock to the employees, but you can also admit, from a vulnerability perspective, that we don’t have all the answers. We’re plowing through all this brand new territory. And that’s okay because that doesn’t mean that you have to forget who you are as a company. There are important actions that you need to take. You need to keep on with tradition. You need to keep on with the rituals of what you’ve done historically as a company.

How do you calm people’s fears and communicate stability?

Chris Litster: You know, it’s interesting. I think there are many examples in personal life and in the business world and non-business world where people avoid that crucial conversation. That crucial statement of, “I don’t know, we’ll find out.” And I think there’s a fear that by saying, ‘I don’t know,’ we’ll then induce fear in people. And I think the opposite is true. I think when you try to fabricate an answer, I think you actually create fear because people can tell if you’re not genuine. People can tell if you’re fabricating an answer.

When the reality of an extended pandemic finally sunk in, where did your mind go?

Chris Litster: I don’t know if I remember the exact day, but I remember the feeling, and it wasn’t easy. We thought it was going to be a couple of weeks, maybe a couple of months, but then, all of a sudden, it was like, “we’re going to try for September. We’re going to try for October. And (oh no) the numbers are going up.” Boston was a place where the numbers were dramatically rising and it felt like we were in the thick of it.

My middle son last spring was a senior in high school. A turning point happened for me when we were all asking what was going to happen with graduation. And the communication just wasn’t coming out. Until pretty close to the actual graduation date the answer was, “there’s not going to be a true graduation. We’ll figure something out.” But that realization that everything, all the norms for my son in a senior year, were just gone.

That then made me start to think, “wow, there’s a lot of things that are just going to be different, that we are going to need to adapt.” And we did adapt and we did change, but that first realization where you had to let go of what pre-COVID norms were, it was pretty hard and emotional. And the good thing is that at Buildium and at RealPage, I was able to show those emotions to my leadership team and just being like, “I need help because this is big. This is bigger than I thought it was.” Not only on the work side, but also on the personal side. I needed that help from folks to allow me to be vulnerable and help pick me up.

What has struck you most about how property managers have handled these unpredictable conditions?

Chris Litster: I think their ability to adapt quickly has really been just amazing. Everyone, obviously the whole world, has had to adapt on the turn of a dime, but property management really has. Right away they worked to understand how they could change up their processes in a distributed world—in a work-from-home world. Their employees have to work from home as well, but this is a relationship-based business. So how do you maintain that? Here at Buildium, we’ve been talking about the importance of relationships with your residents, with your owners, and with your vendors forever. We’ve always felt that the ability to take advantage of the Buildium platform will not only give you back more time (because you can’t add more time to a day), but it will allow you to free up time, because your operations will be more effective and efficient. Then you can focus on what matters most.

And that’s the relationships you have with your residents, your owners and your service providers. Well, COVID forced that so the human side really came through. We saw property managers being creative around how they could get closer, figuratively, with their residents in this work-from-home world. They’ve used Zoom to create [a sense of] community with their residents. They’ve also amped up their adoption of things like resident portals, which helps build on the relationships that they have, but in a more automated manner. We didn’t really know what their mindset was going to be. We were so happily surprised to see [in Buildium’s 2021 Industry Report] that when we asked about their outlook, three out of four property managers said their outlook was one of growth over the next two years.

And this is despite the pandemic. Despite all the changes that they needed to put in place. Despite them finding that they didn’t have all the answers. In the face of all that, 75% of them still had an outlook anticipating growth. Just pretty amazing.

What are some of the unexpected benefits you’ve seen play out?

Chris Litster: There’s a number of them. Because we are now in this whole work from home, living on Zoom and Microsoft Teams all the time, we see a fuller story of all of our colleagues. We’re sitting in offices, we’re sitting in kitchens, we’re sitting in rooms that pets and animals jump on. We hear children in the background. We see children run in.

We essentially have a view into someone’s whole life now because that area between work and non-work life has come down. And I truly think we’re richer because of it. Because I can understand some of the realities of having kids home. Parents trying to juggle their jobs. At the same time, unexpected things obviously happen from being impacted directly from COVID. And so that to me is probably one of the better things that has come from COVID.

I think I’ve built on my relationships with many of the Buildians throughout our whole employee population because I’ve learned so much about them that historically was just dark to me. I think this more human picture really helps us all to take a step back and appreciate what it is to be a productive person, not only in business and at a company, but also in non-company time. That barrier no longer exists between those two.

What are some ways that you’ve helped keep the Buildium culture alive and well?

Chris Litster: And it’s really interesting because there has historically been, as part of the hustle, this idea that you have to have the best office. You have to have a ping pong table. You have to have cold brew, or whatever, to make a great culture.

And so that all that stuff went away. But that wasn’t our culture. Our culture is the traditions. Our culture is the way that we regard employees. Our culture is the fact that we don’t believe we can be successful without having the most loyal and happy employees. And we want Buildium to be a place where they remember working forever.

So it’s much deeper than just the physical things that you provide, it’s those traditions. And those traditions we kept up. Historically, one of those traditions was the company get together in the summer with beach day. We turned that into a virtual week, as well as giving back to the community. One of our big culture items is a bike ride for Multiple Sclerosis, where we’ve had historically upwards of 80 folks ride on a two-day event, 150 miles. Two years ago, before the pandemic, we raised something like $125,000. Last year it became a virtual event. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We still had something like 30 or 35 Buildians. Many on a stationary bike of some sort, or riding outside in their neighborhoods. And we still raised $44,000.

What other data or metrics are you using to measure your team’s health in a quantifiable way?

Chris Litster: We brought on more Buildians in 2020 than we did in 2019. Every single one of those Buildians, aren’t just culture-fits—they’re culture-adds. They themselves strengthened our culture. And they themselves helped us drive more closely to living into every single one of our values.

We have unlimited paid time off here at Buildium. But even as part of that, our vacation time went to pretty much zero at the start of the pandemic. People stopped taking vacation. And, you need to take vacation. You need to put your laptop flap down and shut off and go on vacation. Even if vacation means you go into the next room for a week. Where you don’t go into your home office for a week. So that was another key thing of watching the paid time off. And gradually that started to come up.

And then finally we have historically done employee engagement surveys. We didn’t know what the first survey was going to look like when we were in the thick of it. And we take, not only the survey and understand the results of the engagement level, how our employees are feeling, but from that, we also put actions against the numbers.

When the pandemic is all over, what are some of the words you might use to describe this time?

Chris Litster: So-and-so you’re on mute. Like how many times a day do you say that? Jokingly I say it when I’m in my real life, if you will. When one of my sons will be talking and instead of, so-and-so, you’re on mute, I say, “I wish you’d go on mute.” It’d be interesting to see what happens post-COVID. Are cell phone-based or mobile-based conference calls dead? Will those even exist? Why wouldn’t you just jump on a Zoom?

Also, the Brady Bunch grid. I was just on another call with some new Buildians and I referenced the Brady Brunch grid and I saw people look at me. I said “do you know what the Brady Bunch is?” So I definitely aged myself when I talked about living in a Brady Bunch grid world.

What were some of your favorite moments in Season 3?

Chris Litster: I’ll be diplomatic. We were able to adapt and still have a great series and a great season this year. We’re making light of some things. This has been a tough year for a lot of people personally, professionally, globally, but I think it was really important that we kept this up. And I think it was really important that we are able to showcase, in many of the episodes, the reality of property management in 2020.

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