For the last four months, American workers have been part of a national experiment: Can companies succeed when their employees work from home? The resounding answer from businesses both big and small is a very surprised yes.
From Facebook to Liberty Mutual to Mondelez, businesses are moving toward making at least partial work from home a permanent part of their business plan.
Employees are enjoying the flexibility of being home, and they’re saving money by nixing their commute. Meanwhile, companies are saving money on overhead. Money that once went to rent, electricity, and heating can now be allocated to growing their business, offering more services, or even reducing their prices.
And that goes for property management firms, as well.
In a recent survey conducted by Buildium, 56% of property managers said they have allowed some or all of their employees to work remotely due to COVID-19. And 37% say that it’s had no impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of their team. In fact, 36% say it’s actually improved.
“We have no intention of getting an office anymore,” says Mitch Deminski of Solutions for Real Estate in Columbus, OH.
Glen Russell of Coastal Group, Inc., in Norfolk, VA, agrees. “Do we need the amount of office space that we have anymore? Probably not. I think office space is going to become a little bit superfluous after this [pandemic].”
So, the question now is not whether property managers should move to a remote team, but rather how they can make the change permanent.
For the last few years, the debate has swayed back and forth on whether remote employees are the future of work. Some companies raved about its benefits, while others warned it would lead to decreased productivity and communication challenges.
And there have been some challenges. But the trial-by-fire method property managers have been subjected to has led to some interesting solutions to the most talked-about challenges, namely communication, morale, accountability, and process and operations.
Keeping Up Your Communication
Communication is at the center of any high-functioning property management business—and there’s never a shortage of messages between owners, residents, and staff.
According to Buildium’s recent survey, 54% of property managers say they’re communicating with residents more frequently due to COVID-19.
It’s also true that the lack of an office setting means property managers have to ratchet up their communications among employees. And some property managers have come up with innovative ways to do just that.
For Deminski, it’s important to see his core operations people every day. He uses more traditional video conferencing tools such as Skype, but then he integrates other solutions to keep people in touch all day. Marco Polo, an app that combines texting, video conferencing, and images, helps keep communications open and constant.
“I want to make sure they’re seeing me and I’m seeing them, and that they’re also communicating between each other. I think that’s very important,” says Deminski.
When and how you communicate with owners and residents is also important.
“I don’t want to lose the human touch, which is very easy to do [when using technology],” says Russell. He says when someone has a maintenance request, they try to be as responsive as possible, reaching out to let them know that their request was received, what the solution is, and what the timeline is.
Meanwhile, for Troy Evans of Marketplace Homes, a national property management firm based in Detroit, MI, the quality of communications is what matters.
He has made responses to requests and questions more in-depth. Instead of simply responding to acknowledge an email, his team responds with concrete answers. It’s a big change that Evans has seen that he says is going to continue to stick.
Team Engagement and Morale
As everyone moved to their home offices, it was naturally difficult to maintain a sense of team and to keep people motivated. Of course, a lack of morale can have a direct effect on your owners and residents, as well as your employees.
What’s surprising is that Buildium’s research found that not all property management firms suffered from a loss of morale. In the survey, 37% said that allowing staff members to work remotely had no impact on morale, while 33% said it actually improved.
Of course, open and frequent communication goes a long way in keeping a team culture alive. But there are other little things property management companies are doing, should they find morale dipping.
At Marketplace Homes, they play a game called “Name That Baby,” where team members submit baby pictures of a celebrity. Everyone guesses and the winner gets a gift card. It’s become a weekly highlight for the team, says Evans.
For Russell, it’s simply recognizing the hard work of employees.
“More than anything, it’s just giving people a pat on the back, and especially saying we realize this is weird,” he says.
According to RealPage data on remote work, as of mid-April, 38.4% of property managers said their greatest challenge was keeping their team productive and engaged.
It certainly has required much more communication and some outside-the-box thinking to keep important tasks on everyone’s radar.
When you’re in an office setting, it’s easy to find a team member and ask for a follow-up on something they’ve been tasked to do. With everyone at home, it can take time for people to get back to you, or you may get distracted with something else.
Deminski found this happening with his team, so he came up with the WAT-WAT report (short for what about this, what about that). It’s a report they go through in one of their bi-weekly meetings where they methodically go through issues having to do with residents, owners, vendors, and other topics. He asks about new issues, progress on current ones, and blockers.
By putting in place a meeting where everyone knows they will be accountable for reporting on their tasks, Deminski has found that productivity has improved.
Flexibility and the Work-Life Balance
“If someone showed up two minutes late [for work], it drove me crazy,” says Deminski of the days when they had an office. But he has learned that with everyone home, as long as the work gets done, flexibility is actually helpful to the company and his employees.
Mitch points out that he has an employee with two young children who have been home through the COVID-19 crisis. She figured out she could be there for them during the day and then catch up on work at 4am. And as long as she is reachable, that’s okay with Deminski.
“My employees are happier and they’re working harder, longer,” he says.
But there is a balance that has to be struck. It’s so easy for work and home life to bleed into each other when your employees are sitting at the kitchen table instead of an office desk.
And Deminski recognizes that if his employees are logging on at 6pm or 4am, they’re probably going to be taking care of personal matters during normal business hours.
If an employee wants to go out and go grocery shopping during the day, as long as they answer the phone, Mitch says, “I don’t care. And that’s completely different from where we were six months ago.”
This understanding is so critical to keeping your team balanced and healthy during a time that isn’t conducive to those habits at all according to Chris Litster, CEO of Buildium.
In a recent article published in Business Insider, Litster says, “We want people to be present in all aspects of their lives: present at work and present with their families, and able to bring their whole self to both of these endeavours. If either piece is missing, the whole suffers.”
Choosing the Right Tech Stack
Property management can be a very hands-on business, where you’re out in the field, talking to residents, prospective residents, owners, and community members.
But going remote and adjusting to the new normal means embracing a solid tech stack and turning to digital solutions for as much of the business as you can.
Russell, for example, is very much interested in using software to scale his business. “I want to have a more technologically-proficient team. If a piece of software costs you $6,000 a year, well what would an employee cost you?”
Evans agrees. “We can’t be old-school anymore.”
Think of all the things you do to keep your business running. Can you find a digital solution for it? Here are some examples of tasks and processes with which tech can help.
Apps such as Marco Polo, Slack, Skype, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, and Handshake can keep your team connected. (Added bonus: Handshake includes group games, which could be used to boost team culture.)
In Buildium’s survey, 22 percent of property managers said they now allow residents to pay their rent by credit card in response to COVID-19. Online payment apps such as Venmo and PayPal are also popular. Finally, property management platforms allow both resident and owner payments, as well as accounting and tracking.
Lease Signings and Other Documentation
Online lease signing tools like eLease and document storage apps keep all paperwork associated with a property in one place. Property management software can help you keep your full leasing cycle in check.
Self-showings, virtual tours, and 3D photos make the need for in-person showings extraneous. Evans recognizes that this is a major cultural shift, but has come to rely on Tenant Turner for self-showings of his properties. In fact, 48% of property managers surveyed by Buildium said they had adopted technologies to enable virtual tours or self-showings for vacant properties as a direct result of COVID-19.
Property management platforms allow residents to report maintenance issues via their smartphone. Property managers can then assign and track each issue from start to finish.
Since the onset of the pandemic, Russell says his team has been getting more maintenance requests than ever before. His residents have discovered the benefit of an online maintenance request system, which is something he likes to see.
Processes and Documentation
“It takes two months to get through the clumpiness at the beginning,” says Mitch. He knows, because his office had to close unexpectedly when the atrium in his office building collapsed. This happened about 6 months before the pandemic erupted.
The building was condemned and all businesses within it were barred from going back. Mitch broke in to get the computers and checkbooks, and the next day, the company had to figure out phone systems, file sharing, and a number of new challenges.
It will take some time to establish processes as your business moves to the cloud. Showing properties, lease signing, accepting and tracking work orders, and even onboarding new team members will involve new steps and technologies.
Establish with your team the software you will be using for each element of the business, from communication apps, to property management SaaS platforms. Set up training sessions for each member of your team and document every new process for future employees.
Finally, it’s important to go through and assess your processes every few months to a year to determine what’s working and what needs improvement.
Shifts in Staffing
A shift to a remote office may also mean a shift in staffing. As you move to more tech solutions, you may find a need for an IT ops or web specialist.
Meanwhile, you may find, unfortunately, that other staff positions are no longer necessary. For instance, an office manager may no longer make sense. Assess your staffing needs thoroughly. As you move to more tech solutions, you may find a new need for an IT ops or web specialist, or another role you didn’t expect.
For new roles, it’s absolutely okay to conduct interviews online. According to the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), companies are overwhelmingly turning to online communication tools like Zoom or Google Meet to interview and hire new employees.
Once you hire someone, make sure you have proper onboarding for new remote staff members in a shared drive.
The question has been asked and answered. Property managers and their employees want to go remote at least some of the time, if not completely—either because of the pandemic, or as a result of how working in quarantine has permanently changed our mindsets. By eliminating the office, they’re finding they can allocate funds once used for overhead to grow their business, expand their service offerings, and be more agile.
And they can do all of this without hurting productivity or morale. In some cases, they have even seen it improve.
For more advice from property managers on going remote, check out Buildium’s Business Un-usual web series, where you’ll hear more from Mitch Deminski (Solutions for Real Estate), Troy Evans (Marketplace Homes), and Glen Russell (Coastal Group).Read more on Team