By Nancy Crotti
Property owners and management companies are challenged to train their on-site managers as perhaps never before. The needs are varied, from attracting and retaining tenants and staff, to maintaining the property and the safety of all on site, to protecting the company against liability and winning points for tenant satisfaction. The good news is, there have never been so many tools available to update skills.
There’s a lot to absorb, conceded Tami Criswell, director of product at Grace Hill, a property management online training provider. For maximum efficacy, companies should offer training in a continuous loop, she advised, rather than inundating employees with information.
Grace Hill’s curriculum includes compliance topics such as fair housing, bedbug and mold response, along with leadership skills like emotional intelligence, generational differences and risk management. Then there’s occupational safety adherence, online brand management, and sexual and workplace harassment training. Spurred by the renewed, widespread attention the latter topics have received, Grace Hill now offers its online sexual harassment training for free.
“What a manager needs to know continuously increases,” Criswell explained. “The burden is much bigger now on what a manager needs to know than it was five or 10 years ago.”
While the essential tasks of property management largely remain the same rapid technological advancements have added to what managers must learn, according to Dawn Brent, Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM) manager of education and curriculum development. For example, property managers must learn how to use maintenance reporting software and then train maintenance personnel to use the accompanying mobile apps.
Today’s property managers must also have strong skills in finance, leadership and human resources management, especially in the current tight job market, added Christine Gilmore, vice president of training of Bell Partners, a Greensboro, N.C.-based property management company.
For new recruits, different combinations of classroom, online and on-the-job training work best, according to Bell and multifamily owner Camden Property Trust. Bell used to rely heavily on online training but has changed course in the past few years.
“For us, the learning on the job has increased a lot,” Gilmore said. “Online training is really efficient, but I think that people want to have somebody to (answer their) questions and help them apply what they learned.”
Furthermore, Bell has found that it’s easy for employees to become distracted during longer online sessions, Gilmore relayed, although online classes work well as quick refreshers.
However, managers may take optional online courses covering topics such as Microsoft Excel, communication or conflict management and receive a certificate or a badge through a program Bell introduced two years ago.
“Participation actually was more than I thought it would be,” Gilmore remarked. “What I found was that once one person on one site went through and did one of them, then other people at that site would do the same thing.”
At Camden, the emphasis on training new managers has switched from mostly classroom instruction toward a mix that also includes online and on-the-job learning, according to Margaret Plummer, vice president of employee development at the Houston-based firm. With its varied approach, Camden is taking a cue from its Millennial employees, who have said they enjoy learning continuously and from different sources.
“We have been integrating more online training,” Plummer said. “Where we are now in our journey is recognizing that conveying information online is the best use of time,” while the classroom provides a better venue for discussions and sharing of best practices.
Camden is also relying more on in-house subject matter experts to educate property managers on specific topics. For example, the company’s marketing department has created online information and training on digital brand management.
In the past year, both Bell and Camden have increased their on-the-job training offerings, with favorable results. To curtail attrition among new recruits, Bell initiated its “Bell Buddy” program, which pairs a new manager with an experienced one in the same market for 90 days to work on a checklist of topics, such as how to access and learn from resident satisfaction survey results. These consultations can occur over the phone or in person. So far, about 60 building and maintenance managers have completed the program.
Camden pairs new hires with mentors for the first 30 days to help them adapt to the company culture, glean tips and tricks about being successful, and learn the nuts and bolts of daily management.
“We felt like there was a gap as far as someone being hired and being able to hit the ground running,” Gilmore said. “We have gotten great feedback from the new managers. Because the person that they’re partnered with is a peer of theirs, they’re more comfortable calling them—(rather than) their supervisor—to ask a question.”
Put to the test
After new managers’ initial training, some companies rely on the tried-and-true “mystery shopper” method of testing knowledge and skills. The “shopping” may take place over the phone, in person or online, with the fake prospective tenant asking questions about such topics as neighborhood safety and accommodations for children, according to Criswell of Grace Hill.
If a property manager’s answer is incorrect or inappropriate, the best response is to swiftly and specifically address the error and nothing else, she said. “We understand that adult learners don’t really want to learn anything other than what they need to know and what will continue moving them forward,” Criswell added.
IREM members in general are still doing a lot of in-person training. According to Brent, some of the larger residential management companies are also providing property managers with quick references to online information or a learning management system that they can access from mobile devices.
“Giving it to them when they need it is the biggest trend in training,” she observed.
Property owners must set clear goals and expectations for managers to achieve them, with periodic reviews and check-ins, added Plummer, also noting that response to errors needs to be swift.
“You’ve got to act quickly to give them the knowledge that you expect them to execute on,” Plummer stated. “If it’s not a knowledge gap, you still have to act quickly to identify if somebody is in the wrong position.”
Bell runs reports through its online training program to monitor managers’ compliance with safety courses, and company leadership asks its departments about trends in employee requests for help. The firm also looks for trends in resident satisfaction survey responses across its portfolio, as well as in properties’ individual weekly occupancy reports, which are sent via email.
To align with its company culture, Camden has also been shifting toward teaching people-management and leadership skills to all of its on-site managers, said Plummer, adding, “That’s definitely a very important focus for us in the next year.”
You’ll find more on this topic in the March 2018 issue of MHN.