What’s Next for Property Management Employees During COVID-19

Employees must be empowered to make good decisions and contingency plans should be adapted to the evolving public health situation, writes Grace Hill's Dru Armstrong.
Dru Armstrong

The housekeeper who disinfects the light switch, washers, dryers, chairs and tables in an apartment community’s laundry room is a hero. The maintenance technician who replaces the bulb that’s gone out in the lamp over the parking lot and finds the leaking pipe is a hero. The groundskeeper who picks up the trash scattered in the grass is a hero.

The coronavirus pandemic is redefining what it means to be essential.

Doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and all health care professionals are vital right now. But now we need to better understand a new group on the list. As state officials determine next steps of lockdowns and reopenings, which affects tens of millions of Americans living in multifamily housing, it’s sinking in further that certain women and men can’t work virtually. These individuals, if they’re going to manage, maintain and fix the places we are sheltering in, are indispensable, and they find themselves on the front lines too.

Fundamental shifts in our economy and demographics before COVID-19 mean that more Americans than ever live in rental properties and are served by property managers. Jobs such as cashiers in the grocery stores, people stocking shelves, and receptionists in doctors’ offices are being considered front-line positions.

States like Vermont and Minnesota have started the ball rolling to classify some of these as emergency workers.

Essential

These workers face the ongoing public health crisis, as well as the economic shockwave we are experiencing as small businesses reopen or shutter, furloughed workers struggle to pay bills and creditors face defaults.

If more people are continuing to work from home, then that’s where property management employees are, stepping away from their families to support your family. That’s an enormous responsibility and sacrifice.

Property managers are coming to the aid of residents who do not have anyone else to call for help. They are implementing plans in cooperation with public health authorities to protect other residents when a resident is diagnosed with COVID-19. The managers and staff are dealing with exposure themselves.

Some repairs can be postponed if needed, of course, but some plumbing, temperature controls, hot water and electricity issues—the essentials—have to be fixed right away. We need to applaud the service staffs as well as the plumbers, electricians, HVAC technicians and other contractors who step up to the plate when their phones ring.

Stepping up

This crisis means that property management services have changed. New regulations and guidance on legal matters and safety have been coming online. New expectations are in place for leasing and serving virtually. New research surveying 15,000 renters across America is beginning to show the vital importance of getting this right.

So how do we keep these workers safe and support them? We need to continue to provide clear plans that cover safety, business and legal issues.

We need to have in place a clear way to communicate and hear feedback—more is better. Staffing plans need to allow for associates taking important time off and in a way that allows them to sustain the long effort. Full teams may need to be taken offline or scheduled differently because of quarantines that may return or evolve, but business has to go on.

For major business shifts, moving leasing teams to a virtual environment, concise training, policies, technology options and job aids need to be in place to set the stage for success. This needs to cascade to residents so they understand how property managers are operating, how you will serve them and how you will handle the tougher issues.

But communications shouldn’t be trivial. Too much rhetoric and too few concrete actions can suggest unpreparedness.

Business continuity plans should be modeled and put in place to prepare for when the crisis deepens, and when the crisis is over. You want to be prepared to handle demand for services including leasing, move ins and move outs, maintenance requests, amenity changes and more—now and when this is over.

Currently the National Multifamily Housing Council and the National Apartment Association are serving as clearing houses for best practices and updates for multifamily housing. There are best practices already in place that provide a home base for steady action. 

Assessing updates in this dynamic environment and making fact-based adjustments is key. Employees must be empowered to make the best judgement possible when the unexpected occurs. And we all have to collaborate to continue to refine and sustain the effort needed for what’s ahead.


Dru Armstrong is the CEO of property technology company Grace Hill, which focuses on policy, training and assessment software designed to develop, retain and build talent.