The Extra Mile: How COVID-19 Is Changing On-Site Management

Residential property managers wear many hats on behalf of their investor clients. Now add caregiver.

Residential property managers have long been asked to take on additional responsibilities for the apartment communities they manage. Once responsible only for collecting rent and dealing with the everyday maintenance of their properties, residential managers today need to provide additional services to the multifamily investors they represent. Today, managers are not just building caretakers. They hold a more strategic role and are expected to create value rather than just preserve it.

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COVID-19 is again forcing residential managers to evolve to remain competitive—and to retain their jobs. As essential workers, they’ve been faced with the challenges of working remotely, putting in grueling hours and implementing new technologies and safety protocols. But the pandemic is also adding duties they never signed up for: managing stressed and anxious residents who aren’t used to being home 24/7 and may be unemployed, ill or frustrated.

That’s creating undue stress on frontline workers who lack training in the psychological and social-work skills they’re now required to use—and causing management companies to focus not only on retaining residents at their communities but also on the health and safety of their own workers.

“Our property managers have been forced into roles they were never hired for,” said Diana Pittro, executive vice president of RMK Management in Chicago, which manages about 7,000 apartment units in the Midwest. “They are responsible for millions of dollars of assets for owners, and, during the virus, the owners are micromanaging everybody, and that generates more reports and more stress on the site team. But the thing that hurts them the most is the fine line they’re walking when dealing with the human factor—you’re talking to a resident going through something so personal and traumatic, and you’re not a relative. You’re a stranger.”

Management companies, both large and small, are developing new initiatives to support their team members. RMK, for example, has paid its staff for 40 hours per week even when they didn’t work a full schedule. They’ve given gifts and bonuses and provided lunches to thank their staff. And they’ve adjusted their workloads to allow nonessential activities, such as continuing education requirements, to be delayed to a less stressful time in the future.

“If I want my managers to look out for RMK, I should look out for them,” Pittro said. “Our employees are our primary asset.”

RMK Management sent on-site managers at the Residences at Addison & Clark, a 148-unit luxury apartment community in Chicago, flowers, lunches, gift cards and other treats to thank them for their hard work as essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Rolling out new initiatives

The need to balance the desire of residents for human interaction with the safety that comes from social distancing is a challenge for managers. They may also have to work with tenants who fear losing their home because they are unable to make rent payments or are ill and need food.

“Both owner-operators and third-party property management companies are well aware of the stress the pandemic is putting on their site managers,” said Dustin Read, Ph.D., an associate professor of property management and real estate at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. “The good ones are putting support systems in place that allow site managers working across different properties to easily reach out to each other for support and advice, and some companies are also providing site managers with additional training on conflict resolution so they can work with residents more effectively in these challenging times.”

Consider what Greenbelt, Md.-based Bozzuto Management Co., which manages over 83,000 apartments across 266 properties throughout the United States, is doing to help ensure the well-being of its employees in the age of COVID-19.

“We have offered a few different events—virtual yoga or other events that help employees disconnect, such as a virtual comedy show,” said Keri Walker Pfeifer, Bozzuto’s senior vice president. “It’s one way for teams to forget about everything else that’s happening.”

Bozzuto also has an employee assistance program if anyone is struggling, Pfeifer said, as well as an employee wellness portal that offers resources such as virtual doctor visits and therapy, a childcare and elder-care coordination service, and complete wellness programs. Bozzuto has also introduced diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives over the past few years.

“We are a company whose mission is to create sanctuary for our residents,” said Stephanie Williams, Bozzuto Management’s president. “To deliver on this promise, we have built a culture that celebrates the rich diversity and contributions of our associates, seeking to ensure a sense of care, concern and belonging. Especially in a tumultuous year like this, our associates need and deserve additional support.”

When residents of Parkline Miami fell ill with COVID-19, the Bozzuto Management Co. team left care packages at their door and checked in to see if they needed anything from the store. Image courtesy of Bozzuto Miami 

Communication with staff is key

With residential managers facing additional stressors and, in many cases, not having the requisite training to deal with the new issues COVID-19 has brought, it’s more important than ever that property management firms communicate with those in the field.

“We’re focused heavily on communication and letting our teams know how important is it for us to know that we are there for them and here to listen,” said Pfeifer.

Bozzuto puts so much emphasis on communication that Toby Bozzuto, The Bozzuto Group’s president & CEO, personally called every property manager— nearly 300 of them—to check in to see how they’re doing, Pfeifer said.

Indeed, industry experts say that communication is one of the best ways to keep staff morale up during a particularly difficult time.

“Communication is continuously important,” said Stephanie Anderson, manager of industry operations for the National Apartment Association. “You don’t want to over-communicate and cause panic. But companies should allow team members to know that they understand what they’re going through. On-site teams just want to feel valued and supported.”

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