With COVID-19 cases increasing this winter, now is the time to refine the way you manage multifamily teams remotely. HappyCo is here to help — sharing top strategies from industry leaders who oversee on-site and off-site teams.
“It was a completely different kind of stress, and in the beginning, you could just see it in everyone’s face.”
Recalling the immediate toll COVID-19 took on his teams, HNN Communities Maintenance and Capital Projects Manager Owen Fleming offers a visual that’s hard to shake. Unfortunately, holiday virus spikes are only adding worry to this tense equation — at multifamily communities across the country. Against a backdrop fraught with anxiety, how should leaders rethink their approach to remote management? How can they show compassion while setting expectations? HappyCo spoke with three managers to find out their best practices for remote leadership.
1. Encourage teams to rethink tech
“Communication was a large hurdle early on, but we overcame that by offering a variety of software options for people to connect.” From the start, Fleming says leaders at HNN properties appreciated the option to use Zoom or Microsoft Teams at their sites rather than being assigned a specific platform.
“[Microsoft Teams] has been a huge boost, because we’ve utilized team channels for conversations, doing our best to make that kind of organic exchange within departments still happen — just remotely.” Kris Jensen, CTO at Strive Communities, says categorizing conversations has really helped bridge information gaps and ease collaboration within teams.
Jensen adds that video calls are the ideal remote medium to clear up any doubts about tone. “Tone makes a big difference, especially in writing, because a person can say one thing one way and the person on the other end has to interpret what their intention was. This is where video can really help when you’re remote, because you know immediately if someone is happy, angry, whatever the emotion — and that helps so much in communication.”
“We’ve done many virtual trainings so far, and have even expanded our platforms to bring in virtual reality options for maintenance. So far, our techs really like it!” In fact, Fleming says he’s “optimistic” that this VR tech will become a permanent part of the training mix across HNN properties.
2. Erase the doubt around expectations
Strike the right meeting balance
Jensen says managers go a long way in boosting morale when they strike the right balance between private meetings and communal calls. “We’re conducting weekly one-on-ones across the sites, but also holding weekly video chats where we’ll bring different teams together so that everyone can learn what others are working on.”
Explain the “why” behind projects
At Strive, managers are also encouraged to share the “why” behind projects — so that employees always feel there’s a purpose behind their work. In Jensen’s view, “We’ve been great at hiring people who are self-motivated, but the key in a remote environment is continuing to define their objectives.”
Create consistent messaging
Meanwhile, Scott Manning, VP of Operations, Property Management for CA Ventures, recommends developing consistent corporate messaging for teams who field questions from residents. Manning says: “From the start, our team worked hard to make sure we’d streamlined messaging for our on-site teams, as we didn’t want them to be overwhelmed.” The pay-off? Manning explains: “We had such a strong gameplan in place that when we did see an outbreak at one of our sites in September, our on-site teams carefully followed all of the protocols and were able to handle it quickly and with clear communication.”
3. Make decisions with rock-solid data
Identify trends with time-stamped photos
Jensen is quick to stress the benefits of timely digital unit inspections. “Data in a COVID world becomes a question of pictures taken — to know an inspection was exactly done as expected. Anything we rent, we want to make an inspection happen.” In Jensen’s view, “that data translates to financial strategy. We can start to identify trends in whether damages are on the rise across the portfolio or if they’re the same as what they used to be.”
Boost collaboration with seamless sync
At HNN communities, Fleming says Inspections’s seamless integration with Yardi has done wonders to keep managers and on-site crews on the same page. “Our Inspections inspections help greatly because the data syncs with Yardi automatically, so supervisors can easily check if techs are hitting goals by looking at the inspection checklists for the day.”
Keep teams organized with info in one place
From Manning’s perspective, with so much changing every day during the pandemic, it’s essential that teams can turn to just one place for everything they need. “Inspections has really been a breath of fresh air to ease the process of COVID signage audits. It has really kept us organized through this, helping ensure that our teams are compliant with policies that we’ve rolled out.”
4. Embody your core values in times of change
Rally staff around a shared mission
Jensen believes Strive’s operational success during the pandemic is due in part to the company rallying staff around a shared mission. “Our company culture is to value the individual. We make clear we’re all stakeholders in the success of the operation. It’s very people-centric, what we do.”
Make the exec team accessible
Manning describes CA Ventures as a company where teams really like to socialize with each other at events. So, during the COVID-19 crisis, the company has been shaking up the typical virtual webinar format. “Our recent leasing conference was great for morale because people from different teams had a genuine chance to get to know each other since we made it part of the agenda to allow for one-on-one time, such as a speed networking event where leasing managers were able to meet with a range of members including our executive team.”
Support colleagues in need
In a push to keep maintenance teams safe at the start of the pandemic, Fleming explains that HNN cut techs’ hours down to 2-3 days per week. However, the company ensured that these staff members would still receive full pay. In Fleming’s view, “That was a huge motivator for them, proof that we were living up to our inclusive culture of Be One Team.” Relatedly, as HNN’s culture is built on “helping each other out,” Fleming says, “Our techs routinely go to sister sites that need help, even before COVID.”
5. Show compassion and celebrate triumphs
Remember the need for interaction
Jensen admits: “We’ve found staff have actually been more productive working at home, without the water cooler chat. But, our concern is that people are inherently social creatures. They wanna be around each other, so that’s our concern, is how to keep people connected and engaged culturally.”
Acknowledge the longing for special events
“As far as big events go, we eventually want to go back to the old way,” says Fleming. “It was tough to cancel our full-company Christmas party. Those are the things people look forward to all year, so we want to host them again when it’s safe — and we’re communicating that.”
Collaborate with HR to support staff
Fleming also describes a truly effective collaboration that’s formed between HNN’s maintenance and HR teams since the start of COVID-19. “Our HR team really stepped up. They contacted our health providers to roll out a free program for 10 days of emergency childcare, which helped a lot of people whose kids are now doing remote learning. They also secured several free tutoring sessions for team members’ children.”
Advise teams about conflict resolution
“Early on, we put together sections on conflict resolution in the COVID playbook,” says Manning of CA Ventures. “We organized it very simply: if you fall into one of these types of situations, here’s what you do. In each case, we walked through specific training examples, and made sure the information we provided would cover as many kinds of scenarios as possible.”
Reach out when something’s happened
Of course, if an employee does feel uncomfortable after an unpleasant interaction, Manning says that’s the time to connect with them. “We’ve done a good job as a company reaching out to sites when it is needed. We’re keeping ourselves in the loop, to make our teams know they’re supported.”
Celebrate those on the front lines
Above all, Jensen advises that multifamily companies work hard to publicly celebrate those on the front lines. At Strive, he says: “Our district managers really got involved to do a great maintenance appreciation week this year. It was an entire week devoted to them, with lunches catered and techs coming in to receive gift bags and even see their golf carts were decorated.”
Similarly, at HNN, Fleming says: “For our annual maintenance appreciation week, we asked residents if someone handling their repair work had done something outstanding. If they had, we asked them to share their experience, and celebrated the technician on our internal website. Our office teams went all out on decorating maintenance carts and catering lunches, and our District Managers and Portfolio Managers put together and delivered gift bags for the maintenance staff. It showed our maintenance people that we really appreciate them, and they remained even more committed to their work, knowing that.”
Glennis is a writer/producer from San Francisco. Taking the city’s trains and buses with riders of all ages and backgrounds inspired Glennis to go into journalism and share people’s stories for a living. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 2013, she worked at CBS San Francisco as a program coordinator, public affairs producer, and ultimately full-time news writer for the KPIX 5 Morning News. She’s excited to enter the bustling startup world and tell HappyCo’s stories across channels.