These days, pretty much everyone has a smart phone, which means they have a computer in their hands all day, every day. That makes it difficult to take true vacation days, to 'unplug' on the weekend, and to “leave work at work.” Our work lives and our home lives have merged as we all find ourselves checking email at the dinner table, as we brush our teeth, and as we wait for the train. But even with it becoming ever more difficult to get off the grid, our home is still a place of sanctuary. We get home, kick off our shoes, settle into the couch and get to eat an entire bag of cheese puffs free of judgment. It’s where we raise our kids and where we keep our cherished possessions. These are the comforts that our offices don’t afford us. Even if we’re reviewing work documents in bed, we are still in bed, not at work.
However, for employees of a condo or homeowner’s association—property managers, maintenance staff, and doormen—your home is their work. Your home is the place they have to clock in to, and because you entrust these individuals with your safety and with the upkeep of the quality of your home, it is vital to make sure they are well managed, efficient and happy.
Stay In Your Lane
The human resources side of multifamily property management in both urban and suburban settings can include on-site custodial, accounting, maintenance, mail room, and security staff, to name a few. These are the folks who make the property run smoothly. The pretty flowers that appear in the planters and flowerbeds every spring, and the always-gleaming floors in the common areas don’t happen magically; there is a person or persons behind those special touches, as well as behind the nuts and bolts of each and every managed building.
A good property manager can be the solution to keeping the whole thing on-track, providing guidance to employees, handling challenges or coworker disputes and making sure your building purrs along. “The most effective and reliable way to communicate is if everything goes through the management company,” says Stephen DiNocco, principal at Affinity Realty & Property Management in Boston. When board members or residents take requests for service directly to maintenance or other staff members, a well-ordered system can break down, creating problems for everyone involved.
“It might take the maintenance person out of schedule, changing priorities. Someone else who was promised something on that day may not be getting the services they need,” DiNocco notes. “If a resident says something to the maintenance guy, and he says he’ll write up a work order but then forgets, that request might get lost. And if the unit owner or board member doesn’t call the management company, there’s no way to track the request, to schedule an employee to get the job done and expedite the follow-through.”
Bottom line, he says: “Call the management office.”
There’s another practical reason for board members and owners to call the office with service requests, suggestions or complaints. “Typically, the (condo) employees are employees of the management company, because condo associations don’t want to take on the liability, for insurance, and so on,” says David Abel, senior vice president and director of business development at The Niles Company in Canton, Massachusetts.
“It can be a problem, what we try to do is to manage expectations, to be clear up front with the board what the expectations are,” he says. As part of that conversation, the manager has to explain why requests should go through the office, rather than directly to employees. “There are certain liability reasons—employer/employee law restrictions. You can get yourself into a lot of trouble, and I’ve seen it happen, where a trustee does or says something which can create rather significant problems on a variety of issues.”
For those reasons, and more, DiNocco says he tells employees that if board members or unit owners make requests, the employee should tell them that they really need to call the management office. At the same time, he notes, board members should give that same message to unit owners who approach them about issues. “If people are going to the board members, the implication is that management isn’t doing its job,” DiNocco says. “It sets up the idea that the only way to get something done is to go to the board member. It takes the manager out of the chain of command. Then if something doesn’t get done, they blame the management company.”
Use Your Words
When managing employees, the most common mistakes property managers make seem to boil down to communication—or lack thereof. Good communication means connecting with employees on a regular basis to give them both positive and corrective (note—‘corrective’ doesn’t necessarily mean negative) feedback; it also means not talking about a staff member behind his or her back to other employees. Good communication also means offering the full staff the “big picture” goals—not doling out little dribs and drabs of information on a need-to-know basis.
A 2015 Gallup survey of 7,200 adults found that approximately 50% had left a job at some point “to get away from their manager.” The study found that workers want, more than anything, is good communication. As The Wall Street Journal reported, “Gallup found that workers whose managers hold regular meetings are three times more likely to be engaged—that is, feel involved in and enthusiastic about their jobs.” The survey results also indicated that “goal setting and managing priorities is important for workers content with their managers. The survey found that workers feel like they’re given little guidance for understanding what’s expected of them. Clarity of expectations is perhaps the most basic of employee needs and is vital to performance.”
It’s easy to apply this Gallup survey to “business people” and executives, but communication is such a fundamental necessity that it crosses over to our gardeners and maintenance employees who not only want guidelines and goals to be set, but also to feel like there is an open channel of communication between themselves and the building or property manager.
“When there are policies in place, employees know what to expect … and performance can be measured,” DiNocco explains. At the same time, it’s important for managers to listen and act on suggestions from the staff. Not every suggestion can be implemented, but managers should not discourage employees from bringing them forward. Those discussions can show that employee ideas, grievances and feedback are heard and respected.
Andrew S. Fortin, senior vice president of external affairs for Associa, a nationwide property management firm, notes that the natural tension that exists between association boards and residents can make it difficult for a manager to thrive. “Remember, a manager is an agent of the board hired to help carry out operational activities. Oftentimes residents may not understand that a decision to repair common elements like a road or pool is a board decision, not something the manager or management company has authority to do on its own. In that sense, I think the most important thing we can do for our managers is make sure they understand their role, how they serve the board and when an issue is within their authority and when it is the board’s decision to make.
Not surprisingly, it is those macro issues—employee relationships, power balance and communication—that are the more common challenges that arise among association staff members. “Serving on a board, working as a manager or as an employee in a community can be a thankless job. Each person has a role in helping the community function effectively and because actions affect people in their homes, it often stirs strong emotions,” says Fortin. “I think a well-trained manager who has an understanding that their role in supporting the board and employees in serving residents is the best way to motivate employees. But understanding that a great manager not only help protect the property values in the community but also work to build a strong sense of community keeps folks focused on the big picture.”
A key method of keeping employees happy, DiNocco has found, is for managers to be flexible. “You have to treat people like adults,” he says. “People have personal lives and business lives,” and helping them balance the two reduces stress for everyone involved. If, for example, an employee needs to take an hour, or an afternoon, off for a doctor’s appointment or other family need, “I’m not going to question them on it. You have to have flexibility.”
A perfect property manager might be someone with the right nature and tone to bring together a building’s employees, board and residents, but there are skills specific to handling hiring, firing, scheduling and performance reviews that might not be second nature to even the most efficient and effect leader. Online courses paired with labor lawyer consultations are one way to keep an employer doing interviews and dealing with a diverse staff out of harm’s way, and Fortin explains that using an organization like Associa provides a robust foundation and support system for managers. “Employee instituted ligation is a huge issue for any employer. In the case of Associa, our size is an advantage to our employees and our clients. We have a human resources staff that provides support to our branches on handling specific issues in their offices. We can provide assistance with recruiting, counseling or other matters that may arise at the branch level.”
Clear communication and strong management, paired with a few perks can help retain employees who feel deep job satisfaction. Some management companies or associations, Abel notes, hold picnics or holiday parties with employees and their family members to foster harmony.
Though it might take a little bit of work to ensure it, prioritizing the work and life balance for your employees means your building will be healthy and thriving, which means you can truly unplug once you get home.
Rebecca Fons is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium. Associate Editor Pat Gale also contributed to this article.