April 28, 2022 |
Updated May 3, 2022
Apartment operators should be asking themselves: Am I staffing and configuring onsite teams and technologies in a way that serves customers effectively and minimizes strain on associates?
The apartment industry lauds itself on offering a variety of exceptional employment opportunities and a career path that fosters great potential for advancement. While that statement largely rings true, the industry is admittedly experiencing a few challenges with the current model.
Leasing associates often have too many leads to effectively manage, traditional office hours don’t often align with the needs of prospects and residents and many associates feel overburdened in today’s fast-paced environment. To exacerbate the challenge, the emerging shift to flextime models and remote work doesn’t readily translate to rental housing.
“We need to develop some strategies to make our positions more attractive,” says Tracy Bowers, Executive Managing Director for RangeWater Real Estate. “Our workforce in general is very focused on work-life balance, and the way we have these properties staffed does not tie well with that balance—especially for maintenance and service teams that have to be on call. Multifamily isn’t a very offsite-centric profession, so what else can we offer?”
Bowers and a panel of industry professionals, who will discuss the topic and offer solutions at NAA’s Apartmentalize in the session, “A Look in the Mirror: Rethinking Site Operations in Multifamily,” recently shared their thoughts as part of a look ahead to the session.
Disrupting the Model
The industry has done little to change the traditional staffing model, according to Entrata Industry Principal Virginia Love, who will moderate the session. Management companies largely rely on the “one team member for every 100 residents” model, but demand variations exist based on the overall size of the property, resident needs and multiple additional nuances. According to Love, the industry shouldn’t maintain the traditional model just because it’s always been done that way.
For instance, package management used to provide opportunities for teams to interact with residents. But the meteoric rise of e-commerce has prompted many operators to outsource package processes. The industry’s changing landscape is generating many similar examples.
“We have to be smart and look at other business models,” Love said. “On the bright side, a number of forward-thinking operators are doing it better and smarter. They’re surveying associates and residents to determine service-related stresses and identify needs. To those who have done it, kudos, because it’s not something everyone has considered.”
A primary solution to alleviate strain on onsite teams is automation. Many routine processes can be automated, which results in giving time back to associates. This includes simple tasks like following up on leads—without sacrificing personalization. Automation tools can be customized to send follow-ups at ideal times and tailor the communication based on where a prospect is in the apartment-shopping process.
Additionally, different tour types can now be utilized together to alleviate strain on teams and enhance conversions. While traditional agent-led tours should always be available, communities can remove manual work by offering virtual, self-guided and video tours.
“It’s one of those consumer-driven items that prospects want,” Love says. “If a community has the capability to offer self-guided tours, it’s another way to free up time for associates to take care of residents. If one person uses it and they lease, then it’s worth doing it.”
Love also encourages teams to utilize resident feedback on the numerous channels now available, including review sites, social media and in-house surveys. It offers essentially free market research and can help determine where the property can improve operations.
“It’s also really important to rethink job descriptions and responsibilities,” Love says. “Is there a way to consolidate the traditional model of manager, assistant manager, leasing consultant and service manager? We could give associates more responsibilities and better utilize their talents rather than pigeonhole them in jobs along the traditional ladder of success?”
Solving for On-Call Associates
When discussing potential burnout in the industry, much is focused on service team members who spend many weeks in on-call mode. Melissa White, Director of Property Management at Perennial Properties, says that service professionals across the industry have faced increased property demands during the past few years—both pandemic-related and in general.
Those on call for emergency requests after their regular workday are expected not to drink or travel far so they can return to the community within an hour, if needed. And that is standard practice in the industry.
“Being on call is carrying a greater weight for them from a mental standpoint,” White says. “When service teams are burned out and feeling overwhelmed, it can have a major impact. They often have the highest amount of contact with residents after they move in, so being able to continue to keep them engaged is vital.”
One particular Perennial service team member was called to the property only twice during a 30-day span in which he was on call, and he was onsite only for a short amount of time in each instance. Although he physically visited only twice, he had to be mentally prepared the entire time, which White says took a real toll.
In an effort to improve things for these service members, Perennial is interviewing candidates to operate evening shifts during peak times to alleviate some of the on-call hours. While some time gaps might still exist, the need for associates to be on call would be significantly reduced—and so, too, would the strain on service technicians. As part of the process, Perennial is compiling non-disruptive routine tasks for these new associates to handle at night to avoid any unnecessary after-hours noise around the property.
Perennial also utilizes Microsoft Teams to increase efficiencies for service associates. For example, if a serviceperson needs support while on a roof, they can simply video call the Service Director. White also looks forward to better utilizing predictive maintenance moving forward.
“Technology coming into the space will offer preventative alerts like, ‘this is the fourth visit for this air conditioner,’ or ‘this boiler is reaching X age,’” she says. “Almost all management companies track these types of things, but not in a very efficient, technology-based way. These tools can also track employee engagement—how many call-outs they’ve had or company events they’ve attended—to monitor for burnout.”
Creative Staffing Ideas
In the quest to take hours off the plates of onsite associates, multifamily must be even more creative than other industries due to the notion that work-from-home isn’t always feasible.
“We’re discussing a variety of options,” Bowers said. “We’re considering whether there are ways to do a four-day workweek. We’re already closing the offices on some properties on Sundays, and we’re considering whether we can close some of the smaller ones on Saturdays, as well. We’re looking to lean on virtual and self-guided tours for the days when we’re not open. On the maintenance and service side, we’re considering a call center that can help residents self-diagnose and self-repair some of the more minor issues rather than having an on-call tech visit the community.”
Bowers said her team is also aiming to centralize many accounting tasks to allow onsite teams to focus on service levels and resident social events. And to Love’s point about rethinking roles, RangeWater is considering expanding the responsibilities of some associates to more than one or two properties.
With costs rising faster than the pace of wage increases, RangeWater is also considering letting residents live in their apartment homes for reduced rates as part of the compensation package.
It’s all part of an industry-wide effort to alleviate strain on onsite associates.
Learn More at Apartmentalize!
The “A Look in the Mirror: Rethinking Site Operations in Multifamily” session will take place from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 22, at NAA’s Apartmentalize conference in San Diego. Tracy Bowers, Executive Managing Director for RangeWater Real Estate, and Melissa White, Director of Property Management at Perennial Properties, will be the panelists. Virginia Love, Industry Principal for Entrata, will moderate.
Paul Willis is Content Manager at LinnellTaylor Marketing.