Here to Stay: Pandemic Inspires Changes Worth Keeping

Magazine ,

By Darlyn Finch Kuhn 

Joelis Barandica mostly remembers everyone being scared, all the time, on so many levels. As regional director of education for ConAm Management, a national provider of multifamily real estate services, it’s her responsibility to ensure that the corporate employees, property managers, maintenance workers, and cleaning staff are all properly trained to provide excellent service to the owners and residents of about 4,000 rental units in Florida. But the always-challenging tasks of listing, leasing, and maintaining apartment homes became exponentially more complex in the early spring of 2020, when lockdowns were instituted to keep out a killer virus called COVID-19.

Appointments Required

“It was mandated for our offices to be closed,” said Barandica, “so we couldn’t even allow residents or prospects to come through the door. Community managers were considered essential workers, but only residents with actual emergencies were allowed to enter the offices to speak to them, and then only with an appointment. It was really stressful, because how do you tell an upset resident that he can’t come into my office and have a conversation with me? We needed to become resilient and have tough skin, and at the same time show empathy in our conversations.”

Tracey Mater, senior vice president of operations at Contemporary Housing Alternatives of Florida Inc. (CHAF) said her company, a 30-year-old provider of affordable housing units in the Florida multifamily market, also now requests appointments for residents to come into the office so that the number of people and the length of exposure for the staff is limited. She said, “We have reduced our hours that we’re open to the public to give some uninterrupted time to the property managers.”

Both Barandica and Mater believe that appointment-based office visits are beneficial, and will continue, at least for the foreseeable future.

Enhanced Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

ConAm allowed corporate employees to work from their homes and provided computers, internet service, and cell phones to make that possible. But some jobs, such as on-site maintenance and cleaning, could not be done remotely. “Everyone was terrified at the beginning of the pandemic, but specifically the maintenance workers having to enter apartments would have a set of COVID-related questions for the residents, with no guarantees they were receiving truthful answers,” Barandica recalled. “So even though we provided PPE like gloves, masks, and even a full HAZMAT suit at the time, we really didn’t know how contagious this thing was.” She described the paranoia of wondering if she was taking the virus home to her family and said she would take all her clothes off at the entrance to her home at the end of the workday and go wash her whole body right away. Any packages she received at home or the office were immediately sprayed down with disinfectant, as well.

Mater concurred. “We do not enter homes if someone has symptoms or has tested positive for COVID-19, and of course masks are provided to our staff if they want them,” she said. “We also keep COVID tests in the HR department in case a staff member feels like they need to be tested.” CHAF also hired two additional assistant managers to ease the workload.

These precautions will likely stay in place to provide peace of mind to workers.

Virtual Tours

Over time, as more information became available about the virus and ways to keep as safe as possible from it became known, ConAm began to adapt to the crisis in innovative ways. For example, rather than face-to-face appointments for leasing agents to show apartments to prospective residents, tours became either virtual (via pre-recorded YouTube videos or an agent walking through with an iPad showing the apartment via FaceTime) or self-guided, with features such as smart locks allowing prospective residents to gain access with a limited-time code. ConAm likely will continue to use these popular innovations even after COVID-19 becomes endemic.

For many multifamily operators, virtual tours went from “maybe someday” to “need it now,” said Steve Fiske, founder and chief product officer at iApartments, a national company based in Tampa that provides seamless and cost-effective retrofit installations of smart device technology such as thermostats, lights, and locks. Fiske said, “It’s no secret that the self-enter industry has been fast-tracked by about a decade due to the pandemic.” He said people in the apartment industry used to tell him that the technology to allow people to tour properties on their own schedule without having anyone with them would probably be adopted in the future, but they were in no hurry to give it a try. “The entire multifamily at large just rapidly adopted this as soon as the pandemic hit,” he said.

Prospective residents are now able to tour an apartment home on their own schedule, without any human interaction, to avoid risks, said Fiske. “We’ve launched hands-free access for common-area readers so you no longer have to tap anything; you actually wave your hand in front of the reader, and as long as you have the apartment’s app on your phone and you have a valid credential, you can gain entry.” Wayfinding is a crucial part of self-guided tours, so iApartments provides turn-by-turn directions throughout the property, allowing access to clubhouses, gyms, pools, and any other common areas the property managers want included in the tour.

Once prospective residents are inside an apartment, smart devices with Alexa-integration take over to answer the prospects’ questions. After the tour, the access permission expires, negating the need for a property manager to manually change access codes for each new prospect.

These innovations are so popular with agents and prospective residents that they will be available even after people are no longer wary of face-to-face meetings for health reasons.

Enhanced Sanitation

Any time a person enters a ConAm model apartment, a sanitation crew or property manager follows to clean and sanitize the property for the next guest. This protocol is in place for common areas such as pools, gyms, and outdoor grilling areas as well, according to Barandica, and is delegated to a specific extra staff member or, in some cases, to a staffing company, which can get very expensive. This adds a layer of complexity to the property management profession, as the extra costs associated with additional staff and cleaning supplies have to be factored into forecasts and explained to anxious property owners.

But since no one knows when the next virus or variant will appear, owners can expect to see that line item on their budgets for quite a while.

Innovative Payment Programs

Not helping to relieve owners’ anxieties were eviction moratoriums that went into effect once residents began to lose jobs due to the pandemic. Barandica said ConAm’s vice presidents immediately communicated with their property owners to obtain approval of easy-pay programs to allow residents who were facing financial hardship the option of paying what they could, when they could. In this way, she said, the residents kept their fiscal responsibility at the forefront of their minds, even when they could not pay everything they owed all at once.

As the job market recovers and restrictions on evictions loosen, some property owners may return to strict, pre-pandemic payment guidelines, but others will have found that understanding and flexibility go a long way toward keeping otherwise good tenants in place during temporary rough patches.

External Resources

In addition, ConAm managers informed residents of federal, state, and local food and rental assistance programs. “The perception was that everyone was staying home collecting unemployment and everyone was happy,” Barandica said, “but was that $600 check really enough for a family of six, if there was no other money flowing through the house due to the pandemic?” As a renter herself, she felt she had to be an advocate for both the residents and the owners.

“Our owners trust us, because we have transparency. We have nothing to hide. It’s so important to have these open lines of communication, so that we can help the owners on the side of collection and also help the residents find the resources they need.”

CHAF not only assisted residents with locating county, state, and federal funding resources, but also stepped up in-house assistance by creating an innovative program called “Back on Track” that allowed residents who had proven income or job loss due to COVID-19 to offset overdue rent via community volunteerism, at a rate of $100 per hour. Mater said that more than $20,000 of overdue rents had to be written off by the company as bad debts, so the program led to approximately 200 hours of community service that residents performed at Pinellas County charities, including Hope Villages of America and the High Point Neighborhood Family Center. 

Virtual Training

Barandica credited the Florida Apartment Association and the Apartment Association of Greater Orlando with providing ever-evolving information that helped ConAm convert their traditional in-person training to virtual. “Virtual teaching is totally different, and we are now working on a three-day program to train the trainers. There is a different module each day.” She says the state of Florida and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development also provided information via websites and webinars about the rights and responsibilities of owners and residents and agents with regard to COVID-19, and ConAm has forwarded this training directly to their associates.

Although some trainers and trainees may miss the days of face-to-face learning, Barandica does not anticipate that virtual learning is going away anytime soon.

Connectivity

With more and more residents beginning to work from home, ConAm performed major upgrades of some of their properties to meet the demand for adequate digital connections. They also emphasized in-unit amenities such as smart home devices. Grocery and hot-meal delivery are major conveniences that work-from-home residents appreciate, as well, and it is likely that demand for these perks will increase, not decrease, over time.

Enhanced Care for Workers

ConAm is also finding ways to help their associates relieve stress and achieve better work-life balance, such as instituting Wellness Wednesdays through the Strive online platform. Workers can challenge themselves and others to choose a healthy lifestyle with mental health resources, meditation, healthy recipes, and more.

CHAF believes that concern for the welfare of their essential workers is of paramount importance, so they purchased a new headquarters building to consolidate their property management staff under one roof. According to Mater, this has led to “better support, collaboration, teamwork, and cooperation.” The company also focused on additional events, pay, recognition, and time off from work to enhance employee well-being.

Heather Calderone, regional vice president of sales at ResMan, a property management software company with offices in Plano, Texas, and Miami, Florida, said ResMan realized early on that the pandemic could be here for the long haul. They decided to stay engaged with their newly remote workforce via weekly 30-minute companywide standup meetings to share metrics, feedback, and recognition of successes. They instituted Awardcodes at these meetings, so that employees could talk about something a co-worker did that really made a difference. But feel-good moments weren’t the only things discussed at the standup meetings; people felt free to talk about the impact that pandemic-induced loneliness was having on them and found that sharing those feelings with others who felt the same way was helpful.

Recognizing that isolation has an effect on physical and mental well-being, ResMan launched a WellRight wellness program through a platform provided by their professional employer organization. Workers participated in challenges to drink plenty of water or to walk a certain number of steps daily, and people on track to meet their goals got shout-outs at the standup meetings.

The success of the WellRight program led to a program called ResManEvolved, which encompassed the wellness challenges but also included policy changes like a flexible paid-time-off schedule. “Our team members don’t accrue PTO, and there’s no PTO maximum,” Calderone said. “This allows our team members to take the time off that they need to take off.”

ResMan also instituted No-meeting-Fridays, and avoids scheduling internal meetings on Fridays whenever possible. When they realized that team members were still not taking much time off, the company introduced ResMan Recharge days, such as the Friday before Memorial Day and the Friday before Labor Day. The ability to leave a day early for a trip or to simply spend an extra weekday with their families was so popular that the company plans to continue offering four-day weekends in conjunction with holidays that don’t necessarily land on a Monday.

Calderone said although ResMan did not experience the pandemic-induced “Great Resignation” that some companies did, when they had to replace a few employees due to natural attrition, they decided to cast a wider net for talent, and were so pleased with the results that they intend to continue their “work from anywhere” plan, even though their physical offices are open again for anyone who wants to come into work. In another attempt to keep workers engaged with one another, the company holds monthly ResMunch events in which employees are randomly selected to “sit together” at virtual lunch tables so they can get to know their co-workers. They also use the Microsoft Teams software Yammer to encourage fun contests such as “Best Pet Halloween Costumes.”

“ResMan believes that people deserve to be respected and feel like they belong and feel taken care of,” Calderone said. “We want to invest not only in their professional development, but in them as people.” She said she believes that this philosophy will continue as long as the company does.

Compassionate Communication with Residents

ConAm invests in their residents by reaching out via regular emails and on social media, as well as by hosting fun virtual community events such as movie nights (with RedBox gift certificates and microwave popcorn), Quarantini happy hours (delivering small bottles of liquor and mixers to registered adult residents who tune in to hear a DJ spin a dance mix), and Star Wars days complete with delivery of toy lightsabers and much-needed items such as toilet paper.

Barandica enjoys planning these remote social events so much, and hearing how much the residents enjoy them, that she anticipates they will continue even after the pandemic ends.

Resilience

Fiske was impressed with how quickly the industry adapted to the changes in the way businesses had to operate, practically overnight. Before the pandemic, iApartments would have to fly someone out to meet with a client or a prospect, or make do with a conference call, which made it difficult to showcase what the company does. But then, he said, “From one week to the next we stopped flying; everyone hopped on video calls.”

Barandica said while the COVID-19 pandemic did have a negative impact, it also forced the company to reflect hard on where they needed to change with the times. In the beginning, managers rolled up their sleeves and did lawn maintenance, and sister properties lent their associates when someone came down with COVID and needed to quarantine. After the first few months, when everyone was flying by the seat of their pants and just pitching in to do what had to be done, the focus became figuring out where the best resources were and how to provide the best customer service for residents and owners. This led them to reflect on the intention and purpose of the company and brought a complete rebranding with an emphasis on training for business continuity.

Mater summed it up, “The whole pandemic has been difficult on us all. We are doing the best we can with the resources we have. We are a close-knit organization; we stay positive, work hard, and work extremely well as a team.” These are definitely pandemic-related attributes worth carrying into the new normal.