by Doug Pike
The Covid-19 pandemic forced property management companies to adapt on the fly like never before. The industry has implemented new processes and protocols to protect associates and residents alike, and adjusted operations to provide necessary support at the property level.
While most of the changes are temporary, some of those new practices are here to stay.
During the Property Management Association’s PMEXPO 2020 session “Lessons Learned from Covid-19,” panelists revisited the new approaches and new technology they’ve adopted to support operations, marketing and resident relations during these unprecedented times.
But the discussion centered on the value of on-site associates and the way teams have come together to overcome the issues brought about by the pandemic.
Cindy Sanquist, president and CEO of Edgewood and Vantage management companies, said by prioritizing the needs of associates, Edgewood and Vantage has been able to demonstrate its support at the property level and take teamwork to the next level.
“I view the site personnel as the first responders,” said Sanquist, noting that an outside-the-box approach has been required to accommodate employees. “We really did a lot of shuffling around. It’s like having a task board and saying, ‘Who can go where?’ ‘How can we manage this community?’ The staffing itself moved around, not in terms of numbers, just in terms of where they were going to be and where we needed help on a particular day.”
Suzanne Hillman, CEO of Southern Management, echoed the need for flexibility.
“Every one of our team members is empowered to do the right things in the right ways for the right reasons. What that creates is a tremendous amount of agility to adapt, and that’s what this type of situation requires,” Hillman said.
Tom Rucker, managing director and COO at Berkshire Residential Investments, said the pandemic response at the site level has been so inspiring that it may change multifamily business models moving forward.
“We knew this was going to be the biggest challenge that any of us have ever faced,” Rucker said. “First and foremost, this pandemic has really shown the value of the on-site team and what they bring to the table, but also what remote and off-site working could be in the future. Their ability to change, leverage technology and execute the new business plan in this pandemic has been really refreshing.”
Leveraging technology to enable day-to-day operations was a common theme of the session.
Louis Kovalsky, area director for UDR, said the biggest technology impact for UDR came when current residents began to fully embrace the resident app that was introduced shortly before the pandemic hit.
“Our resident app has allowed residents to make rent payments, service requests, request guest parking, make lease changes and renewals, enter notices to vacate, reserve amenity spaces, just to name a few things,” Kovalsky said. “During this time, our residents have really taken to our self-service model. So, a lot of the technology that we introduced prior to Covid really helped to give us a jump start.”
Alison Punsalan, senior vice president of property management at Foulger Pratt, said she believes much of the technology deployed during the pandemic will stick.
“In the long term, I think we’ll come out better for it. We were already leveraging more technology to make our teams more efficient, but this has really pushed us over the edge, so to speak,” Punsalan said. “I don’t think our teams are going to want to go back and I think it’s going to push our business model forward.”
Property managers have placed an emphasis on communication during the pandemic, whether it’s with fellow associates, residents, ownership or investors. That dialogue has also been aided by various tech platforms.
“The key is communication and harnessing the communicative power of new technology,” said Sanquist. “We have 35 different clients and we have everything from public housing to market-rate housing. When you have so many different owners and clients that you work with, everybody has different views. In the end, what everybody wanted to do was to make sure that the employees and the residents were safe. But keeping them informed was the most important thing. They want to make sure that your risk management team is doing everything that they should be doing. On the resident side, we expanded our resident software so that we could communicate with residents in a more direct way, and directly from their homes – especially in our senior housing.”
Communication and virtual services have become essential for maintenance teams, as well.
“Maintenance has truly been our unsung heroes,” Rucker said. “Our focus was always to keep them busy and keep them gainfully employed. We got creative. We put together DIY videos that we’ve been able to post for very basic needs when we’re not able to get into homes.”
Moving forward, panelists said the pandemic will continue to shape many aspects of multifamily operations and continue to present problems. Development teams will need to take a new approach to common areas and home design. Working from home will remain prevalent. Vendor relationships will be prioritized. Eviction moratoriums will need to be navigated. Revenue declines will have to be addressed.
“In the beginning, we thought this was only going to last a couple of months. Now we know differently,” Sanquist said. “How are we going to continue to motivate our teams? I think we need new interactive rituals based on this new virtual format. It’s a totally new game, but we have to figure it out and make it part of our new normal. This industry has been through a lot, but we’ve united in sharing information. We’re all caring about one another, and I think that’s something positive that has come out of this.”