The Struggle for Staffing

7 min read

Property Management and HR Firms Innovate to Retain and Hire New Employee

From flexible work schedules to “stay-on” bonuses and social media blitzes, property management companies and human resources officials are embracing innovative strategies to retain and hire employees at residential properties in the quirky, tight, pandemic labor market of 2021.

“Flexibility is key in this labor market,” says Jason Géno, president and managing principal at Human Capital Initiatives, LLC, a human resources and management consulting firm focused on property management companies.

The pandemic and factors related to it have pushed the labor participation rate down to 61.7 percent from the pre-pandemic high of 63 percent. The difference in the rate may appear small, but it is having outsized impacts on the operations of residential properties across the nation. In some places, employees are walking off the job in the middle of shifts because they refuse to wear masks or are doing the job of two workers, or they are simply stressed out from the pandemic.

“We are seeing a big increase in the average turnover,” says Michael Johnson, executive vice president of the Memphis-based ALCO Management, Inc. “It is twice as much as what it normally is…it is hard to know what is driving that turnover.”

In other areas, job applicants aren’t responding to calls or emails after their initial queries – queries some employers believe were sent only to meet unemployment benefit requirements.

With the large employee turnover and difficulty recruiting, employees who remain working at properties or for management companies are left doing the jobs of two or three people.

“We’ve had a real shortage, predominantly with our maintenance staff,” reports Darlene Perrone, president of the Boston-based Beacon Residential Management. “It’s been a real problem…and we are not alone in this. No matter who you talk to in the industry, it’s the same story.”

Most property management firm officials contacted for this story believe employee recruitment and retention is starting to improve, slowly. More people are following through on job applications as the vaccination rates increase and they feel safer in the workplace. The phase-out of federal pandemic-related increased unemployment benefits also helps, they say.

“We’re seeing a slight increase in application flow as government unemployment becomes less lucrative,” says Kathy Rasmussen, vice president of human resources for Dominium Development and Acquisition, LLC.

“We are hopefully optimistic,” says Johnson. “Already we can see differences in the people who are applying. They seem to be really interested in the job and following through on the interviews.”

Innovation and Flexibility are Key
Pay rate, of course, is a huge factor in retaining and recruiting employees. Property management firm officials say they are working to stay competitive in that area raising pay for some jobs from $2 to $5 an hour. Firms that operate affordable housing cannot raise their pay rates much higher, some officials say, because they cannot raise rents to meet the increased labor costs.

“In the conventional market they can raise the rents to pay the salaries,” says Johnson.

To combat the lower wages, property management firms are moving to more innovative recruitment strategies and flexible employee policies to help keep and recruit employees. Firms are shifting to meet the times. They’ve upped their sign-on bonuses, given extra bonuses for staying on and increased referral bonuses for those who refer someone who is actually hired. They’ve hired firms to launch social media blitzes of job postings, held virtual talent shows for employees to help them stay engaged with other workers, delivered freeze-dried ice cream on Fourth of July to employees locked-down in their homes during the height of the pandemic and reworked job postings to make them less intimidating.

“We were putting too many requirements and preferences on our applications,” says Rasmussen. “For example, asking for three to five years’ experience.”

In terms of flexibility, they are offering new schedules, such as a four-day work week where some employees can take Fridays off, while others take Mondays off. Perrone says her company is offering employees two extra days off a year and allowing employees to leave at 1 p.m. on Fridays through the end of the year. Friday afternoons off were typically offered only during summer.

“It gives them an extra jump start on the weekend,” says Perrone. “People have really appreciated it.”

Firms also are developing or expanding training programs for employees, so they view their jobs as a career path.

Rasmussen says her company has reinstituted Manager in Training and Regional Manager in Training programs to develop current staff and support retention. They continue to look for programs that indicate to the employee that they are moving up in the company.

During the height of the pandemic, most offices were shuttered and most employees—other than maintenance or other critical on-site staff—worked from home. Now some offices are opening back up and firms are working to help employees find childcare through discounts at certain locations or online referral companies should they need it to return to work.

“We lost team members to childcare issues and their desire to not be on the front lines,” says Rasmussen.

Firms also are digging deeper into research to find ways to keep and hire employees. Several firms have launched employee surveys and expanded exit interview surveys to better understand employee concerns and needs. This helps as the employers weigh changing benefits, they report.

“Our large clients are surveying employees, asking ‘what are the most attractive benefits?’,” says Géno.

Géno advises firms to take a good look at their employee policies to make sure they fit the needs of today’s workforce.

“It is a really good time for our clients that are property management companies to look at their policies and procedures to see if they have flexibility,” says Géno. “Those with antiquated policies or out-of-date policies are having more trouble keeping their staff.”

Working to Maintain Key Services
Maintaining the same level of service on sites has been difficult in the current labor market, some firms report. They’ve managed to keep things afloat, however, mostly through flexibility in schedules and job functions, they say.

“Happily, we never stopped doing emergency work orders,” says Perrone. “It’s all hands on deck…the residents’ experience was never limited by our shortage of employees in the workplace. ”

Getting toilets fixed or broken windows replaced sometimes required senior management to step in and do the work. At other sites, companies paid huge sums in overtime to hourly workers, while exempt employees racked up large reserves of comp time.

Rasmussen says her company also developed a new roving maintenance worker and other roving positions to meet the challenges of the times. These employees move from site to site as needed. Still, the employees—whether roving, on-site or working from home—often experience an increased workload because of a smaller workforce.

“It’s definitely a strain on the remaining employees to fill in for the departed employees,” says Rasmussen. “It’s a vicious cycle. They are putting in more hours, training new people and potentially leaving as well.”

Still, the bonuses, schedule flexibility and other industry changes—as well as phase-out of enhanced unemployment benefits and the uptick in vaccinations—may be alleviating the worker shortage. Johnson says that he believes the industry is shifting in a positive direction in terms of its difficulties in hiring and retention.

“We are just now at a turning point,” says Johnson.

“I don’t think we will go back to where we were in the near future. We hope we are headed in the right direction.”

Pamela Martineau is a freelance writer based in Portland, ME. She writes primarily about housing, local government, technology and education.