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It’s Time To Go ‘All-In’ on the Employee Experience

Posted on November 23, 2021

Paul Bergeron
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The apartment industry is certainly “all in” when it comes to providing an optimal resident experience. And why shouldn’t it be? Renting as a lifestyle choice has never been more desirable, and rising rents and strong occupancy are driving performance.

But facing one of the toughest job markets they’ve ever seen, apartment operators today are also focusing on the employee experience. They have to. During a Virginia Apartment Management Association Hybrid Morning Coffee Meeting, Grace Hill’s Senior Director of Communication and Social Media, Stephanie Anderson, CAM, CAPS, was joined by Christine Gustafson, The Breeden Company’s Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations, to discuss how apartment companies are handling workplace challenges.

The lively, interactive chat covered topics such as: 

  • The competition apartment communities are facing while competing with fast-food restaurants and retailers for employees.
  • How a company can and should promote its benefits and compensation programs.
  • The struggle to find work-life balance (or not).
  • Unique ways to build rapport at the site level by connecting personally with co-workers.

“It’s not over, but we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to battling the pandemic,” Gustafson said. “This is not an industry designed to run itself without a full staff, but we’ve done it. We’re essential. We’ve come out okay.”

Appreciation

Gustafson said that there are many ways to thank and acknowledge staff that doesn’t cost much money but means a lot as they do their day-to-day jobs.

“And while these might not be the thing that prevents them from eventually working elsewhere, they do go a long way in showing them and the other employees that you are a company that cares about its staff members,” she said.

Anderson said management has to remember, “So much about having a productive staff – and one that wants to work for the company – “is how we make our employees feel.”

She said it can start with regularly soliciting feedback. “Not only ask them about their jobs and the way the community operates, but listen to them and put into action what they are telling you. This doesn’t have to be through a fancy and expensive survey process, but rather just reaching out. A management team might want to get and use their employees’ feedback, but you can’t unless you ask and involve your employees.”

Anderson explained the value that comes when companies establish voluntary, employee-led committees. “This brings them together – employees from various departments – to work on projects and policies for the company and then to help to carry through on them.”

She said companies should often look at their processes. “Don’t take the ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ mentality,” she said. “There are ways to help your employees work smarter, not harder. And it’s a good bet your employees can tell you ways to do this.”

Gustafson spoke of personal touches that can help boost employees’ spirits either after they’ve had a tough situation with a resident or to recognize them achieving a special performance milestone.

Gustafson said that by personalizing employee engagement “you are able to get to know your staff and impact them on a daily basis. It’s the power of ‘Thank you.’ ”

“Create a ‘favorites’ list for your employees,” she said. “Ask them what their favorite candy bar or snack or lunch place or retail store is so that you can reward them with personal gifts when they do a great job. They’ll get something you know they will like and appreciate. We’ve all got enough key chains and coffee mugs, right?”

She encouraged companies to have an employee walk-through with new hires on their first day. “We all know how difficult it can be when showing up for the first day: ‘What do I do? Who do I work with? What’s the culture really like?’”’ Having a person to focus on easing an employee into the company helps start things off on a positive note.

Again, it’s the little things. Gustafson said she knows of CEOs who, each week, sit down and hand-write birthday wishes on cards for their employees. “Giving a hand-written note is a simple thing to do, but it means a lot.”

Gustafson said that while companies strive to have a culture that its employees embrace, “You also have to think about your company’s micro-cultures. As a supervisor, how do you treat your staff? What kind of input do they feel comfortable about sharing? Do they feel valued?”

Wages

What companies are paying their employees sometimes can be “the elephant in the room,” Anderson said. “The apartment industry has done well the past 21 months with wages and bonuses for new hires, but you also have to think about your existing employees. Are they being paid fairly for their job and experience level?”

Anderson said, in somewhat disbelief, that apartment companies are now competing with fast-food restaurants for employees.

“Have you looked?” she said. “Starting wages at McDonald’s or Chick-fil-A are $16 to $19 per hour. It’s been that tough to find people. And leasing professionals and even some maintenance technicians fall into this salary range.”

Benefits

Anderson said that companies can make a better case for themselves by talking up their benefits.

“You have to sell your whole employee compensation package to your workers,” she said. “Use this as a retention tool because many workers don’t really know or understand what their company is doing for them. When was the last time you sat down with your employees and presented and discussed their benefits, what you are paying for and what they are receiving as full-time employees?”

Employees who are thinking of leaving for more money might not realize that the benefits (such as co-pays) cost more at the “new” job.

Also, think about how the company calculates weekly hours. “There is a big difference when it comes to determining how you accrue or use your PTO if you are working an 8-hour day versus a 7.5-hour day,” Anderson said.

Work-life balance

“Let’s all remember: We’re not curing cancer or splitting the atom,” Gustafson said. “We have important jobs, but everyone has so much that is going on in their lives now. You need to work with them to keep hours and get their jobs done on their time. If they want to work at 5 a.m. or late at night, give them that flexibility. And wow, now we’re entering the holidays, too.”

“At the same time, employees need to realize they can’t do everything. Anderson said, “You won’t win the day, every day. Some days you’ll be thriving, and other days you’ll be messy and barely surviving. You have to accept that. You have to give people grace. Remember, we’re all going through something right now in our personal lives.

Retaining Employees

“The grass is always greener” is definitely alive and well, the panelists said.

“People could be leaving for an extra 50 cents per hour,” Gustafson said. “But maybe they are leaving because the company didn’t do the little things that it could to keep their employees happy and feel valued.”

Anderson said some employees are being approached by competing companies and immediately being treated better and hearing they are more valued than what the company they actually work for are telling them. 

“That shouldn’t be happening,” she said.

Anderson said that to keep employees engaged and on the right path, more companies are taking bigger steps to invest in their workers’ training, especially the maintenance team. 

“Offer them the chance to get better at what they do,” Anderson said. There are service partners out there who provide free training such as HD Supply and Carrier, just to name a few.

More companies are offering tuition and even elder-care support. Some offer unlimited paid time off (PTO). “I know unlimited PTO sounds scary, but it works,” Anderson said. Unlimited PTO also gives flexibility to those workers who are intentionally stockpiling their time off in case there are medical or other emergencies. 

Companies are also offering community PTO days. “This gives workers a chance to help their community and not take time off to do so,” Gustafson said. 

Ideas

One company closes its office for a few hours on selected “Mandatory Fun Days.” It uses that time to stop and regroup and have fun. For example, it recently held a pumpkin-carving contest.

Another has unscheduled or even impromptu coffee or lunch meetings between staff. They aren’t designed to be business meetings, but often they turn into them, and that’s okay.

One company collects $20 donations from employees’ paychecks and spends that on food and snacks for the office kitchen and lunchroom. This way, all of the staff can sit and eat what they like together in the office. Feed the belly, feed the soul.

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