Originally published December 6, 2020 | Matthew Rothstein, Bisnow East Coast
The economic distress caused by the coronavirus pandemic has largely spared the property management industry, but the safety issues the disease presents have placed a heavy burden on its workers.
Property management companies haven’t experienced any major layoffs, but the average workload for employees in every part of the business has risen significantly, multiple sources told Bisnow. From establishing and enforcing safety protocols to higher cleaning standards to advising nervous building occupants, job descriptions have expanded.
“People are more likely to call the management team to ask, ‘What happens when someone in the building is exposed or tests positive for COVID? Is there a risk because of the ventilation in my home? How safe is the fitness center?’” National Apartment Association Industry Operations Manager Stephanie Anderson said. “There’s a lot of news and social media residents are intaking, so it results in a lot more questions. The role of social worker has increased as part of the job.”
The responsibilities of a property manager vary depending on the type of property being managed. Office, health care and multifamily buildings require the most attention and staff, while industrial and retail properties are generally net-leased, meaning property managers’ on-site work tends to be limited to the exterior of a property.
Property management budgets haven’t changed much during the pandemic, sources said. For industrial, health care, office and multifamily properties, rent collection has remained stable, which has prevented layoffs and budget crunches, while retail landlords have so far treated management fees as an inelastic expense, necessary to preserve whatever little foot traffic remains at their property, CBRE Philadelphia Property Management Managing Director Larry Zipf said.
Most property managers subcontract cleaning duties to custodial firms, so the increased emphasis on cleanliness has translated to a greater administrative burden — keeping abreast of the most current standards set by local, state and federal health agencies and passing them along to vendors, balancing as frequent-as-possible cleanings with building capacity limitations and in some cases filling gaps in service.
“Many of our members have not had increased budgets for cleaning, and some would schedule weekly cleaning for common spaces, often with a professional company,” Anderson said. “Now it’s daily cleanings. The staff is largely handling that, and it’s adding more responsibilities and more labor to what’s already a hard job.”
Though cleaning standards are higher than they’ve ever been, communication might be the part of the job that has expanded the most for property managers. Every time a new element of hygiene or distancing is implemented — temperature checks at the door, changing doors to enter- or exit-only, switching common areas to reservation-only — it falls on the management team to let every resident or tenant know, whether through signage, emails or notifications through a building’s app.
Many companies have redirected staff and resources to focus singularly on coordinating all the different facets of managing COVID-19, Blanton Turner Management principal Barry Blanton said. Blanton, who is also the 2021 president-elect for the Institute of Real Estate Management, said his own company’s task force focuses on keeping up to date with local restrictions, as well as aid programs with potential relevance to its tenants.
“We redirected people from human resources, property management, project management, marketing and communications, led by one of our principals,” Blanton said. “So the task force has been made up of between six and eight full-time people.”
Communication has also increased dramatically in terms of managers hearing from tenants, regardless of what asset class the property is in. Everyone wants to know what’s being done to keep one’s workplace or residence safe, especially considering that there is much less choice involved there than in what retail businesses to patronize.
“The communications with clients have been very intimate because of the challenging environment,” Zipf said regarding office management. “It’s happened both at the property level and with the ownership being hands-on. The communication is more intense now, with the difference being that so much of it is on Zoom or phone calls, and you lose some of the personal touch versus face-to-face.”
Multifamily tenants, too, have become far more dependent on management and more affected by how their residences are managed.
“So many are home a lot more during the pandemic, and a way of staying connected is to call up the property management team whether because of issues with paying rent or catching up on repairs that people brush to the side sometimes that aren’t emergencies, but people are staring at them a lot more and wanting it fixed,” Anderson said.
In the multifamily realm, property managers are also working to keep residents as satisfied as possible but without many of their typical tools.
“These guys are working their butts off to make people happy, obviously within the restrictions on amenities,” Post Brothers Head of Marketing Anthony Scotland said.
They may not be considered frontline workers, but property managers have been essential in keeping buildings open and safe since the outbreak of the coronavirus. Like with all essential workers, more has been asked of property management than ever before.
“Everyone has had to step up their game,” Zipf said.
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