Getting Back to Normal
business people sitting around a table and chatting

By Ed Finkel |

11 minute read

A reflection on remote work and HR challenges in the rental housing industry. 

As the nation settles into a new normal, the rental housing industry has mostly moved beyond the immediate challenges it faced during the past few years in terms of both employee desires to work entirely remotely and the Great Resignation-driven hiring and retention funk, executives say. But the degree of “back to normal” varies from company to company and role to role. 

The multifamily division of Cushman & Wakefield Asset Services required line employees to be onsite throughout the pandemic—including property managers, leasing personnel and maintenance workers—with protocols in place for their protection, says Greg Mark, Executive Managing Director for the division. 

 “For our corporate resources, during the pandemic, we created a work-from-home environment and provided them with the right technology, processes and support to be successful,” he says. “As we have moved out of the pandemic, we’re moving associates back to our offices. One of the unique things throughout the multifamily industry is that even corporate folks need to be onsite. The Regional Manager who oversees the book of business, their job still entails visiting sites to inspect, supporting the site teams, clients and residents. We’ve been back—relatively quickly—to our normal course of pre-pandemic operations.” 

Some employees still do work remotely, although that’s less tied to job category than being located in remote markets in which Cushman & Wakefield has properties but no central office within reasonable commuting distance, Mark says. “I think all employees have now created a workspace at home that is functional,” he says. “They’re able to pivot between the office and working at home. That said, the camaraderie that folks get, the support they get from working next to one another in an office environment, is something that most people are longing for.” 

Others working from outside the office do have job functions that require them to be out in the field visiting properties and markets, Mark says. That means remaining “remote work opportunities may not be folks doing it from home, but from a property, or a construction site or a hotel lobby,” he says. 

Cushman & Wakefield faced a bit of resistance, as did the industry as a whole, in bringing people back as the world exited pandemic quarantine protocols, Mark says. “But as we’ve gotten back to some level of normalcy, both the expectations of employers and of employees around a workspace environment seem to be leveling off,” he says. 

Building in Flexibility 

Employees of Dallas-based Summit Property Management who work in the field returned to their posts within six months of the onset of the pandemic given their resident-facing roles, but those in the back office have had more flexibility—and that hasn’t completely changed, says Ryan Beaupre, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of both Summit and its asset management firm and parent company, Sentinel Peak Capital Partners. 

“There are certain roles—and it’s more of a function of what we’ve understood to be the competitive landscape—that have asked for [hybrid schedules], and we have been flexible around a certain amount of time working from home,” he says. “But we’ve scheduled, and bracketed, to still allow for the most effective work environment, which, in our opinion, is in the office. The lion’s share of our team, if they’re not visiting onsite at properties across the state, they’re here at our corporate office. The nature of our business calls for hands-on work.” 

Beaupre says the company has not received much pushback to that vision and that most people are back to five days in the office. “There are certain roles that, in order to retain the best, we’ve been flexible. We still understand—the pandemic aside—that life happens,” he says. But for the most part, “People want to be in the office. They want to work with their colleagues face to face. We’ve had people come to us because we are an in-office group, leaving a remote environment they don’t care for.” 

Char McCurdy, President of Summit Property Management, adds that the company has a very collaborative environment. “Being together in the same office allows for that collaboration within departments,” she says. “It’s imperative that that culture is maintained in our organizations. It’s been results-oriented, and productive and provided a lot of success. That’s one of the main reasons we’re not willing to bend in that area very much or very often. We do make sure we have a little fun along the way. People do like to be together, genuinely.” 

An Ever-changing, Ongoing Conversation 

RPM Living has experienced an ongoing conversation about work-from-home and hybrid policies that continues to this day, says Christine Jones, Vice President of Human Resources. “It’s ever-changing, and it’s always a constant negotiation, seeking solutions for what’s working best, at the moment,” she says. “Staying stagnant is what’s going to bring us back to the challenges [of employee dissatisfaction]. We’re making sure that we’re doing what’s right for the people and the business.” 

While those handling onsite work could not be switched to hybrid or remote, RPM Living made those opportunities available during the pandemic for non-resident-facing roles, particularly where sufficient distancing space was not available, Jones says. After a “pendulum shift” that brought everybody back to the office, the company has settled on a hybrid approach. 

“The world has changed. Ideas of work-life balance, and family, and what they want out of a job have changed,” she says. “As an employer, we had to say, ‘It can’t be a plug-and-play approach for every position. What is the position? Can it be flexible?’ For the corporate office, that varies. We’re fully onsite at properties because that is very forward-facing, very customer focused.” 

While RPM Living is leaning on best practices from the past, coming out of the pandemic, “Being agile and flexible is where this is playing,” Jones adds. “It’s constantly looking for solutions, listening to the team and finding a middle ground that works for the company and the employee. Instead of being driven by one side or the other, it has to be a marriage of sorts.” 

An Essential Business 

At Tropicana Properties in El Paso, Texas, even office employees stayed full-time throughout the pandemic at each of the company’s 38 properties throughout El Paso County, says Demetrio Jimenez, President and Owner. Between masking and other protocols put into place, such as closing the central office to outsiders, and the fact that on the inside, everyone sits in individual offices, employees “felt comfortable staying in our office,” he says. “There were local ordinances passed defining what an essential business was… we fell under that category. Managing low-income properties is difficult in itself.” 

As President of the Texas Apartment Association, Jimenez is aware of other jurisdictions like Austin, Dallas and Houston where local ordinances kept in-office staffing at a minimum. “Because we were an essential business, everyone was allowed to be onsite and react to work orders. In other locales, they were not allowed to do that,” he says. “They did get permission for maintenance to check on water heaters and air conditioning, essential things such as life safety issues that came up.” 

Jimenez says some companies have remained in hybrid work arrangements due to economics. “The overhead got too expensive,” he says. “They thought, ‘Wow, some of our staff could work from home effectively.’ We lost two employees to organizations that work like that.… That’s a benefit for employees who have young children they need to take care of during the day.” 

But philosophically, Tropicana believes in a collaborative culture that involves frequent, friction-less communication, Jimenez says. “Onsite work is just more conducive to fostering cooperation,” he says. “COVID, with the six-feet distancing, put a little bit of a wrench into that. I always felt that by being onsite, we’re able to respond quicker to [residents’] requests, especially on maintenance issues, which is crucial for maintaining [resident] satisfaction and retention. Some property management tasks are completely reliant on software and equipment. But a lot requires being in the office.… We’re learning and slowly evolving and using technology, largely because COVID forced us to get there.” 

HR Challenges Abate 

While the “Great Resignation” has taken its toll on hiring and retention over the past few years, rental housing companies sense a return to normalcy in that area as well. Beaupre of Summit Property Management says his company was “average or below average” in terms of challenges faced with hiring and retention, although keeping people in certain roles has proved tricky at times, as has hiring and retaining talented younger workers who nonetheless expected more compensation than made sense to the company. 

“Whether it’s compensation, or equity shares in a business, there’s been some great people who have had unrealistic expectations,” he says. “We haven’t run into a situation where someone is worth ‘X,’ and we won’t pay them ‘X.’ We’ve run into situations where someone is worth ‘X,’ and they think they’re worth ‘3X.’ It’s part of the broader landscape.… But we’ve still found great people to work for us.” 

McCurdy says Summit has faced some challenges with service personnel jumping ship to make 50 cents or $1 more per hour. “They will go next door or down the street,” she says. “We’ve had to work pretty hard to compete and to make sure our service personnel, in general, are feeling appreciated and worthy. That’s been a focus. Not that we did a bad job before, but we tried to step it up a notch. The culture has been positive from the beginning.” 

Beaupre adds that the company also has been working on the non-monetary aspects of how to show appreciation for those who are, for example, checking air-conditioning registers when it’s 109 degrees in August. “Trips, rewards, accolades within the company—these are all items we feel probably contribute to people being loyal to the company,” he says. “They’re part of a broader effort beyond collecting a paycheck. We pair that with market or better compensation. That’s why we’ve had people sticking with us.” 

But Beaupre understands that “life happens” and people need to provide for their families, and “they have to make a decision based purely on take-home. And I don’t fault them for that.” 

Tropicana Properties has increased pay in reaction to inflation, about 7%-8% overall and as much as 13% on the administrative side, Jimenez says. “There were some employees jumping from company to company,” he says. “It’s still a pervasive problem on the maintenance end. We’ve gone to a model where we’re doing our own training, with a planned classroom in the basement to teach them basic maintenance: How to repair a washer and dryer, how to deal with a faulty heater. Unfortunately, we were losing maintenance [workers] to the oil field industry, which is less than 100 miles from us.” 

Tropicana plans to give sizable raises this year and Jimenez adds that he feels “pretty confident we’re doing a lot better [with hiring and retention] than we were in 2021 and 2022.” 

Targeted and Creative Approaches 

RPM Living has taken a “targeted and creative” approach when it comes to hiring and retention, offering what it can to people in different roles, Jones says. 

“It’s not saying, ‘You can have a hybrid work schedule,’ that makes people happy,” she says. “It’s what comes along with that: What are their career prospects? Do they have to stay in the position they’re in? Is there cross-functionality in their job? It’s not just matching skill sets, it’s matching interest into their lives. How can we match our needs and interests with the skills and interests of people we have here? That’s what makes a good place to work, and a place where you retain the right talent in the right spots.” 

Economic shifts have resulted in employees and prospects needing more money, which meant that, especially during the height of inflation in 2022, RPM Living wasn’t necessarily hearing from candidates whose backgrounds matched well, Jones says. But the targeted approach has helped to narrow that gap. “Whether it’s maintenance techs, or accountants, we’re almost treating [different roles] like different businesses,” she says. “What pulled us out of the challenges is we laid out very clearly the [qualifications needed] on the application. It was not a fast-hiring practice. We were making sure the right conversations took place.” 

Higher pay is always helpful when it comes to retention, Jones says, but other factors play in as well. “Part of it is feeling impactful, feeling they can grow and understanding their overall impact on the company,” she says. “That doesn’t mean they have to be promoted. They still want to be challenged. Getting programs on board for that, and for recognition, has been huge. Making sure people feel ‘seen’ is a very big deal. Sitting in a corporate office, it’s easy to say, ‘People are important.’ But we’re making sure that our onsite and field teams have strong connections with corporate support.” 

Cushman & Wakefield has faced hiring and retention challenges like everyone in multifamily, Mark says, but “the edge has come off” in recent months. He says that’s for two reasons: Pay increases have helped to bring people off the sidelines as the pandemic eased, and an appreciation has grown about the fact that multifamily enjoyed a relatively stable employment picture during the pandemic compared to industries like retail and hospitality.

“People realized the stability that comes along with, particularly, site-level multifamily management,” he says. “It’s a high-demand position. What we have seen is a fairly quick recovery from where we were a year ago. We look across-the-board at job vacancies across the country, and it’s back to pre-pandemic levels for us.” 

Cushman & Wakefield has been “looking outside the box” to hire and retain talent, for example, seeking out college graduates with a concentration in real estate and introducing them to the field of property management, or targeting those who previously worked in hotels and resorts and “showcasing the opportunities that come along with managing apartments,” Mark says. “That is something that we’re putting a little more focus toward.” 

As a broad-based company with assets that go beyond multifamily, Cushman & Wakefield also underscores that breadth of career paths. “The global scale of our organization, and the opportunities that abound through all facets of real estate, are enticing to those who are looking for a company to join up with,” he says. “There may be avenues that people would like to explore that take them into the commercial world, that take them into the marketing world, that take them into analytics and research departments.” 


Ed Finkel is a frequent contributor to units.