“It was a very uncertain time for our team. We decided to close our offices,” said Harkness.
He says the teams have now started communicating weekly using Microsoft Teams, and he hopes to have the offices open again by sometime in April.
Harkness worked for the same family-owned company for 20 years.
“This family is very persistent and consistent in one thing: they set up meetings. They have a legal meeting every Monday, a maintenance meeting every Friday, and they just are clockwork with it. Even on vacations. They taught me consistency.”
Harkness says he took that model to The Management Group. They have three meetings a week: one for leasing and assistant manager teams, one for maintenance teams, and one for all of the corporate department heads and managers. He says people enjoy that consistent communication and the ability to meet people from other teams that they might not interact with otherwise.
That decision to ditch the office in the first place came from meetings between leaders within the Multifamily business. They discussed things like how to run the offices, how to respond if someone doesn’t pay their rent, what will they do about service requests that will keep the maintenance people safe? Those discussions are still going on monthly.
“Unspoken expectations are the breeding ground for resentment,” Harkness says.
They send out weekly questions to help keep everyone on the same page and activity reports. That form would ask simple questions, like how the respondent is feeling that day, and communicate what the organization is expecting that day. They don’t want to micromanage every minute of every day, but they want to express what the goals are. That form can be submitted at the end of the day to keep track of how well those goals are being met.
For instance, they’ll ask the maintenance staff how many work orders they’re getting and whether they have sufficient PPE. They’ll ask the leasing team what its occupancy is and how many renewals they have coming up. If the managers don’t have the numbers, they’re asked to go find them. At the end of the week, everyone reports on those answers, creating a friendly competition and a better understanding of how the company is functioning.
TMG committed to two goals before the pandemic.
“We could have easily shelved those initiatives,” said Harkness. “But we decided to lean into them.”
The first goal was to create a women’s leadership group within the company.
“I needed to create a space for the females. I didn’t want to be in their meetings but I wanted to be their number one hype guy, I wanted to help set it up, support it, fund it. I wanted to bring in some of our industry leaders that I know – and some that I don’t know – and ask them to come share their advice. How can they connect? How can this group hold our company accountable?”
Harkness says that’s been a tremendous success so far. The second goal was a D.E.N.I. Initiative.
Harkness says the company will occasionally shut down for a day to go on a trip or at- tend something together and discuss. This year, with the pandemic, the staff watched a documentary about a Georgia congressman and civil rights leader called John Lewis: Big Trouble. Before, the whole company went to a civil rights museum. The company remains committed to those initiatives.
“The title of what we’re talking about is winning on culture,” said Antrim. “How would you shape up the word ‘winning?’”
“From the very top of our company, all the way down,” answered Harkness, “we understand that winning on culture is – ‘I want to everyday try to create an organization where our team members want to work. That’s the way we look at it.”
To do that, Harkness tries to reward his team’s efforts often. He also tries to express that he supports and believes in people.
“Some days, we don’t always win. Some days, we don’t always do the best. But I try everyday to engage with the person I’m with, to be present.”
Harkness says he goes to his office once or twice a week, and otherwise spends time at the properties and with the people managing those properties.
Harkness has participated in the Best Places to Work in Multifamily® program for years. That’s when he learned that it’s vital to listen carefully and to treat the team members as the asset they are.
For instance, TMG would provide lunch for the maintenance team every week and a $500 bonus each month, because they weren’t able to work from home. The entire team got UberEats gift cards, cookies, t-shirts with fun designs, TMG branded sweatshirts and sweatpants, and more. They also do a monthly employee gift program. It costs about $45 a year per employee and takes one hour to plan, but it results in monthly gifts from the company showing TMG cares and respects its employees.
He also says he’s leaning more into technology like self-guided tours. Those aren’t that common yet in the suburbs. Leasing agents were also hesitant about self-guided tours because they were worried they wouldn’t get their commission. Getting infographics, explainer videos, pop-ups, and more into the mix to educate people about the availability of those tours was important. He says they’re here to stay.
Structuring all that comes down to the property operations level.
Typically, the first person who gives a tour gets the commission. Now, TMG has people make a video ten or fifteen seconds long to send to people before their self-guided tour, welcoming them and reminding them of their appointment time. That’s how leasing agents “claim” the client now for commissions.
“Every company has a version of a CRM system,” said Harkness. “We really explored all the tools, all the triggers, what makes sense, what doesn’t make sense, what’s overly burdensome, and we really focused on what we could do with our CRM system that was already there. It helped us work remotely.”
The company made other transitions, too. For instance, all the computers they purchase are laptops. They got free apps that let them link their office desk phones to their cell phones. Harkness also says that when people work from home, they don’t have any of the distractions that they might run into the office. Harkness says he had to learn to treat people like adults who respect their positions, not like they’re trying to steal from the company.
“When we return back to work, we’re very adamant that because our customer service has gone up so much with work order call backs and extra retention on renewals, we think we’re going to have somebody working from home every day.”
Right now, retention and reviews are high for TMG’s apartments. He says that renewal rate might be because fewer people are moving during the pandemic, but he thinks it also comes down to customer service.
“What are some things you think operators are missing?” asked Antrim.
Harkness answered by explaining that team members don’t expect their bosses to know the future, but they do expect them to be present. Those team members are scared about what’s going to happen to their positions, so trying their best to provide consistent updates and answers when possible makes a big difference.
He also makes a big point to make sure employees’ first days are pleasant and memorable. They’re greeted with a welcome box of different goodie-box style items, mixed with information they could need that first day. Harkness says that first impression is extremely important, but it’s also important to continue listening and making sure that first impression carries through and stays positive.
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