CHANGING THE PARADIGM OF STAFFING RATIOS
For at least 20 years, many in the apartment industry considered a ratio of one team member for every 100 units the standard for onsite staffing. This ratio continues to be a model for many organizations, primarily for its associated cost-control benefits considering the proportion of annual budgets dedicated to payroll.
However, the practice of controlling expenses does not need to come at the expense of onsite teams. With the increased use of success metrics for resident satisfaction with resident surveys, reviews and feedback, apartment firms must proactively provide onsite teams with the ability to meet those measurements.
In what is still a pandemic safety-oriented workplace, the industry must also consider work schedules combined with potential illnesses, quarantines and the reality of new schedule flexibility for onsite team members.
Many industry professionals would assert that technology like artificial intelligence (AI), chatbots, call centers and the like have provided the ability to scale back in staffing via increased efficiencies for onsite teams. While there are many elements of technology that give onsite teams opportunities to focus and prioritize, factors remain that inundate onsite teams with greater workloads. The antiquated idea that onsite staffing should remain at the one-per-100 ratiois no longer sustainable because of the increased effects of resident satisfaction measures, the newfound burden of employee schedules in a post-pandemic world combined with the need to meet employee satisfaction, as well as the presumed cost savings related to the implementation of PropTech.
Resident satisfaction is considered one of the highest priorities for an onsite team and often is used as a key performance indicator (KPI) in employee performance reviews and in executive-level reporting.
In Denile Doyle’s April 2021 article in Multi-Housing News, “The Power of Resident Satisfaction Surveys,” the first line of the story underscores the importance of the measurement: “Resident satisfaction is within the top three on the list of property managers’ objectives.”
Resident satisfaction is measured in a variety of ways, including online surveys, in-person feedback and social platform reviews. The value in these metrics can be found in an opportunity for all team members, from executive level to onsite staff, to pivot if necessary, to applaud areas of success and to focus on areas of weakness.
According to “Multifamily housing characteristics and tenant satisfaction,” published in the Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities, author Russell N. James III mentions several variables directly tied to resident satisfaction, including staff communications, friendliness of management, cooperation or understanding from staff and more. Residents want a sense of community, engagement on social media and more social events. They have an expectation of basic customer service: Their telephone calls answered, their problems solved, their home in good working order. But they also want to be surprised by the unexpected, the “wow factor.”
If resident satisfaction is an indicator of performance for onsite team members, then a top priority for the team and the requirements to satisfy residents includes some form of human interaction. It only proves beneficial to ensure that the onsite team is adequately staffed to meet these expectations. The reality is, even in the event KPIs are being met—or exceeded—there is still an additional workload; the expectations do not end with surveyed residents, even when they are satisfied with service. Providing onsite teams adequate staffing will result in residents checking the box, “Exceeded Expectations.”
The Scheduling Shuffle
In addition to not having enough team members to meet expectations, onsite teams also face the additional challenge of scheduling the team members they do have. Scheduling onsite teams has always proven a balancing act. For example, given a standard six-day workweek, a team of four with one team member working Saturday/Sunday will always work out to only three team members available for three days of the week. As though this was not difficult enough when the unexpected happens, onsite staff are now presented with schedule conflicts because of the pandemic.
In a post-pandemic, safety-oriented world, the schedule comes with more unanticipated changes than normal. Teams face multiple challenges, including quarantines due to exposure, sick co-workers and delays associated with testing due to COVID symptoms and fever checks. The team’s safety is vital and increased measures taken to remove those risks will leave our teams short-staffed in an industry that is essential.
Beyond added and necessary safety measures, flex hours are also being considered for many team members that allows them to work from home. Because the workload has increased during the pandemic, there’s a new schedule conflict to consider. Betsy Kirkpatrick, Strategic Accounts Executive for BG Multifamily, said it best and even ties employee experience to resident experience during a 2021 interview, “If your staff experience is bad, your resident experience is going to be terrible. We’re understaffing our communities as an industry, we need to take better care of site teams, so concentrate on your team and then move it out.”
There is a direct correlation between staffing, support, employee experience and the resident experience. If a property management company is measured by its positive cultural environment, rest assured success or failure will be readily visible in resident satisfaction scores.
This staffing ratio argument can be countered via the utilization of PropTech, including AI, chatbots, self-guided and/or virtual tours and more. There is considerable value in the adoption of PropTech in rental housing, and its use has quickly become fundamental to maintaining satisfied residents. However, assumptions that the use of PropTech should preserve the one-to-100 ratio should be avoided. The introduction of technology onsite, partnered with proper training, offers enhancement of an onsite team’s efficiency and relieves them of certain tasks but, in some instances, can add to the workload. Cited in Robyn Friedman’s April 2021 article in Multi-Housing News, “Why Chatbots Are a Must-Have for Multifamily Marketing,” was significant growth in leases in a five-month period at one community (from 15 to 43 in the same period) and an increase in tours scheduled based on the ability of after-hours conversations. The value in this example can be found in the obvious growth in closing leases, but those tours and leases also increase the workload for onsite teams with the answering of necessary questions/concerns, evaluating, approving new applications and performing the proper paperwork trail (even in the event the property is paperless, there is still an additional workload).
For those who remember when call centers entered the industry and became a standard, team members spent their days reviewing calls because there was too often a disconnect between off-site call centers and the property’s objective. Team members were left feeling undervalued for the additional work they were doing because of something that was intended to make them more efficient, and they knew they could perform better than off-site members.
Valuing the onsite team members includes proper training for the technology combined with the assurance of a seamless transition from the PropTech to the human on the other side of the process. Often, onsite team members are left with the troubleshooting phase of a new technology, causing additional frustration. Faith Aids, VP of Marketing and Branding for Laramar Group, mentioned in Paul Willis’ 2019 units article, “The Amazonification of Leasing,” “how busy teams are and how many different directions they are being pulled in throughout the day. Trying to find tech partners that make life easier on them, so the result is that they are able to provide a higher level of service.”
When everything the apartment industry does is so incredibly interconnected, it is only presumed that changing the paradigm of staffing will benefit every facet of our industry. In Donald Davidoff’s June 2019 units article, Mike Brewer of RADCO Residential even asks what’s the optimum staffing for more tech-enabled properties. This author’s answer will consistently be to change the paradigm of staffing and shift our ratio to 1 per 45 to 61 units to account for what Brewer mentions as, “the need for improved soft skills.” Workload has not changed, it has only increased with the ability to better understand the resident expectations and act on them, combined with conflicting work schedules during a pandemic and technology that, despite its ability to increase efficiency, sometimes leads to great workloads to manage and maintain. Let us break the paradigm of “staffing” and re-evaluate the sustainability of our biggest asset, our onsite team members.
Brittney Nelson, CAPS, is Regional Property Manager with Grubb Properties in Winston-Salem, N.C.