The responsibilities of property managers include a wide array of tasks, from the physical to the administrative. While many of these jobs involve concrete things—like sending out monthly bills, filing paperwork, or going to meetings—equally important is managing the people involved with the building. That includes everyone from the building’s staff, to the residents to those on the board and committees.
At the same time, a manager needs to deal with employees working for his or her own company, such as bookkeepers and individual property managers. The manager may be dealing with employees who were hired by a previous management team, and possibly some who have seen a number of management companies come and go.
Keeping everyone happy and harmonious is not always an easy task. Many property managers face uncooperative boards, a dysfunctional staff or unhappy residents, and it’s up to them to keep everything working. “Some red flags … are when board members don’t answer emails or phone calls when the manager needs a quick decision to be made or answers after the fact,” says Denise Lindsey, a property manager and vice president of Edison-based Access Property Management. “Another is board members that do not show up for board meetings, or are consistently late. Many times, if there is not a quorum of board members, votes cannot be taken and a whole month may go by without an important issue solved. When board members have personal agendas, that can take away from the business of the association, too.”
“The fact that unit owners are willing to serve their community is a terrific thing. However, once in a while you will see an owner join the board with some type of personal agenda,” Bob Rogers, community manager for Taylor Management in Whippany, agrees. “A good manager/board can see this pretty quickly and make it clear to this new member that they have a fiduciary duty to serve the community as a whole and not just what works best for them. Another characteristic that I see once in awhile is board members not listening to their professionals. Whether it is the association attorney, manager, engineer or auditor, they all have valuable input and are likely better versed on a particular subject than the board member.”
Every building seems to have its own methods of human resource management and conflict resolution for managers dealing with dysfunctional, apathetic, or chaotic boards and buildings, and as long as it works, no way is the wrong way.
“At Taylor Management Company, we spend quite a bit of time training our managers. This includes in house seminars, CAI (Community Associations Institute) seminars, in house video training, etc. More important than any of these, we rely on each other within the company. No matter what you are going through, there is a great likelihood that another manager has experienced a similar issue and their advice can be critical.”
The professionals agree that dysfunction in a building can lead to a multitude of problems that will trickle down to create unhappy residents.
“One of the common issues that brings on disharmony, poor attitude and performance drop-off among staff members is low morale,” explains Robin Habacht, president and co-founder of Monticello Property Management with offices in Matawan, Leonia and New York City. “Some common signs, that are ignored and often misinterpreted as just plain poor attitude, are the escalation of absenteeism; the lack of enthusiasm; the drop in work quality; fighting among staff members and the decreasing response to owner requests.”
To counteract a staff morale problem, she suggests, “Managers and boards should begin to interact with the staff. You are looking to answer the question, ‘how are we treating them?’ Are you treating them the way you want to be treated as an employee that is valued and respected?
“Regardless of your pay scale, education, cultural background, everyone wants to be treated with respect and to be acknowledged for a job well done (Maslow's hierarchy of needs). Do your employees have a comfortable place to take a break? Do you provide a coffee station, a refrigerator, a changing room or do you at least acknowledge their work anniversary?” Habacht says.
“Staff input increases morale substantially as well. Sit down with your staff and discuss any ideas they may have to improve the current processes. Staff is at the front line—who better understands how and why ‘things’ work and don't work. Practice has shown that when employers care about employee morale, businesses run better and more efficiently. It’s the simple process of letting people know you value them beyond the mechanics of their function.”
An unfortunate challenge to the business is that when dealing with boards, the most a property manager can ever do is to make suggestions and recommendations. They can’t force a building to do something that they should do.
Being honest with [board members] is key,” Rogers says. “I recently had a board that just could not decide on the budget numbers and it was getting down to crunch time where the unit owners needed to know if there was an increase or not. I finally had to be a bit forceful with them and explain the ramifications if they don’t get the budget completed. While they may not appreciate it at the time, the job was completed. It’s a manager’s job to see that the board is completing their task at hand in accordance with the governing documents.”
Often, board members become overwhelmed with various well-intentioned projects for their building. It is important for managing agents to help board members stay focused with short and long term goals. Preparing an operational plan and capital improvement plan, and setting priorities, will help boards and agents forecast project timelines and costs and help boards determine whether to proceed with individual projects.
With some skillful nudging, a manager can get—and keep—a divided or struggling board on track. One possibility is “engaging them into different jobs that each one can be in charge or becoming a liaison of a committee,” Lindsey says. “By using the board and residents, untapped resources can be found—for example, an arborist or someone who is great at doing newslettters.”
At the same time, she notes, the manager has to remember that when discussions get heated and frustrations on a board run high, it’s not a personal attack. “Those are the times to act calmly, get all the facts, and give direct and concise answers,” she says. “If a homeowner yells, most of the time it is out of frustration.” The answer is to calmly seek a solution to the issue at hand.
“At one of our on-site offices, there was a disgruntled homeowner who was yelling at the manager about the parking situation at the site—which was a hot topic at every board meeting,” she recalls. “As the manager calmly discussed the procedure with the homeowner, the homeowner become increasingly frustrated. The manager then asked the homeowner to give her what they felt was a good solution to the parking problem. The resident replied that parking tags would help, and the manager then enlisted the homeowner's help in forming the parking tag committee. Being part of the solution turned this homeowner into an advocate of the association instead of a constant complainer.”
Despite all best efforts, disharmony among boards is something that appears to happen all the time. But manager say that keeping lines of communication open can go a long way to calm those choppy seas.
“A constant flow of communication is critical to running a successful community,” Rogers says. “This includes communication between managers and boards, unit owners and managers/administrators, management and accounting, and, obviously, management to vendors.
“Speaking for myself only, not being honest with each other is a recipe for disaster. If the board has asked a manager to do something and it wasn’t done, it’s critical to be honest as to why it wasn’t done instead of making excuses. The latter is just going to make things worse. Take your lumps when you are supposed to. “
Learning the Skills
To help a manager learn how to handle the daily challenges, there are courses available dealing with such issues. The Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM), which has New Jersey and Southern New Jersey chapters, offers a variety of management courses. IREM’s CID201 - Common Interest Developments: Managing Condominium Association Properties “focuses specifically on the unique and complex challenges of managing in the CID market,” including working with boards, motivating volunteers and employees. The Community Associations Institute (CAI), which has a New Jersey chapter and Southern New Jersey and Delaware Valley chapter, also has a wide range of programs available for both management professionals and association volunteers.
While they recommend taking these courses, many managers also believe that nothing beats the “school of hard knocks,” with personalized, hands-on experience by a professional manager or other industry pro.
“Managers should ask for assistance from their superiors or from one of the association's professionals,” Lindsey says. “If the matter is to do with accounting or finances, the manager should engage the help of the association's audit or the management company's controller. Rules and regulation enforcement can be addressed by the association's legal counsel or the landscaper can attend a meeting to discuss their remedies for landscaping issues. Many times, hearing from the professional who deals with the issues for a living is a great resource for managers.”
“Consulting with professionals who have dealt with similar issues will go a long way,” Rogers agrees. “There are courses out there that will help you learn basic skills for handling difficult situations—but there is nothing better than on-the-job training.
“I have learned more from my mistakes,” he says, “than I have from my successes.”
Keith Loria is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator. Additional research by The New Jersey Cooperator’s David Chiu.