Property managers handle a wide array of tasks, from the physical to the administrative. While many of these jobs are outlined in black and white (send out monthly bills, attend meetings, file paperwork), one important component is not as easy to pin down: the actual management of people—boards, building/HOA staff, and residents alike.
The job is a lot, even in a community with a functional, cooperative board and harmonious residents—it becomes a herculean task when a board has jumped the tracks, residents are up in arms, and staff members are antagonistic. There are obviously methods of human resource management and conflict resolution for managers dealing with dysfunctional, apathetic, or chaotic boards and association communities.
Running a Community
Much like any other company, condos and co-ops have a sort of “human resource” shoulder in a management company and managing those human interactions is necessary for a smooth functioning operation.
“The whole reason buildings get management companies is for them to take care of stuff,” says Keith Hales of Chicago-based Hales Property Management.
Gina Rossi of Vanguard Community Management in Schaumburg agrees.
“Human resources, is described as individuals who make up the workforce of an organization,” she says. “It is also the name of the function within an organization charged with the overall responsibility for implementing strategies and policies relating to the management of staff. Simply put human resources provides a strategic approach to workplace management to gain competitive advantage and utilize employees based on their abilities as well as reduce financial risk while maximizing return on investment.”
According to Hales, one of the factors important to running things smoothly is a clear agenda for board meetings so that you can roll out how the meeting will go from the get-go.
“Boards should establish rules at the beginning of the meeting, such as asking that all questions get held off until the end,” he says.
Then, he suggests making a priority list of all projects.
“The management company should get together with the board and figure out what needs to get done in what order, based on money, for example,” he says.
He advises that management companies exercise being a neutral party in all disagreements so that they can properly convey to boards how to run a board efficiently.
“It’s best to never engage under emotion,” he says. “It doesn’t help.”
He says the best thing to do is to refrain from giving any immediate answers or solutions, empathize with the individuals having a problem and then move on to the next topic.
However, one of the most important things to remember is to at least respond to a problem when it arises so that the buildings have a level of comfort.
“We respond within a matter of hours if not sooner,” he says. “Not doing anything will cause all sorts of problems.”
A Dysfunctional Community
Unfortunately, even with a management company to handle the requirements of everyday operations, problems arise and things can become dysfunctional. Hales says one catalyst is a younger board full of first-time homebuyers.
“They let their emotions take over,” he cites, saying that they often come in with a hidden agenda. “They have no idea how a condo association works.”
Other signs could include someone that is moving out or looking to rent, he says.
Becoming experienced means becoming familiar with all the rules of an association. Rossi says that if a board member is not aware of all the policies, it leads to problems.
“One common mistake is not being familiar with the governing documents,” she says. “Each community has its own set of governing documents that dictate the functions of the community. The documents will clearly define the boundaries within the community. Lack of understanding of the same will increase liability to staff and homeowners.”
Once the policies have been learned, Rossi says enforcement is the next step.
“Rules are written to maintain order within communities,” she says. “They should help the board selectively enforce rules. Otherwise, a liability has been created and thereby puts the association at risk.”
Patrick Kennelly of Phoenix Rising Management Group, Ltd. in Chicago agrees, but he says that even with experienced board members issues can still arise.
“There are a number of warning signs that a board or association is at risk of becoming dysfunctional, such as financial stress, a dominant and divisive board member, loss of trust or confidence in management, or a major event like a significant capital repair project or lawsuit,” he says. “Any of these factors, or combination of them, can quickly spin out of control and cause a community to become dysfunctional.”
Rossi cites poor self-serving board members, lack of checks and balances and neglectful or greedy board members as some other signs of dysfunction. But, one of the biggest clues, she says, is a lack of communication and unity, citing low turnout at association meetings as the number one factor.
“If the majority is unwilling to participate in the community because they are too busy or ‘don’t want to get involved,’ the democracy of the community falls to the minority,” she says. Additionally, “without checks and balances in place, it is difficult to ascertain the goals of non-challenged members.”
But, sometimes there can be a thing as too much communication, says Hales.
He cites an instance where one of his boards was meeting every other week to discuss water infiltration due to problems with the roofing, masonry and windows.
“There wasn’t a strong management and there was a bunch of conflict,” he says, citing a lack of building and construction experts and bid violations as top problems. “Their findings weren’t accurate because they didn’t have experience in a variety of different areas.”
He says after his company came in and provided the guidance they needed, the board started to meet every couple of months and the conflict subsided.
Cleaning Up a Mess
Sometimes a management company is brought in after the damage has already been done and a community is left with nothing but chaos and bitterness towards one another.
Rossi says having dedicated and committed managers and employees is among one of the most important steps of making things right again. “Take advantage of the outstanding opportunities either through your employer or the Community Associations Institute and commit to giving 110% everyday,” she says. And remember, communication is key.
“Listen to your clients’ needs, fulfill the terms of your contract and go the extra mile to provide the quality of life that your clients deserve. Being alert, focused and staying up to date on laws that affect the [common interest development] industry while communicating clearly is a great start,” Rossi explains.
“By sending community-related information on a regular basis to homeowners and board members, you are increasing community awareness and building trust. Begin, working with the association attorney to interpret the declaration, bylaws and rules and regulations to board members as well as owners, followed by fair enforcement of the same. Create new and exciting programs for owner participation. Encourage participation in elections and committees.”
Kennelly agrees with Rossi, suggesting that communities conduct an electronic survey of the ownership. He says the key is to keep a finger on the pulse of the board or association and recognize when the circumstances are becoming strained so that quick action can be taken.
“A good course of action in those situations is to increase communications and meetings, solicit feedback, listen, ensure you have properly identified the issue(s) and then develop and implement a plan to address the problem,” he says.
“Ask the members of the community what is important to them, what are they happy with and what are they not happy with,” Kennelly continues. “Allow the ownership to rate the service providers from management to janitorial to door personnel.”
He says the responses should be reviewed for any systemic issues to get identified and then compile the information into an easy-to-read report for the board and ownership.
After that, Kennelly suggests the most critical part of the process is to arrange for a Town Hall meeting to review the results of the survey and explain to the ownership what changes they can expect to see based on their feedback.
“If you simply survey the ownership and don’t act on the responses you solicited it will likely further divide the community,” he says.
Learning How to Manage
There are several ways management companies try to teach their boards and employees how to handle situations.
“A well organized and dedicated community management company will make education of self and staff a top priority, as housing educated employees increases benefit to the employer as well as provides increased service to clients,” Rossi says.
For example, according to Rossi, both CAI national and CAI-IL, the Illinois chapter of CAI, based in Roselle offer continuing education programs, which provide the ability to gain up-to-date experience directly related to the service provided. Outside of the coursework, CAI also offers regular educational seminars to refresh or supplement your current knowledge.
Kennelly and Rossi suggest reading literature such as magazines and CAI books that includes information on how to conduct business. “These reference materials may outline specific telltale signs and how to develop a formal plan to address the issues,” Kennelly says.
Another avenue is to attend industry trade shows. This publication, The Chicagoland Cooperator, will hold its first Condo, HOA & Co-op Expo at the Navy Pier Convention Center on Wednesday, November 16, 2011, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free for a day of networking, learning and fun. Go to www.chicagocondoexpo.com to register and for more information.
While there are many resources available to board members and management companies on how to run things effectively and what to do in case something goes awry, Hales thinks such skills aren’t necessarily found in a classroom. “Personally, I think your education comes from experience,” he says.
Kennelly agrees saying that internal resources are a good start. “An experienced management company will have a seasoned staff that will have dealt with these types of situations over the course of their career,” he says. “No one knows better what to look for and what to do than someone who has been through the situation first-hand.”
Bernadette Marciniak is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator.