Like so many other sectors of the economy, residential real estate management has changed and evolved since the turn of the millennium. And also like in those other sectors, much of that evolution is related to the development and adaption of technology. Yet for a manager, the fundamentals of the role remain as they always have been: those of close interpersonal interaction. While technological advances have sped up response times and analytics in many situations, good, old-fashioned personal contact still remains the keystone to effective management.
The Game Changer, for Better or WorseWhat seems to have changed the most in the last couple of decades is the manager’s work hours. Daniel Wollman, the CEO of Gumley Haft, a management firm based in New York City, explains that years ago, his job—while not a traditionally 9-to-5 position—was more or less limited to regular business hours. During the summer months, the pace of work slowed as many people in the industry went away for long periods of time, often as much as a month or even the whole summer. That’s changed with the advent and adaptation of email as the primary means of communication between managers and their client communities.
“Email changed everything,” Wollman says. “I get north of 300 emails daily. Thirty years ago, there wasn’t an internet. This isn’t a criticism, but we now communicate 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. Email has substantially changed my life. Where we were virtually dead during the summer, now people fire off emails while sitting at the pool sipping a piña colada. People can contact you all the time from wherever they are.”
Jim Stecko, a general manager with FSResidential in Chicago, manages Lakepoint Towers, a 70-story, 875-unit condominium property on Lakeshore Drive. He agrees that email has brought significant change to his industry. “Email has upended communications,” he says. “Years ago, everything was done by phone during business hours. Today, email comes at any time, ‘24/7’ as they say. It can become overwhelming. An entire day can be spent responding, and other pressing matters may fall by the wayside.”
Scott Wolf, a managing partner with Brigs, LLC, a New England-based real estate management firm, concurs. “I’d like to get rid of email,” he says. “Everyone’s expectation is an instant answer. There’s something to be said for actually picking up a phone and speaking with people. With direct contact, it may be easier to resolve an issue”—and it might take less time.
Stecko goes on to say that it’s important to take the right approach with email. “I use my best judgment as to when to respond—during the day, or after [business] hours. It depends on the circumstances. There is an expectation that if you respond after hours, you are making yourself available. I have a colleague who will respond to emails after hours but not send the response until the next morning so as not to [set a precedent for] 24-hour availability. I disagree with that approach. I try to respond appropriately depending on the circumstances.”
On the Other Hand…While advances in communications technology have changed the way managers work and allot their time, they do see benefits in it as well. “With the advent of the internet and online communications, one can accomplish things more quickly, even though more people are contacting you,” says Wollman. “It’s also less stressful. You don’t have people angry at you all the time,” he adds with a chuckle. “It’s also easier to deliver bad news!” While email does offer some remove from direct confrontation, it can also make some people feel entitled to be much harsher than they might be face-to-face. Additionally, it can flatten out nuance and tone, which makes misunderstandings and accidental offense not uncommon.
Wolf says, “This type of communication—electronic—ultimately provides you with more time to do other things, which means that you get more done, but you also work more because of the actual time it takes to [read and respond to] email. There’s always more email.” In the end, electronic communication is a mixed bag for managers, but one they will continue to use even if it means more hours in front of the computer screen or on their smartphones.
In regards to smartphones, the use of text messaging and other SMS technology like WhatsApp is another mixed bag for the management industry. While providing more immediate, in-real-time communication—which can be useful in emergencies or situations where staying up to the minute is important—text messages from an entire client community can become a barrage of distractions. It can also become intrusive. Even if a property manager (or any professional, for that matter) has a separate smartphone just for work, giving the number out to literally hundreds of clients or customers can lead to an onslaught of calls and texts everyday and every hour. However, as homeowners in multifamily communities start to skew younger, adoption of their preferred modes of communication—which for millennials and others is decidedly texting (for now)—might be necessary to meet their service expectations.
Speaking of Age ...As millions of American professionals over 50 will tell you, finding a new job at their age is nearly impossible. But in real estate management, that does not seem to be the case. Both Wolf and Wollman indicate that as owner populations become younger, experience is still valued over anything else when it comes to residential management. And many long-serving managers are embracing changes in technology and incorporating them into how they manage their properties.
Stecko indicates that FSResidential, where he has worked for 12 years, offers training in new technologies to its managers and all other employees. The company prides itself on integrating systems and applications that offer efficiency and service both to clients and in back-end operations.
Of his time in the industry, Wolf says, “Other apps for direct management are great and have really improved our ability to complete our tasks more efficiently and quickly.” He includes such innovations as apps that notify owners of rules or building violations, platforms that allow for online bill approval and payment, and remote access to desktop computers, which provides managers with much more flexibility. The one tradeoff he sees is that these new capabilities have a tendency to replace direct conversation and visual inspection—still necessities in many circumstances.
While age is not the determinant factor when assigning a manager to a specific property, management firms will still consider the level of maturity and experience required for the particular building or community. The right ‘fit’ between a manager and a property might include the age of the manager relative to the client community population, but other variables that are harder to quantify usually play more of a role in the assignment.
Educational RequirementsWollman notes that most people come to the real estate business—particularly property management—by a less than direct route. Up until a few years ago, there were very few college- or university-based academic programs leading to a career in real estate. Even though the academic options are widening, it seems that success in the industry has more to do with experience and personality than it does with degrees.
“No one expects post-graduate education in our business,” Wollman says. “People who come into management often have past work experience or education in architecture, finance, et cetera, and they can modify their experience to become good managers. Most importantly, they need to be good people persons, and that hasn’t changed. Truthfully, though, 20 years ago people did get in with less experience and a more limited skill set. I learned by doing, and we still do. I believe this may be the last industry like this.”
Wolf points out that although Massachusetts is a non-license state—in that property managers are not legally required to hold any particular certification or accreditation to work in the field—his company requires managers to pursue continuing education throughout their tenure with the firm. “We send our people for courses through CAI [the Community Associations Institute],” he says. “We expect them to get involved with a committee at CAI—any committee they like that interests them.” Wolf believes that such a continuing education policy is typical throughout the industry in New England.
Career LongevitySeeing as multifamily property management is a challenging and demanding job, do managers stick with it? Do they adapt to changing variables to advance their careers? Both Wollman and Wolf say yes. “If you stay in five years or longer, chances are, you’ll stay in permanently,” says Wolf.
Many factors affect that decision, and that’s something that’s been consistent over time. Management involves long hours—managers are basically on call 24/7—and little appreciation, along with heavy workloads. Wolf points out, “While the number of unit owners that tend to take advantage of a manager is a very small percentage overall, [those residents] can be very disturbing for the manager. The ‘thank yous’ the manager gets from the other 97 or so percent make all the difference.”
This might serve as a good reminder to show some appreciation for your manager if you want him or her to stick around. “Some managers who leave the business go on to do project work,” says Wollman, “but the truth is there aren’t a lot of alternatives. And we do everything we can to keep good people.”
In the final analysis, the changes in real estate management over the last 20 years have had more to do with the way technology has altered the way we all live and work, and less to do with the soft skills that the profession requires: communication, consistency, and connection. Despite email, text, apps, and other innovations, it’s still a people business—and it’s likely to stay that way.
A J Sidransky is a staff writer/reporter with The Chicagoland Cooperator, and a published novelist.