The Human Factor What You Need to Know About Staff Management

The Human Factor
Property managers know that whether they're running a small, contained walk-up
building, a multi-unit high rise, or a sprawling condo development in the
suburbs, materials, capital and personnel all fall under their administrative

Many of the jobs handled by property managers can be described in well-defined
terms—send out monthly bills, attend meetings, file paperwork—but regardless of the size of the project, human resources are typically
considered the most important and involved piece in any management puzzle.
Managing human resources is both an art and a science, and requires a very
specific skill set, particularly since peoples' homes and personal assets are

Even a great manager may not be an expert in the management of human beings, but
nevertheless, depending on the size and nature of a community, a manager might
have to coordinate operations with a single superintendent or work with any
number of doormen, porters, custodians and handypersons. Well-trained,
motivated employees enhance the appeal and ambiance of any property adding to
both the real and perceived value, but just as managers aren't necessarily born
human resource specialists, great workers don’t just show up that way by magic their first day on the job. Good managers will
avail themselves of the resources available to maintain and improve their own
human-management skills as they build a viable support staff.

Who’s in Charge

'Workforce,' 'staff,' 'human capital'—no matter what name is given to the people who service and maintain an
association, it all comes down to “people power.” Dan Wurtzel is president of FirstService Residential in New York City, a
property management firm with offices across the country, including two in
Chicago. He speaks of some basics that must be in place, whether in a brand-new
building or one that has been inherited from another management firm. Putting
together a team of staff members who can and will work well together begins
with a basic assessment of what is needed and who is best suited to perform
each task.

“Whether a new property or an existing one, the tools are the same, a detailed
job description, schedules, and training must be in place,” Wurtzel explains. “Make sure the job descriptions and the schedules are in sync and customized for
the building. Every building is different with different amenities and
different nuances. Templates don’t always work.”

Kara Cermak, president of Rowell Incorporated, a management company based in
Elgin, Illinois, agrees. “Schedules should be firmly enforced for all of the employees, and requests for
time off should be submitted in writing, within a certain time frame,” she says, and suggests another vital component: constant communication. “Successfully managing any employees, in my opinion, includes giving them
feedback, and regularly meeting with them to find out what’s occurring in the field and how things can be properly distributed for all of
the employees.”

In addition, Wurtzel believes that all staff members, regardless of their job
descriptions, need either to have customer-service skills when hired, or be
taught them on the job. “Customer service is part of every job,” he says, and uses as example a floor polisher who, even though his job is
limited to just polishing the floor, doesn’t keep mindlessly polishing when he is approached by residents or other staff
members. “Ideally, he stops the machine and gives full attention to the person approaching
him,” says Wurtzel.


Wurtzel has confidence that thorough, focused job descriptions lead to hiring
the right people for each job; people who come in with the right background and
skill set to perform the assigned duties. Careful scheduling results in minimal
disruptions and in conjunction with good training, results in improved
efficiency. Wurtzel believes in training for both managers and staff members.
FirstService Residential has its own courses but he also encourages bringing in
experts or specialist to teach specifics. Oftentimes a vendor can demonstrate a
product or piece of equipment and take the guesswork out of the equation for
staff members who will be using it day-to-day.

Lisa Northup serves as senior vice president of human resources for Associa,
which has offices all over the United States, including Chicago, Schaumburg and
Plainfield. The most common challenge she observes among new managers is
learning to be a leader. Stepping into a leadership role forces an incoming
manager to learn on the fly—and while total immersion works for some, it's not for everyone. Complicating
this learning curve is the fact that what works for one physical property
probably will not work for all. Quick thinking, adaptability and the
flexibility to meet different needs are also necessary in order to be fully

Fortunately, Northup is attuned in her own position to recognize different
learning styles and opportunities. Managers, and indeed all staff, are provided
learning experiences through hands-on, on-the-job training, specialized
training, the guidance of others, and feedback from management. There is always
something to learn, and she feels skill sets can grow and adapt quickly in the
right environment.

What if Things Go Wrong?

Sometimes, staff management issues cause an association to lose its edge. As an
example, Wurtzel mentions a particular building he encountered where daily
upkeep had deteriorated. The physical plant was not quite as well-maintained
and tidy as it should have been, and the staff was just 'okay,' rather than
exceptional. Because the issues were widespread and somewhat non-specific, it
was difficult to get to the root of the problem. Turns out, the property
manager—who was the direct supervisor to the staff—was leaving early most days, and passing off his responsibilities to building
staff, while failing to address issues of importance to staff members. The
manager was counseled by his own supervisors but ultimately he was unable (or
unwilling) to correct his behavior, and he left the position. With a new
resident manager in place, Wurtzel says the staff’s morale recovered, and the property was restored to its former excellence.

“A manager is always available, and staff members may go up the chain of command
for problem resolution,” he says. “Employees need to realize they may need to break the chain of command and go up
to the next level when their direct supervisor is part of the problem.” 

Northup recommends that managers cultivate close ties and actively stay in touch
with staff, so that they notice when fine tuning and adjustments are needed in
any department or property. “HR efforts are team efforts,” she says. Communication is key to understanding what is going on, and a “hands-off” attitude will not serve. There are HR partners at all levels and a chain of
command going all the way up to the corporate level. She agrees with Wurtzel
that workers can jump over their supervisors. To facilitate this, Associa
offers a confidential 'safe-line' that employees can call to report
observations and concerns. “This is just one additional way to insure we listen to our human capital,” she says.

In the case of a building that's slipping, Cermak says, “Review everything, including all of the reasons why the staff was hired, and
what their basic job descriptions are. And get their input! That’s the number-one way to revitalize your staff. When you care, and they realize
that you actually do care about what they have to say, you will win their
loyalty and hard work nine times out of ten.” 

Cermak points out another pitfall managers should be aware of. “On-site personnel are subject to the rumor mill, and issues within the community
. . . more so than employees located in an office. Managing their attachments
to individual residents or the degree to which they are interacting and losing
productivity is always something to keep in mind.”

Who's in Charge?

In Cermak's experience, association board members themselves don't usually
assume a direct role in managing building or HOA staff. She says, “The board of directors should be setting policy at the highest level, so that
management can carry out those decisions. Management should do the
administration—hiring, firing, reviews and payroll, everything. On-site supervisors should be
an extension of management and be involved in the oversight of those employees
on a more day-to-day level.”

Wurtzel agrees that it falls to the board to set the tone, and to the
property-management firm to carry out board expectations through a well-defined
chain of command. He explains the layers of property management by drawing a
parallel with his favorite sport, baseball. ‘The board is equivalent to the team owners, the property manager to the general
manager, the field manager is the supervisor, and building staff are like the

Although board involvement will vary, when it comes to managing human resources,
the experts agree on numerous points. Start with a specific job description,
hire good individuals, and let them do their jobs. Manage but don’t micro-manage; provide support, education, communication and motivation. Build a team and a chain of command whenever possible. Strong
leadership, smart management and communication all help to make the most of a
community's most valuable asset: its people.

Anne Childers is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The
Chicagoland Cooperator.

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