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Can you hear me now?

Leading a winning property management team from a distance

By Robin Stinson, CPM

Although the world hasn’t fully awakened from a pandemic that remains a formidable opponent to restoring social connection and team building, the customer-centric world of real estate management continues to find paths to overcome the obstacles of the day.

Social bonding and information sharing were often visualized as co-workers gathering around a watercooler, interdepartmental collaboration, think-tank brainstorming sessions, and roundtable meetings. With the paradigm shift to a virtual world, leaders must make explicit efforts to create a bonded and cohesive team. Virtual management and meetings often take on a more structured and task-oriented nature, leading to a breakdown in communication and, even worse, the loss of critical points of knowledge transfer.

As early as 2019, a Harvard Business Review study indicated that 95% of people believed face-to-face meetings were a key factor in successfully building and maintaining long-term relationships. As the virtual world grows and takes on a life of its own, it is even more important for leaders to develop and maintain social cohesion while balancing goal setting, accountability, and employee engagement. Are virtual meetings convenient? Yes. However, one should not lose sight of the strength and the value of face-to-face communication.

Making it work

Fundamentally, when a virtual conversation takes place, many natural responses don’t get activated. The face on that tiny screen limits the expression of nonverbal cues, audio quality is often negatively affected, and the likelihood of the listener disengaging is much greater. Let’s not forget the dog barking or doorbell ringing in the background. All this adds up to an environment that is somewhat less real.

A Harvard Business Review study indicated that 95% of people believed face-to-face meetings were a key factor in successfully building and maintaining long-term relationships.
Developing and practicing remote leadership skills is imperative in today’s business world. Leading a virtual team requires greater emphasis on communication, organization, and self-starting. Meshing different personality types takes a little more time than most are accustomed to. The June 22, 2021, issue of Forbes offers us five best practices to lead a virtual team:

  1. Use the right platform.
  2. Hold meetings only when necessary.
  3. Have realistic expectations of colleagues’ availability.
  4. Be transparent with your workforce.
  5. Be clear and concise in your communication.

Understanding what personality types will flourish in our new remote environment will help build a foundation for a successful virtual team. Remote or virtual working is not for everyone; some depend on the watercooler environment to thrive, while others can sit in front of the camera with their button-down office shirt and bunny slippers keeping their feet warm. Getting the right people is paramount. Using industry-standard personality, behavior, and communication testing tools such as DISC profiler, Myers Briggs, or Caliper Assessment will help you glean insights into your team’s strengths and weaknesses.

Trust me

Since each of the five steps previously mentioned is equally important and can be molded to fit various types of meetings, there remains one strong practice that has stood the test of time: trust. Trust is a bilateral journey between employee and employer, co-worker and co-worker, person and person. It’s uncomplicated but critical, and it’s human nature. A team environment—virtual or not—void of trust is doomed. A virtual work environment certainly tests the strengths of this somewhat elusive quality, as there isn’t a traditional time clock to punch, nor the benefits of social interaction with your manager to solidify mutual trust. To foster the creation of a trustworthy remote workplace, arranging a periodic “virtual watercooler” meeting can be helpful. This will assist in creating bonds and the sharing of information that may not otherwise occur in the structured virtual world of meetings.

Leaders can’t expect a team to communicate well if they don’t lead by example. Always consider your audience and adapt your style to meet the needs of your particular group.
The intent, structure, expectations, and content of these meetings are critical. The following should always be taken into consideration:

  • Why is this meeting being called, and what is the intended outcome? This should be no secret. Transparency and intent go a long way in building trust and employee engagement.
  • Beginning meetings with a “temperature check” (no COVID pun intended) is an excellent way to promote deeper interaction and bonding. Simply take a few minutes to connect. Ask how everyone is doing. Engage in some good old-fashioned watercooler conversation.
  • Foster an environment of shared leadership. Explore ways and situations where others on the team can take the lead on a task or project, thereby leading the call themselves.
  • Be cognizant of and sensitive to what is referred to as “Zoom fatigue.” It’s real. Technology frustration and staring at a screen all day is draining, and it’s best to acknowledge it.
  • Use live polling to engage attendees and create more interactive meetings.
  • Implement “stand-up” meetings. These quick get-togethers are a great way to get people to participate concurrently.
  • Conclude meetings with clear goals, expectations, and visions for success.

Enhancing and practicing improved communication skills is a key factor. Better interpersonal skill sets are valuable regardless. Leaders can’t expect a team to communicate well if they don’t lead by example. Always consider your audience and adapt your style to meet the needs of your particular group. Since people can’t see your body language, a smidge of extra effort can go a long way toward promoting positive rapport.

Don’t forget to celebrate even the smallest successes! There are many ways to acknowledge and recognize your virtual team members even though you may not see them every day. Everyone appreciates some recognition for doing a good job or stepping up on a project. A simple “great job!” shout-out is easy. You’ll be amazed at the number of positive responses and camaraderie it brings.

Another idea is to send everyone a gift card for lunch and host a “lunch & learn” geared toward goal achievements. Whatever your style, positive reinforcement is always welcomed.

Proof of work

Two of the most commonly recognized pitfalls of remote management are lack of focus, productivity, and accountability.

Productivity has always been a concern, but in this new virtual world, that concern has become greatly heightened. As previously mentioned, not everyone embraces the work-from-home or virtual communication environment. There are productivity tools like noise-cancellation software, timers, and website blockers to help us stay on track. Implementing these tools and setting guidelines for using them can be a great asset.

Staying focused in a work-from-home situation is challenging for even the most versatile and diligent employee. Hopping out of bed and turning on the computer is just the beginning. One way to normalize this change is by establishing new habits:

  • Create a “mental commute.”
  • Dress for the occasion.
  • Prioritize work-life balance; many employees spend more time working simply because of the convenience.
  • Set your calendar for time blocking.
  • Teach your team effective independent work skills.
  • Create your own work “space.”
  • Prepare mentally for interruptions.
  • Take breaks: Stand up, walk around, and stretch.

In these unprecedented times, managers must adjust to a new normal that affords them significantly less face time with their direct reports. Holding team members accountable is more difficult when they are not just down the hall. Software such as ActivTrak, Time Doctor, and VeriClock give insight into employees’ online activities, giving managers a better idea of how to assist with time management, thus enhancing productivity and results.

Many platforms have emerged to meet our demands for online collaboration and personal interactions via the internet. These platforms and software options can provide services to a small group chat or an audience of 100+ participants who are virtually guided through a series of roundtable discussions. Selecting the right video conferencing system can save time, frustration, and money.

Getting back to where we were

The post-COVID return and reopening of offices is upon us. But let’s face it: The virtual world is here to stay. Companies are faced with the monumental challenge of reinventing themselves as they analyze the pros, cons, and safety concerns of a workforce returning to what was previously the status quo. A recent survey of 100 executives conducted by McKinsey & Company estimated that 88% of employees would be working on-site by December 2021. Analyzing what that looks like for the property management industry truly is a company-by-company scenario, as most have adopted virtual leasing and customer care protocols. A company’s culture may be put to the test as it works through the pros and cons of most people seeming to embrace a more virtual work environment.

Regardless of whether all or part of your team is on-site or virtual, it’s critical to consider the impact of how COVID has affected everyone differently. As people return to a world of increased social interactions, the sting of the pandemic will not be forgotten. It has forever changed the way that we interact socially. There will be those who experience symptoms of depression or anxiety about returning to the workplace. Open or underlying peer pressure, fear, or social stigma are top contenders for concern. Over-communication and genuine empathy are essential during these transitions.

In closing, it’s been my experience in leadership roles that the fundamentals of building a winning team in both virtual and in-person environments are the same. However, the virtual world most certainly requires a deeper understanding of the people involved, improved communication, a clearer focus on meeting scope and content, and a much stronger effort made to build the necessary foundation of trust.

Journal of Property Management

Robin Stinson, CPM, has been a member of IREM for 33 years and has over 25 years of experience in senior-level real estate management positions. She’s currently the president of operations for The Klotz Group, in addition to her work with IREM as an instructor and webinar presenter.

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