Apartment companies think outside the box to protect staff from COVID-19.
By Bendix Anderson
Apartments companies across the U.S. have worked hard to keep residents safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. But they have been just as focused on protecting employees—even as growing business activity brings their leasing professionals and maintenance teams into contact with residents or prospective residents.
“As the colder seasons approach and the pandemic continues, it will be critical that team members remain vigilant about safety practices,” says Mike Brewer, Chief Operating Officer of the RADCO Companies.
Many apartment companies are now sending staff members back to leasing offices that operated with skeleton crews during the height of the pandemic. Others are beginning to engage with residents in person and sending maintenance crews into apartments to address the backlog of problems that have piled up since the pandemic began.
“Most amenities and leasing offices were closed over the summer,” says Demi Sterling-Kinney, Vice President of Operations at Aspen Heights Partners. “We have since reopened many of these with policies in place that support social distancing.”
Numerous apartment communities closed their leasing offices to residents and potential residents in the first few months of the pandemic.
“Our existing technology gave us confidence that closing our leasing offices would not unduly interrupt business continuity,” says Brewer. A skeleton crew of property managers still showed up to work behind the closed doors of the leasing offices at RADCO’s communities, he says. They did the basic business of keeping the apartments safe and habitable, communicating with residents through phone, email and the internet.
“We remain closed to the public,” Brewer adds. “We have since returned to fully staffing our leasing offices with appropriate social distancing and personal protective equipment protocols in place.”
Apartment companies typically decide what their staff members can and cannot do by following the regulations set by local health officials to the letter. But some companies have gone beyond what local regulations demand to help keep their staff and residents safe.
“We began taking steps to ensure safe operation nationwide two weeks before the national emergency,” says Patrick Appleby, President of WinnResidential.
Experts now largely agree that COVID-19 often spreads through the air, especially indoors in spaces with weak ventilation where viral particles can hang in the air for as long as three hours. For safety in the pandemic, health experts recommend a tough standard of six to nine air changes per hour in rooms where people gather—at least twice the standard required by many building codes.
Apartment managers also have followed the level of infection increases in their areas. “Our local managers and their teams have followed infection rates closely as well to decide on a property-by-property basis if there were adjustments that needed to be made… in advance of and addition to local regulations,” says Elie Rieder, Founder and CEO of Castle Lanterra Properties.
These apartment companies have had to continue to lease new apartments—while keeping their employees safe—during the pandemic. They quickly learned how to conduct as much business as possible through the internet.
“Virtual or contactless leasing techniques will be an important option for everyone for the foreseeable future,” says Appleby. They include virtual tours and online applications. Many companies are also experimenting with self-guided tours.
Some companies had already planned to allow potential renters to lease an apartment largely online. The pandemic simply sped up their plans. “RADCO moved to 100 percent virtual or video conference-style leasing within days of pandemic-related closures,” says Brewer. The company hired its first digital leasing consultant two years ago, when the company first included virtual leasing tools in its technology innovation road map.
A virtual tour can be as simple as a video posted to an apartment community’s website. More complex virtual tours allow website visitors to explore a three-dimensional apartment model, similar to the three-dimensional environment of a computer game.
Apartment companies are also using “smart apartment” technologies like electronic door locks and online ID verification to let potential renters arrange a tour of an apartment through the community website and enter the apartment without ever seeing a leasing agent.
These technologies are likely to be important for apartment companies long after the pandemic is over. “Self-guided tours of apartments will become a more significant part of the sales process,” says Castle Lanterra’s Rieder.
Potential renters seem to have already gotten used to the new process. “Once our teams were past the initial learning curve, our same-store leasing and occupancy statistics began outpacing prior-year results,” says RADCO’s Brewer. “Consumer acceptance of virtual leasing signals that this is a trend that will continue.”
Virtual leasing tools will also give property managers more time to provide residents with new kinds of services. “In the near future, as technology takes more of the administrative burden away from frontline staff, we expect resident service menu to expand,” says RADCO’s Brewer.
Virtual leasing is also an important option for cautious potential renters. “There is a lingering reluctance for in-person leasing in the hard-hit markets, with a great deal of enthusiasm for virtual leasing techniques,” says Appleby. “Our priority through year-end is wooing reluctant consumers back into the leasing market.”
In the first months of the pandemic, many apartment companies sharply limited how often they would send maintenance teams into apartments to make repairs.
Spending a significant amount of time in someone’s home—long enough to fix a sink, for example—could be one of the riskiest things a person could do during a pandemic, if the resident happened to be infected with the coronavirus and the worker didn’t have access to the right protective gear.
“We limited in-unit work orders to emergencies only,” says Winn’s Appleby. More recently, Winn’s maintenance teams have been more productive—with the proper protective gear. “Our maintenance teams are at full strength, working hard to catch up on work orders and capital projects,” he says. “We have asked them to maintain the same vigilance about safety even as conditions have improved.”
These same issues have made it difficult to complete inspections. “RADCO had several properties in due diligence during the pandemic,” says Brewer. “That typically includes access to occupied units for inspection,” says Brewer. “Navigating the competing demands of buyers, sellers and residents requires open-minded collaboration.”
Some of the same technologies that have made contactless leasing possible—including simple video calls—were also helpful for some inspections during the height of the pandemic.
“The reliance on and performance of virtual tools has been incredible for inspections,” says Rieder of Castle Lanterra.
Many apartment companies also shut down their corporate offices, sending workers home to work with their colleagues through email and video calls.
These companies have adopted new tools to help employees stay productive. “Our monthly virtual town halls have been exceptionally well-attended,” says Rieder. The company-wide intranet Castle Lanterra created in March, she adds, also continues to serve as an effective clearinghouse for the sharing of knowledge and techniques among employees.
Most of these companies expect to have staff eventually return to the office. “I am surprised by the growing expectation that companies will completely capitulate to a work-from-home model,” says RADCO’s Brewer. “I expect to see a new hybrid operations model, but not a full-blown forfeiture of the traditional in-office experience.”
In particular, Brewer looks forward to joining meetings in person. “The biggest lesson is that ‘Zoom fatigue’ is a real thing,” he says. “In-person meetings are 10 times more valuable in terms of moving the business forward.”
Bendix Anderson is a freelance writer.