Why People-First Property Management Strategies Always Win

Last modified on June 26th, 2024
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Over nearly three seasons of The Top Floor podcast, we’ve heard incredible insights and invaluable advice from leaders in real estate, proptech, and the business world — and compelling, real-life examples from many property management companies. Although there are still plenty more episodes of The Top Floor podcast to come, we wanted to take a look back at a few of the top moments from The Top Floor so far. 

To do so, we invited four AppFolio Property Manager team members to talk about their favorite insights. Our AppFolio guests for this episode are:

  • Lisa Horner, Senior Vice President of Marketing
  • Daniel Waas, VP of Product Marketing
  • Sean Forster, Lead Product Marketing Manager
  • JJ Koski, Senior Account Executive

We’ll hear their favorite clips from previous guests of The Top Floor podcast and talk about why their favorite moments are still just as relevant as ever, especially as we head into a brand-new year.

Episode Transcript:

Megan: As we round out 2022, this episode of The Top Floor podcast officially marks the halfway point of season three. Heading into a new year, we wanted to take some time to reflect on a few of our favorite moments from The Top Floor so far. Since we started this podcast almost three years ago, the industry has seen an amazing amount of change in a very short amount of time. And the conversations we’ve had here, across 26 episodes, and with more than 40 guests are just as relevant as ever before. In this special episode, we’ll hear from four members of the AppFolio Property Manager team, or as we like to call them AppFolioians, and they’ll share some of their favorite moments from The Top Floor so far. 

We’ll also talk about why they find these insights from past guests just as meaningful today as when they first aired. As you’ll hear soon, the AppFolians on the show today ended up choosing moments that all connected back to one central theme, all about how putting people first is the key to property management success. And we’ll explore different areas within that central theme, such as the importance of meaningful work, creating positive team cultures, and investing in top talent. 

Even though we didn’t originally set out to create an episode focused on people-first property management, it makes sense that we ended up with one because, after all, as we’ve heard on The Top Floor time and time again, property management at its core is all about people. So let’s dive in to hear what everyone had to say and explore some of the greatest moments from The Top Floor so far. 

Lisa Horner, SVP of Marketing at AppFolio

Megan: So Lisa, first of all, thank you so much for taking some time out of your busy schedule to be on The Top Floor. We’ve wanted to get you on the podcast since season one, so we’re really excited to have you as our guest today.

Lisa Horner: Well, thank you for hosting me, Megan, I’m so excited to be here.

Megan: Could you, just for our listeners, briefly share a little bit about your role at AppFolio and what a day in the life of Lisa Horner looks like?

Lisa Horner: I am the Senior Vice President of Marketing here at AppFolio. And largely, what my job is, is to ensure that our customers and prospective customers understand the value of what we bring to the marketplace. 

Megan: Thanks so much for that little overview. So for this episode, to wrap up 2022, we’re taking a look back at some of the best moments from The Top Floor so far. And the one that we’re going to chat through today was our interview with Steve Cadigan. We interviewed Steve almost a year ago, at the tail end of 2021, to talk about some of the findings of our employee engagement research, where we asked employees in the property management industry what mattered to them. And the findings were really interesting.

One of the big themes that emerged was company culture and this sense that people really want to find meaning in the work that they do. And that definitely applies within all roles in the property management industry. So one of the examples that Steve shared about the Thames Water District, it feels so similar to a lot of the conversations that are happening right now in property management companies, around how do we attract more talent? And how do we show them the meaning of the work behind it? 

Steve Cadigan: I think it’s a great trend. If the workforce is saying, “I want to find meaning and purpose more in my work, I want to feel the organization that I’m a part of is doing good in the world,” think about that. That’s just such a beautiful thing. I want my kids to feel that maybe more than I did. 

And so the way I think to consider that in this industry is to really invest time answering the question, what value are we adding in the lives of people? How can we deliver a package of why we exist to our customers and to our employees, to our ecosystem, that we feel really makes a difference? Give you a great example. A number of years ago, I was invited by what’s called the Thames Water District. They’re basically the sewage and sanitation arm and the water supply wing of the City of London. And they were going through a privatization process where the government was starting to sell off utilities and spun them off so that they’re more private than publicly owned. And this organization was terrified. They’re like, “Steve, why would anyone want to work for a sanitation sewage company? That’s not cool and sexy.” And so, we sat down for a couple of days with the HR team, with the recruiting team, and then the marketing team joined us and asked. We said, “Why does someone want to work here? What problem are you solving?” And that got us to, we’re making the world safe. We’re making things safe for children. And that was aspirational, right? So I think it’s a really healthy exercise for every organization, whatever industry you’re in, to think through helping candidates answer, what’s your connection to making people feel safer or having them be in a home that optimizes their life for them to realize the best version of their lives, right? There’s got to be an answer to that question if you have a demographic of workers that is increasingly wanting to know what that meaning is about. And that’s a really good exercise to go through.”

Megan: So how do you feel that the property management industry can approach that, and start flipping the question around, as Steve said?

Lisa Horner: If you zoom out and think about your life or anybody else’s life, we’re going to spend basically a third of our time working. And in any sector, in any industry, in any company, I think that it’s really important to get to a kernel of meaning for employees. And when you really think about the amount of time you’re going to spend working, I think most people want that to be very valuable and meaningful. And I often feel that companies have lots of incredible value that they’re creating. They just don’t articulate it that well.

I think keeping deeply connected to your customer and understanding the deep value that you do bring to your customers, and explaining that well to your current employees and prospective candidates, is imperative. So oftentimes, when employees are either looking for a job, or they’re within a job, or ramping up in a job, they are really focused on, and the leaders are focused on, what is the work? Or what is the job that we’re hiring you to do? And it’s really the linkage to why our company, and why the work matters to our customer. And I think that’s really the clincher. If you can get in there and understand the reason for being for your company and really connect your employees to the value that you’re generating for people in the world, it makes the work of all of your employees, including your leadership group, very meaningful.

Megan: Right. I think it’s easy to get lost in all the minutia and all of the processes and day-to-day tasks that it takes to keep a property up and running and just lose sight of the fact that these are people’s homes, this is where they live their lives. Their surroundings and the quality of the home that they live in, have a huge, huge impact.

Lisa Horner: Yes, I completely agree with that. And that’s why the work and the value proposition there, based on the true value created, is really important for employees to understand. And I think lots of companies can do a better job of that. And like I said, it’s not that the value isn’t being created, it’s just an articulation of your meaning, your reason for being and why your company exists, and the value that you’re creating for people in their lives. And I think it’s just a little bit of a pivot on your messaging and the bringing together of your mission and value. I think some companies are even taking that further. You see companies who are very purpose or mission-driven, and I think that’s another angle to get very specific about – what you want to do as a company and actually get those things done. And really, you see it out there, lots of companies are really committed to something even broader than just what they make or deliver as a product or service, let’s say.

And I think like Steve Cadigan said, it’s a beautiful thing, and it’s a good way to think about what we’re all doing when we wake up in the morning and we want to feel that way. We’re doing something great, and we’re part of something that is building something really valuable to people and that’s changing people’s lives.

Megan: Right. Part of what we uncovered in that research and that we talked about with Steve was around some of the things that get in the way of that and a lot of the day-to-day tasks. 

What are some of those things that get in the way of the connection to purpose? And how can leaders think about breaking those barriers down so that their teams can be more connected to the reason behind their work?

Lisa Horner: Well candidly, you’re not going to love every single thing about your job, that is true. There might be things that you don’t love about it. I think the goal is to love a whole lot about your job. And in loving your job, not only do you want meaning, but you want an effective and let’s say productive work process. So that’s not just an employer wanting operational efficiency, it’s employees wanting to get work done in an easy, delightful way, because it makes you happier in your job when you can do that. And I think you have to use innovation. You have to think about work and zoom out from it and say, how could we be doing this a little bit better? How could we make this more effective for all of the folks who are trying to get this work done? And how might that even transform what we can deliver to our customer? And so, the approach of just thinking about innovating the work process, I think is critical. And small things that you can do transform people’s days and they’re happier about their work when you do that.

Megan: Yeah, absolutely. So what are some traits that you think it’s important for leaders to have, whether in property management or anywhere else, in order to see their employees and members of their teams as full people and to make that sense of belonging felt in the workplace?

Lisa Horner: Well again, going back to the beginning here, I really feel like employees want to understand the ‘why’, the strategy and the mission of the company. They don’t just want to do work that’s handed to them that’s disconnected from the bigger picture. So I think it’s important for leaders in any industry, especially even property management, to take these moments in time to step back and talk about the vision and the mission of the company, so that employees understand what leaders are trying to get done in the long term. 

What are the goals of the business and what’s the vision? And I think when employees can understand that, not only can they achieve their current jobs and get more meaning in why they’re doing the work that they’re doing, but they take on their own ownership and leadership within the company when people understand what the bigger vision is.

And I think you get leader partners of all your employees when you do that because everybody understands, okay here’s what we’re trying to get done. And people actually innovate in their own jobs when you do that. And that’s the fun of work, when you have challenge, where you figure out a new way to do something that improves the lives of the people around you and your customers. I mean that’s a beautiful thing. And these cultures of innovation, I think, are what we’re looking for and where employees want to work. They want to work in a culture of innovation and it’s exciting and it’s meaningful.

Megan: Yeah, it sounds like what you’re saying is that in order for there to be a culture of innovation, there has to be a certain degree of mutual trust, respect, and autonomy for members of the team in order to bring that to work every day. And that offering that really goes a long way for not only innovation, but also retention, right?

Lisa Horner: Yes, absolutely. And just having the willingness to take feedback as an employer too. I think really listening, not only to your customers but to your employees and working as a team to evolve, I think is critical. And employees want to feel valued. And oftentimes, your best ideas come from your newest employees to the business who can see things objectively and have a nice view of having worked in other scenarios, either industries or other businesses. And really creating this bidirectional communication with your entire workforce is an imperative now. 

I would say as we were in the heart of the pandemic, the number one issue was staffing. Hiring, ramping, retaining staff. That’s probably number two or number three right now. But when you think about operational efficiency, which I think is the number one issue in property management today, I think property managers would say that that’s the number one goal. Just innovating in the work process is critical to creating operational efficiency and to having thriving and flourishing staff instead of employees.

The only other thing that I’ll say Megan is just the value of company culture as well. And I’m not sure if we touched on that specific topic, but employees also find meaning and love of work when they work in an environment or a culture that’s a thriving, positive culture. 

I think my favorite definition of culture is, a group with a good way of life. It’s expressed in the habits, the rituals, and the activities. So that we can all flourish together, each of us individually, including our customers. And I love that definition, and I love this idea of flourishing, and I think that employees want to flourish in the companies that they work for, and culture is like this absolute foundation of flourishing.

Megan: Oh, I’m so glad that you brought that in. This is something that I think our team does pretty well, so thanks for sharing that with everyone Lisa, this has been a great interview.

Lisa Horner: Thank you, Megan. Thanks for having me. And talk to you soon.

Daniel Waas, VP of Product Marketing at AppFolio

Megan: Daniel, we’re so excited to have you on this episode of The Top Floor. Could you start off by introducing yourself to our listeners? 

Daniel Waas: Thanks, Megan. Yes, I can. My name’s Daniel Waas. I am the VP of Product Marketing here at AppFolio. That means I get to be in the fun role of connecting all the things together. So listening in to the market, the customers, understanding what our customers’ needs are and bringing that to the product teams in a productive way so they can figure out what to do next, build next, figure out next, try next. 

Megan: That’s fantastic. It’s definitely a really central and pivotal role that has also contributed to a lot of the stories that we talk about here on The Top Floor. So thank you.

So today we are going to be chatting about an episode from our very first season of The Top Floor, and it featured a conversation with one of our customers, JC Castillo. A lot has changed since we recorded that interview, but the focus of it around driving profits and creating value, I think, is a topic that is still pretty relevant, especially considering what’s going on in the world today. So maybe before I roll the clip, do you want to share a thought on why you picked this one?

Daniel Waas: Yes. So, well, first off, JC is an amazing operator and really thoughtful in how he drives his business, how he grows his business, how he thinks about his teams and how to make his teams productive. I really value and respect JC as a person, he can also be pretty fun, so that’s another good reason to pick the episode. And then also from just the angle, like you mentioned, profitability right now is more relevant than it was in 2021. The market conditions have changed in meaningful ways, and JC and his two companies, he runs a fee management, and an owner-operator business are…he really focuses on productivity and efficiency, and I think that’s super, super relevant right now. So that’s why I picked this one.

Megan: And I think when we recorded this one, this was prior to his launch of Velo Residential. So it’s fun to see how far they’ve come.

JC Castillo: I think the biggest concern that … executive teams think about is the loss of the personal connection with the customer. Because at the end of the day, every relationship that is built is built around a personal relationship. People do business with people because they know them, they like them, and they trust them. When you talk about artificial intelligence, you’re really talking about taking … At least the perception is that you’re taking that connection away. That’s worrisome. Residents decide to live at your property because they feel a connection to the property, to the people that work there. I think what you, as an owner, and what we had to wrestle with and we understand now is that the objective of the technology is not to replace the personal connections. 

Actually, the objective of the technology is to give more time to our humans to actually focus more on those personal connections… What I’ve seen is the complete opposite of that initial fear, and that actually enables us to focus more on those relationships, which actually is what drives the business forward. I hate talking about technology for the sake of technology’s sake. What I mean by that is technology has to have a purpose. The purpose, in my mind, has to be that it has to enable us to focus more time and effort on building those relationships with those customers, those investors, those residents, and getting them to renew their leases. If the technology is taking work off our plate that doesn’t need to be done by us, it isn’t in the way of building those relationships. I feel like that’s great technology.

Megan: So JC really talked in this quote about how their goal with using technology is to give more time to the people within their business, to focus on building personal connections. So can you go a little bit deeper into how technology makes that possible? What are some of the ways that technology is taking work off of property management team’s plates?

Daniel Waas: Yeah, absolutely. So if you think of JC’s example specifically, right? He’s achieved a lot through centralizing tasks that previously the front office would have to do. So you think of the property manager and they may have to deal with vendor invoices and they’re there at the local property. JC is in multifamily, so large multifamily properties, and they’re sitting there quoting invoices. That is non-productive time for them. It’s time that they can’t spend with the residents. And so that’s a prime example of what technology can take off the plate. 

And then being able to take the back-office components of that work and centralize it so that what a property manager had to do on site, now can be done by a centralized team that is offsite or at a central office location or even offshored. And so, now if I am the property manager on site, I can really focus on all the front office work instead of dealing with all the back-office tasks that, for the majority, aren’t really fun and aren’t things that the property manager enjoys and really take them away from having that relationship. And so, I think those are some of the examples. I think another one is just leasing automation.

So even if I am in a direct customer conversation, resident conversation, there are things that are more valuable and less valuable. If I’m just talking about scheduling and trying to align schedules for a showing, it’s not very productive, it doesn’t really build the relationship. So if I can take that element out and have technology do that for me, I can really focus my time as a property manager to focus on the showing itself, focus on the conversation, learning about the resident, focusing on the residents that are already there and driving renewals and just taking the time to pay attention to the needs of the residents instead of doing tasks that technology could do or that anybody could do that does not have to be a task that the property manager on site does.

Megan: Yeah, that’s great. And I think you already got onto the next question I was going to ask, which is what are the tasks that technology shouldn’t replace?

Daniel Waas: Yes. I feel like anything that, I mean what is technology not great at – being human and acting like a human. And that’s also what trips technology up. So something that has heart cannot come from technology, that can only come from the humans, and that’s really where they shine. And also, if you think of what you enjoy in your work, and typically doing the same thing all over again and fulfilling clicks and filling in details is not the fun part of your job. So the more that I can focus as a human on connecting with the other humans or doing something that’s challenging and rewarding, doing the work that actually gives you a kick when you complete it well, that’s the work that we want to put on the humans. The work that we want to put on the machine and on the technology is the work that’s just repetitive and that tires you out and that kind of saps your energy.

Megan: Yeah. So obviously there’s a lot of benefits for the team here, but what impact does that have on NOI?

Daniel Waas: I spent some time with JC at his office. Just a couple weeks ago I flew up to the Bay area and we met for half a day, which is super, super fun. And if you listen to him talk about this, he says the people on the front lines are really what matter to the profitability. So why is that? Because his whole point is the more I can remove barriers for my team to be able to focus on the work that is meaningful to them and that drives value to the residents, the better my business does overall. 

They’re the closest to the problem. They’re the closest to figuring out what takes time away from that, that isn’t useful. So if I listen to my front office staff and I can solve their problems, that has a great overall impact to my business. So take a leasing manager and a property manager, if you’re able to centralize a ton of those tasks, you can free the property manager up to be able to do a ton of leasing tasks. You may not need the leasing manager to be on site and you can centralize the leasing function, which comes with its own benefits for cost efficiencies. That is clearly another impact to the bottom line and profitability as well.

There is an element of freeing up the humans, so they can spend more time on quality relationships that translates into a better resident experience and happier residents. And that’s another thing that if you look at JC’s properties, they all have amazing reviews on Google reviews, on average above four-star reviews. And he attributes that in large part to the fact that his teams on site are really freed up to spend the time with the residents and to solve their problems and are empowered at a local level. And that is what reflects on the resident experience and that’s what turns into good reviews. That’s what drives cheaper acquisition of new renters, potential renters. And so it all works out in a virtual cycle. That’s pretty neat to see, honestly.

Megan: Yeah. This is something too that I think we’ve heard come up from other guests on The Top Floor. Happier residents actually make things easier and can have a beneficial effect on the budget as well.

Daniel Waas: Yeah, absolutely. I mean if you think of turn costs, those happier residents are more likely to stay and renew their lease. Those happier residents are probably happy for a reason. They’re probably also just easier to handle and maintain. They’ll have less issues than obviously if you have new people moving in, you’ll need to build new relationships. You have to do a lot of that foundation work all over again. And you also might come across a resident that turns out not to be a great resident. And so higher retention, happier residents in the building, I think, have multiple rewards over time.

Megan: And I bet that this is extra important right now, because what we saw when we last surveyed property management companies around their top challenges, you saw that operational efficiency was right up there as number one in 2022. So some of these things that JC was talking about more than a year and a half ago are becoming the most pressing questions I think for everyone in the industry.

Daniel Waas: That’s right, I think for anybody who has their process figured out and has been smart about how to build that process. And I think that’s the other component to how JC runs his business. What I hear from a lot of other customers that are successful specifically with operational efficiency, is having a clear vision of what they want to accomplish, really valuing their teams and then trying to figure out how they can create consistency for their teams in processes so that the work gets done in similar ways or really takes some of the thinking and optimizing and makes that organic. So that you don’t really have to think about how to do this or how to complete this. 

There’s a set process that works that’s proven that you can follow. And I think that’s the other side. So local empowerment technology to take some of the burden off of the tasks that need to be done and then having a consistent process for all the relationships and the interactions that you do have so that you can control the quality of those interactions. I think those three together really drive success.

Megan: So looking ahead, what are some ways that property management teams can more effectively use technology over the next year, but also over the coming three to five years? 

Daniel Waas: That’s partially a hard question to answer. I think it depends. Are you small? Are you large? Are you a fee manager? Are you an owner operator? Do you rely a lot on deals and so on? But I would say in general, maybe a couple things that I see continued, and there are things that you’ve already brought up and that we’ve already chatted about, but one is a continued trend of centralization. So I think that is just going to continue. What are tasks that I can centralize? And just, I think the hard part about this is the change management process that goes along with that. And so, this isn’t easy to do, and this is something that takes time. I think over at least the next two years, I think just the outside pressure is going to continue to drive that.

And I think it’s very possible, but it takes time. You need to bring your team along; you need to change your process to make that work and so on. And that’s not something that you do overnight. So I think that is the continued thing that we’re going to see, centralization and productivity.

I think the second part to this that is unrelated to technology is just purely from a tech vendor perspective. How do we make the tool easier to use? And there’s so much opportunity for that everywhere. I think AppFolio does pretty well from a just user friendliness perspective, but there’s always things that you can simplify. So I’m thinking some of the things that we’ve done in just reducing clicks, reducing the number of screens that you need to go to get something done. I think that’s another element to productivity, and it’s again, interrelated with process. What is the most efficient process to getting something done? And that has a component that’s in the control of our customers of, okay, how do I structure a process? But there’s also a component of the PMS that the PMS needs to play into how you reduce the number of extra steps it takes to complete something if they’re not strictly necessary.

And what I’ve been excited about in terms of AppFolio Stack in our integrations marketplace is that I think there is a way to combine both where we can enable our customers to be selective, on where it’s better to have a centralized platform and running all of your workflow in it. And where you really want to lean in and differentiate and go all the way with specific technology, but make sure that it’s well integrated into your core platform. And so, I’m excited about that. I do see customers’ continued interest in investing into technology and bringing things on that they think are going to make them more competitive. And supporting that in the best possible way, I think is super interesting for us.

Megan: Right. And the truth is that that’s not going to look the same for every company. They’re going to have different priorities and different opportunities. So having that flexibility to customize and to pick and choose, like you were saying, when which tool is used, is huge.

Daniel Waas: Totally yes. 

Megan: Great, well this has been fantastic. Thank you so much, Daniel.

Daniel Waas: Thanks Megan for having me. Always excited to be on The Top Floor.

Sean Forster, Lead Product Marketing Manager at AppFolio

Megan: All right. Well, thank you so much, Sean for helping us out with our very last episode of 2022. We’re really excited to have you back again on The Top Floor podcast, but in case any of our listeners haven’t heard you before, could you share a little bit about yourself, your role at AppFolio and maybe a day in your life?

Sean Forster: Awesome. Well, first of all, thanks for having me, Megan. I’m very happy to be back on the podcast. So I’m a Lead Product Marketing Manager here at AppFolio, and that role covers a lot, but what I get a lot of passion and what I just love to do is focus on understanding the market trends that are impacting property managers and how businesses can leverage some of the insights that our research and interviews find to succeed in their unique markets. And that’s gone a lot of different directions. But in recent years, a lot of the focus has been around the frontline employee experience, young leader development, residential preferences, customer service trends, and of course technology enabled operational efficiency. So just a little taste of what I get the chance to do here at AppFolio.

Megan: So basically, fueling all of the amazing content that we get to talk about here on the podcast and everywhere else.

Sean Forster: I’m happy to play a small part in that, but we’ve got a large team here, yourself included, that can play a role in all of that great content.

Megan: That’s fantastic. For our last episode of the year, we’re focusing on looking back at some of the best moments of The Top Floor so far. What we’re going to discuss today is actually our first episode of season two. That would’ve been mid-2021. We interviewed Angela Garrison, who talked a little bit about some of the challenges around hiring that property management teams were really, really feeling around that time. 

As we’ll discuss a little bit more, some are still feeling this, although certainly things have changed a bit since then. Sean, do you want to just share a few words about why this one stood out to you?

Sean Forster: Sure. What fascinates me about this topic is it’s something we’ve been noticing really ever since I’ve been learning about this industry. Staffing and hiring especially has been a challenge. Even though this commentary from Angela’s is from 2021, it’s still as relevant today as it was back then, but it’s evolved since. I’ll be excited to hear how her perspective was back then and happy to share some of the things that we’ve learned in the time since, how this continues to be an opportunity for us to improve as an industry going forward. 

Angela Garrison: Finding the right talent is an ever-present challenge because it’s such an important decision. It’s the most important decision that we make, who we’re going to let in those gates, because it impacts the customer experience and of course the employee experience, depending on who we bring onto the team. So we’re starting with the basics. …we are reviewing the positions, we’re determining when that new position comes available is the way that it’s currently structured meeting the needs of the business today and the future needs, or does there need to be some sort of modification to that? An obvious change to find the talent is the way that our hiring managers are interviewing. They’re interviewing via Zoom or they’re interviewing in person and both people are wearing masks. And that presents challenges in itself. You’re missing a lot of that body language. It can be very difficult to get a good read on a candidate, excuse me, subsequently making it difficult to make the right choice. So in response to that challenge, we have done a couple of things. One is we’ve increased the depth of our telephone screen from HR. Our HR team has been trained to dig a little deeper with the candidates before they’re passing them along to the hiring manager for further review and consideration. That helps us gauge consistency with the candidate and really get a look at the value fit from the HR standpoint, as well as when the hiring manager gets involved with that individual. We are reminding our hiring managers that we look for value fit first, and then skills. As we all know, training for skills is as much simpler than trying to force someone to fit with your company’s core values.

Megan: Sean, it seems like a lot has changed since then, man, I was listening to that conversation around masking thinking, “Well, there’s one for instance,” but could you share with us your initial reaction to how much of this is still the case for property management companies today and what are maybe some of the big changes since we recorded this?

Sean Forster: Absolutely. Attracting talent is still a challenge. What is really interesting, so since that interview occurred, we’ve done a lot of research and interviews on this topic specifically. We’ve done this Industry Pulse survey for the past two years, and when we initially ran the survey in 2021, probably around the time that interview was occurring, by far and away, HR staffing and training was the top issue felt by I think 74% of property managers. Since then, when we redid that same study in 2022, it was still a concern. It was in the top three.

But operational efficiencies became the number one challenge, which was interesting, because we’d still seen in the headlines they carried through the Great Resignation. When we dug a little bit deeper though, I think what we found was that these staffing issues had somewhat evolved. Where maybe it wasn’t so much of a concern in getting people in the door and hired into the positions, but it evolved into setting that up for success, training, so that you maybe had the people, but they weren’t necessarily operating at the most efficient level. You were seeing that evolve into an acute staffing challenge for hiring into making sure that they were focusing on really the high value type of activities that you hired them to do. 

Megan: Yeah. Now it sounds like there’s not necessarily the same difficulty in filling the roles, but there’s difficulty even if those roles are filled, in making sure that things are being run efficiently and that people know how to operate at their best. What are some of the solutions for that? What are property management companies focusing on in order to improve that and help their people to work more efficiently?

Sean Forster: I think two areas come to mind. The first one that I’ll propose is actually investing in and setting up your mid-management roles for success. We had a gap in those roles, as people either left the industry or went into executive level. What we found is just because someone’s an amazing individual contributor doesn’t necessarily mean that that skillset translates into a mid-level management position. 

You really need to invest in coaching up that role, because that’s really a key position within your organization to make sure that the people that you then hire to replace those people in those frontline types of roles, that they are able to be as efficient and have that confidence that they’re making a difference in their role. You really need to make sure that that mid-level manager is set up for success. I think that’s one area that we can look into to make sure that they have what they need to make sure that the operation overall is running well. Then the second area is something that we see a lot in the customers that we’re working with, and it’s just making sure that they have the tools available to them to work as efficiently as they can. 

There’s a lot of manual tasks that can be automated and just taken off the plate entirely in a way that is making it a better experience for your customer, a better experience for your team, so they can focus on really that high value, meaningful type of work that we know that they’re looking for in their roles in the first place. If you can automate a lot of those initial inquiries coming into the listings that you’ve marketed or some of the maintenance coordination in intake, automating a lot of that can free up your team to really focus on things that they find most valuable to them.

Megan: What impact does culture have on the ability to attract and retain employees at a company? 

Sean Forster: Culture is paramount to your ability to attract and retain. We talk a lot about culture as something good to do, but it really is something, yes, good for your employees, but good for your business. Because ultimately, what you’ll fall back on is the approaches and the norms that your culture has set up. When times get tough, having that collaborative, supportive, authentic culture is what will get you through any types of difficulties that we’ll inevitably face. 

Sean Forster: You go back to what Angela was saying, right, what she was advocating her HR team to look into. It’s not those direct hard skills of knowing the leasing flow or the right steps to take to turn a unit. Those are things that can be taught, but bringing people in that are value ads to your culture that are going to fit in well with your teams, or maybe fill in a gap that your team has from a culture perspective, looking to hire for those types of things, you can teach the rest, but building up that team that builds the culture that’s authentic to your business really is where our focus needs to be in attracting talent into the industry. That’s going to ultimately solve a lot of our retention challenges as well.

Megan: Yeah. Well, that was a great conversation, Sean. But before I wrap it up, I have one last question, which is, is there a question that you wished that I had asked or something else that you want to share before we wrap up? 

Sean Forster: So a topic that I think is worth mentioning here is really around flexibility and how much employees, and especially newer employees to our organization, appreciate the ability to have flexibility in how they run their days. I think we can be really clear on what the goals and objectives are, but also realize that there’s lots of different paths on how you can get there. Just because we’ve been doing something a certain way for the past 10, 20, 30 years maybe, it doesn’t mean that that’s necessarily still the best way.

Having fresh eyes on a process, we could be surprised at there being potentially a better way to do things. Obviously, we still need to achieve the objective, but it is really freeing and really motivating to employees to have the flexibility to figure out exactly how they need to accomplish that task. Flexibility, in addition to finding purposeful, meaningful positions, is a very desirable trait for positions that younger employees are looking for. 

Megan: Yeah, that’s so interesting that you bring that up, because we just had our interview with Lisa, and she was talking about some of the findings from Steve Cadigan when we interviewed him last year. This was another theme in that conversation, that kind of trust and autonomy in your team. When you have that, it really empowers them to find creative solutions. That is what creates a sense of meaningful work. 

Being able to use your talents, being able to ask questions and challenge and come up with a better way of doing things, I think really allows people to feel valued in a different way than just being asked to come and follow a process with no flexibility. I love that you brought that up. 

Well, thank you so much, Sean, for being on The Top Floor again. We’re really glad to have you making an appearance in season three, and thank you so much. 

Sean Forster: Thank you, Megan.

JJ Koski, Senior Account Executive at AppFolio

Megan: All right. We’re really excited to have JJ Koski on The Top Floor. JJ, can you introduce yourself and tell us about your role at AppFolio and give us a little window into a day in the life in your job?

JJ Koski: Yeah, absolutely. My name is JJ Koski. I am a Senior Account Executive over here on the SMB side for new acquisitions, sales and consulting, helping companies look in AppFolio, get started, and evaluate to see if this is going to be a good fit for their business. I’ve been here since about 2019.

Megan: That’s fantastic. JJ, so you’ve picked our most recent episode of The Top Floor. Well, actually, it will be our second most recent by the time this comes out. But controlling costs, solving for the industry’s top challenge, the conversation that we had with Stacy recently. Before we dive in, can you share a little bit about why this stood out to you?

JJ Koski: Yeah, I think a lot of the times when I’m working with either property management companies or just hearing the issues that they have on a day-to-day basis, a lot of it comes down to bandwidth. A lot of it comes down to just having the right people in the right spots. And a lot of it was having top talent and in regard to keeping that talent, ensuring that people were in their four walls, doing their jobs the best they could, but also those people were happy. 

And Stacy’s quote when she says, “I think it’s people really getting off the hamster wheel during the pandemic,” there was a huge need for those tradespeople now too, that a lot of those people were like, “Hey, we’re not able to go out and work, so we’re going to sit reflecting at home a lot.” There was a huge need for those tradespeople, and we now have this huge demand for skilled tradespeople and not enough to fill that demand. I think that just resonated with me primarily because I hear this on a day to day basis and it’s so true for what we hear from companies, whether they’re in property management or in another line of work. It’s a constant issue that I think is probably going to stare us in the face for quite a few years to come.

Megan: Yeah, thank you so much for that background. Before we move on, I’m going to go ahead and play that clip and then we can chat more.

Stacy: I think it’s people really getting off the hamster wheel during the pandemic. Again, unprecedented where everything, pretty much everything has shut down. And I think a lot of people took a look at what they were doing and then maybe trying to do something different. I think that’s one thing. The other is there were various assistance programs that came through both federal state and local governments that allowed people to take pause and really look at their careers and say, “Do I want to do something different?” 

And so, I think especially around the trades, there was a lot of shift, number one. And number two, there’s a lot more demand. And what I mean by demand is, think about everybody who’s staying at home during the pandemic. Well, what did they want to do? They wanted to get things fixed. They couldn’t get anything fixed because trade people were also staying at home. So once everything started to loosen up, now we have this huge demand for skilled trades people and not enough to fill that demand.

Megan: Awesome. I’d love to hear, JJ, just a little bit about how this has played out for some of the property management companies that you’ve talked to. Tell us more about what you are hearing in the conversations that you have with them as they run up against this issue of staffing and also staffing vendors from third-party agencies.

JJ Koski: Sure thing. Pretty much one of the first main topics that we talk about with them is their team. How are they going to be making this decision and who’s going to be involved, but also who is that going to impact and how is that going to affect their business, not just now but sustainably for years going forward? The worst thing we want to do is put a Band-Aid on something and just have a quick fix. We would like to be a scalable partner for years to come. ensuring that this is not just a temporary fix and a long-term fix is a huge focus early on in our conversations.

A lot of the areas where companies really kind of go, “Oh, hold on, let’s really talk about this a bit in depth” is exactly that. How does this affect the people that are going to be using it? Then do we have the bandwidth to actually bring something like this on board? A lot of times it’s being strategic and looking ahead, meeting them where they’re at and being able to become a partnership rather than just a software provider and giving them something, a tool to use and say, “Hey, have fun using it,” sticking with them and being exactly that, a strategic partner for years to come, but doing that from the first conversations that we have through the very end of the evaluation that they might have with us.

Megan: I’m curious about how this has changed over the past couple years, specifically since the COVID-19 pandemic. I think staffing and working efficiently is probably something that has always been a top concern in property management companies. But the pandemic really brought it to the forefront in a different way and made it imperative to just in some cases being able to continue operating their business. But that was three years ago, and a lot has changed since then. We’re no longer seeing that companies are defined by that particular challenge. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how the staffing mindset has changed over the past couple years as we find some kind of new way forward coming out of the pandemic.

JJ Koski: I think what I’ve seen is people that were never property managers coming in and learning that skill set and actually doing that with leveraging not only just technology but just leveraging previous things that they had known. It’s also become a lot of, and I think there’s a lot of property management companies out there that would agree, people have taken over responsibilities of other job roles. There’s been a number of conversations I’ve had this year alone where you have three to four people wearing 12 different hats. It’s really had people grow and stretch and sometimes that’s a good thing because you do grow as a person, you become more skillful, you’re a better employee, more marketable in the future. But at the same time, it’s that stress level that those people had to take on, that takes a toll on you after a while.

I just had a conversation two weeks ago with a company that was preaching a very similar sentiment there. And I remember a direct quote from the CFO, “I wear 12 hats. You don’t know how much value I get back if I have five of those removed from me.” It’s like they’re seeing it exactly as you’re saying, as more of an opportunity now. What got us here may not get us there. Where can we take this in and make our business just simply better? Where do we see this coming in as a partnership and saying, “This is going to help our tenants with this. This helps everybody here. This gives me just a better quality of life.”

I mean, having a work/life balance for many Americans is very tough, specifically in the property management market. I hear people working 12-to-15-hour days all the time, and even getting to just a 40-hour a week, eight hours a day job, that’s life changing for this industry. I think that the more that realization comes about, the better quality of life people will have, the less hats they will have to wear. Then again, that directly impacts the problem that we’re talking about when it comes to staffing, right? People will stay longer if they’re more happy in their job, if they’re less stressed, if they enjoy their job, if they have an operation system that makes it easier for them to do their job, that’s where you get employee happiness. That’s how you have employee retention. 

Megan: Well, great. This has been awesome, JJ. 

JJ Koski: Absolutely. Couldn’t agree with you more.

Megan: As we’ve explored over the last three seasons, and as all four of our guests highlighted today, property management success starts and ends with people. By focusing on meaningful work, investing in our talent, and building positive team cultures, we can create more space for what matters most. 

There are still so many topics we’re excited to explore within property management. And we’ll be back soon with brand new episodes of The Top Floor in the new year to do just that. 

Until then, I’d like to thank Lisa Horner, Daniel Waas, Sean Forster, and JJ Koskii for being on the show today. Also, don’t forget to catch up on other moments from The Top Floor you may have missed. You can check out bonus content from each interview, and other resources like our research reports at appfolio.com/the-top-floor.

Stay tuned for more great conversations to come!

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