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We’re in this boat together . . . 10 takeaways from IREM’s first virtual town hall

When IREM® conducted its first virtual town hall earlier this month, it was not surprising that the majority of questions asked by members zeroed in on COVID-19 and the challenges it has created for property managers on both a professional and personal level.

Waddell Wright, CPM®, from Nashville, served as moderator to lob questions to IREM’s leadership team: 2020 IREM President Cheryl Gray, CPM®, from Toronto; 2020 IREM President-Elect Chip Watts, CPM®, from Birmingham, AL; 2020 IREM Secretary/Treasurer Barry Blanton, CPM®, from Seattle; 2020 IREM Secretary/Treasurer Nominee Renee Savage, CPM®, from La Jolla, CA; and Denise Froemming, IREM CEO and Executive Vice President, from Chicago.

With all of these leaders weighing in throughout the town hall, here are the key takeaways from their open dialogue:

1 Wellness takes center stage

Although wellness isn’t a new concept in commercial real estate, the coronavirus pandemic has definitely thrust it into the limelight and made it a priority for tenants and residents. No longer are they renting just brick and mortar; now, they’re looking for homes and workplaces that will keep them safe and secure and healthy. Whether it’s taking temperature checks of everyone who enters a building, disinfecting using UV light, or updating technologies to make work environments touchless, occupier expectations have changed. Having a coffee shop in the lobby is now less important than operational protocols that ensure the health of those in the building.

2 Offices are not going away, but much will change

Will offices become a thing of the past? Unlikely. What is likely is that offices will be reimagined to accommodate shifting paradigms. They will become drop-in spaces for those who miss working with others in the office.  There will be more space per employee to accommodate social distancing, but fewer people will be in the office at any one time. Collaboration will occur through plexiglass dividers, and face-to-face interactions will occur six feet apart.

3 Don’t underestimate visual cues

You don’t have to spend a lot of money to encourage physical distancing. Signs in common areas and stickers on the floor can go far toward reminding tenants and residents of the importance of social distancing. Avoid the “this is a legal notice” look. Make signs colorful; make them fun. Personalize them with your company logo. Simple yet eye-catching signs can serve as reminders of desired behaviors and help ensure that complacency doesn’t set in.

4 Adopt a “no surprises” approach with clients

As a property manager during this period, there is no such thing as over-communicating. Talk to your clients; keep them informed. If rental incomes drop, as they are doing in many residential and retail properties, let the property owner know what’s going on. Owners don’t want unpleasant surprises, so keep them informed early on of your plans to work with struggling tenants, cover operating expenses, and how distributions might be affected. This is a great time to review your properties’ management plans and share recommendations with your owners. Position your properties to take advantage of the situation when things begin to improve – which they eventually will.

5 This is a time for empathy

Acknowledge that managers work for the property owners and that their properties are businesses, but never lose sight of the human element. To the owner, a property is an investment. To a resident, it’s home. To the owner of a restaurant or shop, it’s their small business, their livelihood, their source of income. Balance your fiduciary responsibilities to owners and investors with compassion and caring for your residents and tenants. If ever there was a time for empathy, this is it. And remember, social media is very strong. People are hurting and are upset. How will decisions affect the reputation of your property and your company? Acts of kindness will go far toward positioning your company, and your property, as one that puts people first.

6 Keeping up is hard to do

What began as a trickle of information about COVID-19 quickly turned into a torrential flood. Government guidelines on reopening business are constantly changing; executive orders are often confusing; state and local regulations are often conflicting.  Keeping up with the flow of information and knowing what is current is nearly impossible. This is true for property managers and owners, and it’s likewise true for residents and tenants. We can help our owners and occupiers by being a resource, by providing them with information about the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that could save their businesses, by helping our residents stay in their homes by directing them to local and state support and subsidy programs.

7  On DE&I, we can do better

The recent wave of protests has brought to the fore issues of systemic racism and challenged all of us to work for change. Our companies can do better by broadening the pool of people we bring into our organizations, and reaching out proactively to underrepresented groups. Those in commercial real estate’s C-suites at large and small companies alike are having meaningful dialogues and converting their conversation into action so that diversity and inclusion become part of their cultures. IREM is also doing more and has started on a journey to adopt and sustain an intentional program of greater inclusiveness, broader diversity, and visible transparency. We acknowledge that we can do better.

8 Virtual is here to stay

Zoom meetings may not replace face-to-face interactions, but the virtual world is not going anywhere. At this time, the virtual provides a way to stay in touch, to continue learning, to meet people where they are. Even when business travel returns, it’s likely that virtual meetings will remain and complement it. When it can be done virtually, a three-hour meeting with a client in another city doesn’t mean two full days out of the office. One silver lining IREM leaders have experienced during the pandemic is that they’ve been able to participate in multiple chapter events – from New Jersey to South Africa to Japan – all without getting on an airplane. Property managers have been able to expand their knowledge and learn at home while working from home, thanks to IREM’s quick pivot to offering virtual classroom courses and podcasts on timely topics in addition to on-demand online courses.

9 But face-to-face isn’t going anywhere

Saying that virtual is here to stay doesn’t mean personal interactions are going away. It’s not an either/or. We need both. The pandemic has shown us how fundamental social contact is in every aspect of our personal and professional lives. This was reinforced in a poll of attendees at the opening of the IREM town hall who were asked, “What has been your biggest struggle in the last few months as a property manager?” Their response :

What has been your biggest struggle in the last few months as a property manager?

Lack of social interaction




Lack of work/life balance


Working remotely


Feelings of isolation


Child care



10 We’re all in this boat together

More than ever, property managers are in the people management business. Residents and tenants need reassurances that we care about them, that we take their health and safety seriously, along with their right to quiet enjoyment. We need to show our employees that they’re valued, that we appreciate the stress they and their families are under. Our clients need to know that we’re working with them, and not just for them. That we are all in this boat together. Nowhere is this truer than within the IREM organization. IREM members are here for each other – sharing experiences, passing along to others what we’ve learned, and staying connected.

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