Avoiding Professional Burnout Four Lessons from Property Managers

Avoiding Professional Burnout

The duties of a property manager are multiple and multifaceted. Starting the day before dawn, and remaining on-call throughout the night and even on weekends, managers have to deal with a dizzying array of duties—everything from the physical upkeep of the property to staff management and vendor procurement, to dealing with interpersonal conflicts and communication—not just with boards and residents, but with vendors, service providers, and municipal personnel, too. Managers are responsible for protecting and maintaining the integrity of properties that in many cases represent owners’ single biggest investment, as well as their quality of life. That’s a lot of pressure.

Given these high stakes, one might reasonably assume that burnout is rampant among property managers. But the managers consulted for this article conveyed something quite different; according to them, the variability -- and sometimes even the stress -- of their daily tasks are what make the job interesting. The rewards of seeing the effect their work has on people keeps them going—over lifelong careers in the industry, in many cases. And while each has their unique personal approach to the different types of communities they manage, they have all learned lessons on the job that allow them to provide essential services for their clients, in both normal times and in crises.  

Lesson 1: Be Prepared 

Jeremy DiFlaminies is the general manager of PIER4, a full-service, 106-unit condominium in Boston. The building is not even a year old, so DiFlaminies and his staff—along with the newly moved-in residents of the building—are still getting acquainted with one other, and coping with the operational challenges that so often come with brand-new construction. Add to that an unprecedented global health crisis, and you have a potential recipe for rapid burnout.

Luckily, DiFlaminies has a secret weapon: a hospitality background, including 10 years managing the residential portion of the Four Seasons Hotel Boston. He has parlayed that experience into his new role, and infused it in his staff as well. It’s proven essential to maintaining and even ramping up the full-service offerings at PIER4, while simultaneously adjusting staff roles to accommodate enhanced cleaning schedules and other shifting priorities brought about by the pandemic.

But how does he accomplish all of this without getting completely overwhelmed? “Having a plan is essential,” DiFlaminies says. “The unknown is stressful, but that stress can be mitigated by policy and preparation.” Knowing this, DiFlaminies took a proactive approach to the impending COVID-19 crisis and acquired plenty of personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitizing products early on. Having those in place, in addition to a plan for package deliveries, amenities, and—perhaps most importantly—communication about all of it to residents, made the challenges easier to face. Keeping himself and his staff educated and prepared allows the building to function smoothly while avoiding the kind of compounded stress that can lead to burnout.

Lesson 2: Set Expectations 

Property managers tend to have a thin separation between their jobs and their personal lives. These men and women are often generous with their time even after spending so many hours each day officially on the clock. But for many, it’s just part of their nature; DiFlaminies says that for him, working hard is “a force of habit.” 

Vincent Rapolla, Director of Field Operations for Denali Property Management in New Jersey, has a similar work ethic. He has been in his position with the company since February, but has been in the community association management business for 15 years, managing a variety of Garden State properties and now overseeing other management teams across his portfolio. Rapolla says this experience has allowed him to accept the long hours his job entails and to create strategies that prevent him from feeling overburdened. 

“Knowing when to step away—that’s a difficult part of this job,” says Rapolla. But learning how to manage his time and communication has proven effective in avoiding burnout from the daily onslaught of calls, emails, and conversations that his job entails. One of his first rules? “Let it wait,” he says. “Set expectations for your communities and your staff that non-emergency emails might not get an immediate response. You have to have your life. People will accept that.”

Rapolla sets that expectation for himself, as well, telling the managers he oversees that he doesn’t expect them to reply immediately, either. Like the other managers contacted for this article, Rapolla says he prefers to set his early mornings aside for email responses, and informs his team that they should not feel obligated to respond to those emails in the same wee hours. Such expectations are especially important in the current shut-down environment when residents are home all day and have a lot of time on their hands to observe -- and comment on -- their communities. “You have to stop and breathe,” he advises. “Take a moment, and then just keep moving through.”  

Having one’s family on board with the erratic schedules and Saturday morning phone calls is another key to avoiding burnout as a manager. Rapolla praises his wife for being understanding about late-night board meetings and weekend emergencies. “She’s used to these long hours I have, and the calls on weekends. It helps.” And in DiFlaminies’s case, when facemasks were hard to come by to protect his staff from COVID-19, his wife stepped in to produce 40 or 50 masks at her sewing machine. Often the families of people with essential, demanding jobs like those of property managers contribute to their loved one’s success and longevity in the career. 

Lesson 3: Don’t Take It Personally

One of the challenges common to all property managers is dealing with a variety of personalities—from their residents, boards, and building personnel, to vendors, regulatory bodies, and municipal leaders. With such a cast of characters in the mix, conflicts are inevitable—and part of being an effective manager is knowing how to handle them when they arise. 

For FirstService Residential portfolio manager Dan LeBlanc, managing eight different properties in the Boston area means that he works with 40 different board members and hundreds of residential units. While he makes it clear that 90% of boards and residents are fantastic, it’s that other 10% that can be tougher to work with. After an experience with a board president who could just not be made happy no matter what LeBlanc did, he says that he learned a valuable lesson: You can’t make all the people happy all the time. “What I took away from that experience is that it’s more important to be respected than liked,” LeBlanc says. “When you genuinely care about communities like we do, it’s hard to not take everything personally. So that is something I work on to keep balanced.”

DiFlaminies agrees, and adds that it’s important to mentally separate caring about communities from caring about their personal feelings towards you. That’s why he advises his staff “to try not to bring the outside in, and vice versa.” Although the lines can be blurred—LeBlanc says that he regularly socializes with client board members, for example—at the end of the day, the goal is to improve the lives of community residents. As long as they are accomplishing that, say the managers, they do not get overwhelmed by their jobs.

Lesson 4: Have Perspective

The same is true for Claudine Gruen, vice president of Garthchester Realty, a management firm based in Westchester and Queens, New York. She says that while her job is certainly stressful—especially under the current pandemic conditions—the rewards outweigh all the long hours and hard work. “When I see that I can make a change on a property and that the residents are happy,” says Gruen, “that’s fabulous for me.” Counting herself lucky that all of her properties are faring well in the crisis and that she can keep her staff employed and remain busy with work herself, Gruen maintains the perspective that “it could be a lot worse.”

Lately, she has been working from home, going into the office on weekends when no one is there, and fielding emails and conference calls constantly, from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. some nights. While she “[doesn’t] like being on the computer all day,” Gruen views this new reality “not as being stuck at home, but being safe at home.” Living and working in the area hit hardest by coronavirus in the entire world, Gruen is just thankful that she and her family are healthy, that her business is functioning, that she is able to pay her employees and keep them working, and that she can provide her clients and staff with protocols and equipment to keep them safe. 

Offering another reason for her grateful perspective, Gruen mentions that her grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Whenever she finds herself bemoaning a task or getting overwhelmed, she is reminded of their struggle and that of the millions of others around the world who deal with adversities much greater and more catastrophic. While acknowledging the additional stresses of their job amidst a pandemic, Gruen and Rapolla both offer appreciation that they are essentially immune from the decimation being experienced by many other elements of the economy. There is a case to be made that gratitude really is one of the most powerful relievers of stress we have. Anyone can access it, from any place, at any time. And in our current world full of invisible threats and so much uncertainty, it is a valuable reminder for all of us—in any circumstance—to focus on what we have, rather than what we lack. 

Darcey Gerstein is Associate Editor/Staff Writer for The New Jersey Cooperator.

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