By Cath Dickinson
COVID-19 restrictions have hit hard for property managers. We spoke to Michelle McLean, Senior Property Manager at Leah Jay and Chair of the REINSW Property Management Chapter Committee, about the impact of the pandemic and what steps her team are taking to rise to the challenge.
Putting health and safety front and centre
Like all agencies, the team at Leah Jay have had to make some fundamental changes to their operational practices.
“We’re now operating with only skeleton staff at our three offices, with someone at reception, as well as both a leasing consultant and a property manager at each location,” Michelle said. “We’re finding that there are still people coming to our offices, so we’ve put a roster in place to ensure everyone is sharing the load.”
Michelle explained the range of measures they’ve put in place to ensure the health and safety of their team and anyone who is attending their offices.
“We’ve locked the front doors and are encouraging people to make appointments,” she said. “This goes some way to helping staff in the office manage workload regarding their portfolio, as well as accommodating the additional tasks that are part and parcel of dealing with COVID-19, like sanitising surfaces and doorknobs every time someone attends the office.”
While having the majority of the team working from home has certainly been a change, Michelle said the transition wasn’t as disruptive for Leah Jay as perhaps it may have been for some agencies.
“We’re already set up to work from home,” she said. “Everyone already had Microsoft Surfaces and access to all our files and systems via the cloud.
“The only thing we’ve really done differently is to allow staff to take home additional items, like computer screens, docking stations and desk chairs. It’s been a priority for us to ensure that everyone is as comfortable as possible working from home.
“Some of us, myself included, have a separate home office already set up. But there are others who are working from dining tables and shared spaces, and we want to ensure their workspace is as compliant as possible with work health and safety guidelines. The last thing we want is for someone to return to the office in a couple of months’ time with a sore neck or back because they’ve been sitting on an uncomfortable dining room chair for hours each day.”
Filling the service gap
With IT, systems access and equipment sorted, Michelle said the Leah Jay team have turned their minds to adapting their processes and procedures to meet the restrictions in place due to COVID-19.
“Like other agencies, at present we’ve cancelled all routine inspections, and this is under regular review,” she said. “To provide the best possible service to our landlords under the current conditions, we’ve been looking closely at a number of different technology solutions to allow us to complete virtual inspections. This will allow us to link with the tenant via their smartphone or tablet and record an inspection in real time.
We can communicate with the tenant and ask them to show us certain aspects of the property; for example, we can ask them to open the oven and then remotely take a photo. Then all the images can be dropped into a report.
“This demonstrates how innovation and lateral thinking can address any current service gap.”
Michelle said that Leah Jay, like many agencies, have also implemented video inspections for available rental properties.
“With open homes off the table, video inspections allow us to showcase a property to a wide audience,” she said. “Once a prospective tenant has viewed the video, they can register their interest and we can then make arrangements to do a private inspection.
“Of course, we’re only doing this with vacant properties, which is impacting landlords in relation to lost rent. Normally, we would be advertising and showing the property prior to the end of the current tenancy, but we have to deal with the circumstances we find ourselves in right now.”
With routine inspections on hold and open homes a no-go, Michelle said the focus of her team has shifted when it comes to workload.
“Yes, we’re still getting repair requests, but mostly for urgent matters,” she said. “A lot of time and energy is going into answering questions about rent relief.
“From the moment the government announced there would be a six-month moratorium on evictions and support measures were put in place, tenants have been seeking information about whether their landlord is able to offer any relief – and each enquiry takes time to understand and answer.
“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation being passed around and many tenants have a fundamental misunderstanding of what the new measures mean in reality. No, they’re not getting a six-month ‘free pass’ on paying rent. For example, if a landlord allows a rent reduction for a period of time, arrears are still accruing and will need to be paid back at some point.
“The time we’re saving by not doing routine inspections and other regular tasks is definitely being soaked up with all these new enquiries.”
Communicating is key
Michelle said all property managers need to be “on their game” at the moment.
“Now, more than ever, communication is crucial,” she emphasised. “We’re spending a lot more time on the phone, rather than falling back on email or SMS. It’s about being clear and transparent in our communications with both landlords and tenants, so they are aware of how our processes have changed and what we’re doing to meet current challenges.”
When it comes to managing the challenges thrown at the industry by COVID-19, Michelle said we all need to be agile and prepared to adjust.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach,” she said. “There’s no point taking the view that ‘this is the way it must be done’. We’ve never been faced with a situation like this and we need to take each enquiry as it comes and be adaptable. This is the time for out-of-the-box thinking.
“No matter who we’re dealing with, we need to do it with empathy. Landlords and tenants are uncertain, they’re worried and they’re grappling with a range of issues. We need to be understanding of this.
“Our negotiation skills as property managers must come to the fore. We’re the conduit between landlords and tenants, and we need to strive for outcomes that everyone can live with. Negotiation and compromise are crucial.”