The Big Quit: Retaining and Attracting Talent Post-Pandemic

Industry , Careers ,

How rental housing organizations are managing employee recruitment and retention, as well as addressing the evolving expectations of their staffs, amid an era of record workforce resignations. 

Often referred to as the “Big Quit” or the “Great Resignation,” American workers are leaving their jobs in historic numbers. While the first full year of the COVID-19 pandemic witnessed relatively low resignation rates, never surpassing 2.4% of the total workforce per month, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, beginning in April 2021, resignations rose to a record 2.8% (or 4 million people) and have remained near or above those levels ever since.

This ongoing trend has left no industry unscathed, rental housing included, yet industry organizations are leveraging new recruitment and retention strategies for addressing the evolving expectations of the workforce.

Employee Engagement

“The Big Quit really is a big re-evaluation of what people want to be doing and how they want to be doing it,” says Jonakan O’Steen, First Vice President of Organization and Talent Development at Equity Residential. “It is a very personal ROI study for each person who leaves a company.”

O’Steen said his company has historically experienced lower employee turnover than industry averages, due to its ongoing investment in employee-engagement programs, associated surveys and a competitive total rewards package. But to address more recent turnover, O’Steen described current retention efforts, such as providing off- cycle pay increases, spot bonuses and year-end compensation adjustments as needed, while accelerating some promotions where possible.

“We are certainly putting great emphasis on culture, along with employee development and career pathing to include up-skilling and re-skilling for career progression and succession plans,” he said.

Jennifer Staciokas, Executive Managing Director of Property Management at Western Wealth Communities, has also seen her company add employee-engagement surveys and platforms. They wished to get a pulse on how their employees were doing at all touchpoints throughout the lifecycle of their time with the company.

Western Wealth Communities just completed its baseline survey and finished their Q1 2022 results. After each of these touchpoints, they held an all-hands call with employees to address areas of improvement. “We let employees know that they have been heard,” says Staciokas. “We provide action based on the feedback we receive from them.”

Virtual Technologies and Flexible Schedules

The pandemic accelerated the adoption of an array of technologies, enabling companies to offer remote work and flexible schedules that contribute to employee retention.

Abbie Huffman, Director of Business Development and Brand Strategy at CIG Communities, describes how her company began testing artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies in their communities, along with identifying new areas of operational efficiency. “This, in turn, has opened the conversation of having our site office teams move to a four-day workweek,” says Huffman, although her company has not yet implemented any immediate changes in work schedules or office hours.

Huffman outlined other company efforts to provide flexible and generous personal time off: “We feel comfortable and confident in granting various additional holidays and random fun reasons to enjoy the day off, because we have implemented technologies and best practices that ensure our communities continue to operate exceptionally well, whether staffed or not.”

Equity Residential also has been applying virtual and digital technologies, including self-guided tours, online customer-service interactions and other smart-home offerings for its residents. These efforts have enabled some sales staff and community managers to potentially work remotely one to two days per week. Corporate employees now can work remotely up to two days per week. For service employees, Equity Residential is piloting a four-day workweek with 10-hour days in their Washington, D.C., market to provide added flexibility.

For many employees, company adoption of new technologies often requires learning additional skill sets. Organizations must provide employee training or, alternatively, outsource some functions to third parties, especially during off-hours. But these technologies have also opened new talent pools for companies to draw from. Companies can now spec positions for prospects more adept in a virtual and digital world, and who will value the flexibility afforded by working remotely or with a nontraditional schedule.

Benchmarking Compensation

How do companies know what to offer in terms of salaries and benefits to hold onto their current employees and attract new hires? Various employment surveys can offer guidance for potential benchmarking, although companies must be aware of legal considerations via the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Companies must also consider any stresses created across the organization from “paying up” based on benchmarking compensation to these employment surveys. Posting salary ranges for new employees risks alienating current staff. However, posting salary ranges may offer a glimpse of the future, as 14 states have already enacted legislation for related forms of pay transparency.

Equity Residential has historically participated in several major employment surveys, finding them effective for its purposes. “However, these types of surveys are built on historic data of up to one year prior,” says O’Steen. “Accordingly, it is often stale data that the user needs to age appropriately and it becomes less effective with the extremely fast-moving and accelerating pay scales we are currently seeing.”

Staciokas agrees with this assessment. Her company purchased a 2021 compensation survey for the rental housing industry but found it to be quickly out-of-date in today’s fast-moving marketplace. So Western Wealth Communities is now subscribing to an alternative offering for access to more real-time compensation data.

CIG Communities has not yet participated in the major employment surveys. But Huffman says her local NAA affiliate is conducting a salary survey, and CIG Communities may benchmark its compensation based on these results.

Maintenance Staff

Among all employee categories, Staciokas says maintenance is “the most challenging position to recruit and retain.” The technical skills of maintenance staff are in high demand, not just within the rental housing industry but also in other industries where the compensation may be greater. Larger-sized companies are leading the way in increasing this compensation for maintenance staff, forcing smaller-sized companies to respond.

Staciokas says Western Wealth Communities has implemented a series of additional benefits for maintenance staff: No waiting period to become eligible for company benefits; no premiums for half of its company-provided medical plans; an employer-sponsored short-term disability policy; an increased employee discount for employees on call; two additional paid holidays; and an increased 401(k) company match. Additionally, it has provided its maintenance staff with added wellness resources, such as online Peloton memberships, Apple Fitness+ and the Sanvello app, along with other work perquisites.

Huffman agrees with the challenges of hiring new and exceptional maintenance technicians. For hiring, her company offered employee referral incentives, increased starting salaries and implemented hiring bonuses. “For retention, we recently confirmed or increased all our technicians to current market rates based on their experience and time with the company, with increases ranging from 6 percent to 16 percent,” she says.

Pre-pandemic, Equity Residential had taken the recruiting of service employees one step further: “We started an internal ‘Service Apprenticeship’ program at Equity in 2018 to address this need for maintenance, so we could hire completely ‘green’ employees and skill them up to work in this industry and for us,” says O’Steen. Even so, as within the industry, the ongoing recruitment and retention of service employees has remained a challenge.

Departing and Returning Employees

Savvy companies recognize that one of their best pools for talent may be former employees who have left on good terms but who may wish to return. Also called “boomerangs,” they are already trained and familiar with the company’s products, markets, processes and culture—an otherwise excellent fit for re-hiring. Companies are well-advised to take their exit-interviews seriously, querying departing employees on their reasons for leaving and their appetite for returning. Some companies even establish their own “alumni networks” to maintain contact over time.

O’Steen said that his company is considering piloting a 30-day and 90-day program of “warm calls” to let these departing employees know that Equity Residential is thinking of them and reminding them that the door remains open. They have already recently recruited two former employees from just reaching out.

O’Steen says Equity wants to combine this program with a more proactive approach toward recruitment. He has found the “ghosting” of employers—where prospective employees fail to show up, even after accepting job offers—is increasingly commonplace in today’s competitive environment. Therefore, Equity Residential has become more targeted in “pre-boarding” new hires to assure their timely arrival.

CIG Communities is seeking a balance between being proactive and patient, says Huffman. When they find the best candidate for a position, they are committed to not wavering and extending their best offer.

On the other hand, CIG Communities still waits for the best candidate. “The importance of maintaining our culture, sense of community and reputation makes it so that sometimes we are patiently waiting for the right fit before choosing the available candidate,” says Huffman. “This can be challenging at times when a position needs to be filled as soon as possible. But we find it to be well worth it to secure the best in the business.”

James Campbell is NAA’s Senior Manager, Industry Relations.