July 13, 2020
How can you leverage technology to reopen safely during the COVID crisis? And, what does it take to build a maintenance culture where techs feel supported, inspired? John Morales, Maintenance Director at WSH Management, discusses COVID strategies through coaching approaches.
John Morales has worked in the Property Management field for over 30 years — beginning his career as a Porter and quickly rising through the ranks. Along the way, John served as Maintenance Operations Manager for the world’s largest Senior Community — overseeing 2,584 Residential buildings housing more than 18,000 residents. Throughout his maintenance and operations career, John has leveraged his past experience playing semi-pro baseball — and running his own baseball organization training youth players for the next level.
John Morales 0:00
When I have an individual that's having an issue or maybe did something wrong, we try to fall back to how he did it. And typically if we had the training properly and understood, we can kind of go back to see where the error was created and start from there.
Glennis Markison 0:20
Hi, I'm Glennis Markison from HappyCo. Welcome to Voices where we feature fresh perspectives in multifamily. Our guests share their voices on emerging trends, leadership strategies, and much more. We're excited to announce the start of Voices Season Two. Multifamily is now facing a fundamental shift in workplace dynamics, resident experience and business operations. In this season of Voices, we will feature industry leaders who are actively embracing change.
Glennis Markison 0:54
Today on Voices, our guest is John Morales, maintenance director at WSH management. John has worked in the property management field for over 30 years, beginning his career as a porter and quickly rising through the ranks. Along the way, John served as maintenance operations manager at the world's largest senior community, overseeing 2,584 residential buildings housing more than 18,000 residents. Throughout his maintenance and operations career, John has leveraged his past experience playing semi-pro baseball and running his own baseball organization, training youth players for the next level. John joins us today to discuss the challenges multifamily maintenance teams face and reopening properties during the pandemic, and how he's using technology to ease the process. We'll also discuss best practices to train and motivate maintenance techs. Welcome to Voices, John. Thanks for joining us.
John Morales 1:50
Well, thank you for having me.
Glennis Markison 1:51
Yeah, I'm really excited to just kind of dive right in. I mean, I'm curious what you would say the biggest challenges multifamily maintenance crews face today in partially reopening properties?
John Morales 2:03
Well, I think today it's more of the unknown. We're working with something that's tricky. That's new to all of us. And I think it changes by the minute, by the day. I think it's a minute, that's why it's being broadcasted everywhere. And I think the challenges everyone is having is making sure everybody's safe. And how do we do that? You know, we're all, I believe, working at the same goal and trying to work at the same concept of what are the best practices to keep everybody safe? And I believe everybody, as well myself and introducing this to my team, is looking at those areas, from CDC recommendations to different national apartment organizations and just learning off of one person to another for the best practice.
Glennis Markison 2:47
Yeah, I mean, that's so much to consider. And I'm just curious in that, how you juggle specifically just that delicate mix of staff safety and resident experiences as you reopen, and especially in the world of senior housing, I'm sure that's a lot to take in.
John Morales 3:00
Lately, you know, I've heard many other organizations talk about creating simple videos to help residents to self-maintenance, some other scenarios they may have in their units. Unfortunately in my area, it's a little harder to ask them to change the light bulb or something in that aspect. So, the number one thing for us and myself is, the primary focus is, safety for everyone. We're not in any rush to open up anything, but we're looking very carefully, following protocols and guidelines established by the CDC and local health departments. We want to make sure that the safest residence experience is possible, including our staff, our team, we evaluate the best practice to ensure reopening, you know, with the well being of our team members, at WSH. We here have created what's called, what we call the COVID-19 Committee, which has input from the CEO, VPS of the company, a couple of community site managers, the area maintenance manager, and of course, myself. Each of us, we basically have gathered different information and delegated the responsibilities, and then came back to the group that we meet once a week and share the information so we can come back with the best resolution and be able to share that throughout our teams through the community.
Glennis Markison 4:19
Yeah, that's extremely helpful. I mean, it really gets at my next question around communication. I mean, if you could talk a little bit about besides these meetings, like is it a lot of texting? Is it a call when it comes to just that immediate maintenance crew? Like, what have you found is a great practice to just really be sure everyone is on the same page.
John Morales 4:35
You know, from the beginning, when we started this, I basically had a WebEx meeting with the entire company, and being able to share the current steps that we were going to take at that time. Of course, just like everybody else, we were just going to handle just emergency work orders. But for us, like I said, it's a little different. So during our typical emergency work quarter we have to use a little bit of common sense. Like for example, light bulbs being out in the kitchen, I consider that something that needs to be taken care of because we're looking for the safety of our residents. And making sure that our maintenance staff are using the proper PPEs and guide them the best way we can with the recommendations we got. But one of the things that I’ve done and I've consistently done since that time is I have a weekly phone call, kind of like on a WebEx but where everybody in our maintenance staff is able to meet me. And I host those every Thursday, to be able to have an open forum where I allow them to express any concerns they may have with COVID-19 or how they're handling certain maintenance tasks at their properties. And I like to use that so that all the maintenance staff and team members can get to hear and use the kind of information that we're sharing back and forth. So I think that's been a huge plus. It also makes the team, I believe, feel more stronger and comfortable as we go on through the COVID-19. But on top of that, I also created a 800 number that goes directly to my cell phone for my maintenance staff. I've done that so I want them to feel comfortable, if they're in a situation they're just not sure about or how to handle, or if it's really considered an emergency to maintain something in somebody's unit, I want them to have the freedom to just go ahead and contact myself and be able to review that with them. And make sure that they're safe in there where they have no doubt, and I'm there to support them. And with that, we also are developing the COVID-19 policy procedures to start opening up areas when the time is right. Like I said before, we're in no hurry at this point to open anything, because we want to make sure that we're doing everything that we possibly can.
Glennis Markison 6:47
Yeah I mean, I really want to switch into technology because you seem so savvy about this. But I think first, I mean, what's been the reaction from your techs when you gave them your phone number? Were they like, well no, nobody's done this for me. I mean, I'm just curious about the morale boost. That must have been amazing.
John Morales 7:01
No, absolutely. It was me working back in the day, you know, no different from where they were at. I didn't have that availability of communications with the maintenance director or facilities director or something way entitled above them. I'm a little different. I like to approach things as a team, you know, I want to be part of a team. I don't like to use my title as above anybody, I like to be part of it. So I wanted something for them to feel comfortable to understand that I'm there right with them. And I want them to understand that I'm part of this just like they are. And I really care for their safety and including the resident. And I believe that the maintenance staff are of huge importance to the communities, and keeping everybody as safe as possible, doing sanitizing and many things that we do, more than we ever have before. And I think it's very, very important. So going with that 800 number that I created is definitely the feedback that I get from maintenance. And the questions, then, them telling me to call me is basically them telling me that they totally appreciate the fact that they have that available availability and being able to secure their comfort level of what they're doing when they're not sure. And so they're getting that support.
Glennis Markison 8:17
Yeah, I think that's so important right now, given all the fear that people feel and that they have that one on one with you to admit it. I mean, that's huge. So I am curious, speaking of keeping people safe and easing fears, how are you leveraging technology across properties as you reopen? I mean, what kinds of templates are you creating? Like, how are you getting people on the same page and safe with the use of tech?
John Morales 8:38
Absolutely. HappyCo is fairly new to WSH. And I've, we started this before this COVID-19 started and so it kind of put a little pause for a little bit because of all the urgency of many things being changed. Like I said, by the minute, however, I've taken HappyCo to do an opening COVID-19 inspection. We're basically the COVID-19 WSH Committee and we have split up the properties that we have because you know, when I started here, we had probably about close to 40 properties. And now we're over 70 something properties throughout California itself, from one side to the other. So we've grown pretty rapidly. And so we split up the sites and what we basically have been doing is using HappyCo to make sure that our properties are somewhat uniform in a sense of our recommendations with CDC and how we like to make sure that they're following the procedures that we have asked them to do. And so we've used HappyCo to take those pictures. We also use HappyCo on those inspections, to give our recommendations in regards to if we do open the gym, for example, how many people do we believe should be in the gym, using the guidance we're given by the CDC in a sense, the six feet apart, and so on. And so we've used this app to really capture that information. Also, you know, making sure proper signs are in areas, making sure that sanitation areas or sanitation units are placed in the proper areas and mass signs are throughout the property for say, accessing elevators, and so on and so on. So, it's been great that we've been having this opportunity to use this tool, so that we make sure that we're doing everything we possibly can to keep everybody safe, but also preparing. Once things are ready to start opening, we have that plan somewhat ready to go. And of course there's always going to be a change, as we have expected. I like to tell my guys I think I've changed the policy 38 times already.
Glennis Markison 10:53
John Morales 10:55
Absolutely, you know, we're all looking for the best. We're all in this together. Like everybody says, I don't think there's a right or wrong in this whole situation, I think just our best, our best efforts of making everybody safe and comfortable. And I think that the communication I'm using, the tools and processes, is what's huge and important.
Glennis Markison 11:18
Yeah, I mean, do your techs on the ground, do they feel reassured that they have this template? So like they know exactly what to do and what's expected of them? Has that been helpful from their shoes?
John Morales 11:28
Well, absolutely. So I think it gives them an idea of not just, you know, sending them an email and saying, yeah, this is what the corporate office would like you to do. This is giving them the opportunity to be able to actually see us at the site with them. You know, of course, we keep our distance with the masks and PPEs while we're there, as we expect them to do, but it gives them that encouragement of okay, you know, you're here, you're showing exactly how the property is a good example of how I should keep things organized together. Everybody's safe and the proper signage is giving us an idea of what would be the spacing for our areas. So I think it's just that team support that's gone a long way that continues to make them feel comfortable that we're there. And we're showing them that they're not just words, we're actually there.
Glennis Markison 12:18
Yeah no, I think that's remarkable. I mean, obviously, like in a time of fear like this, a lot of people would really clutch their pen and paper hard and hope for the best. But you are here saying, hey, tech is actually going to be the flexible thing that we need right now. And it's also going to build that team dynamic. I mean you're, I've heard, hired on often to create change and introduce technology. So can you give us a sense of really how you got so good at this? Because that's brave. It's brave stuff in an industry that can use tech or not use tech, but it's not always the case that a property's ready for it.
John Morales 12:48
Absolutely. You know, with my experience of coaching and playing ball and being around teams most of my life, I use that same concept for what I do. What I do isn’t a main fit for everybody, but I believe it's been successful for me. You know, I've had staff as you know, as large as over 500 union workers. So I believe using the tools that I've had, in a sense of making everybody feel like they're part of the team, making sure that they understand that I care, that we care, and it's just not words. I'm out there on the field team as you are, and being able to, for example, I created what's called a buddy program here for this company. I've used it before and it's been really successful. And basically what a buddy program is is almost the same concept as a mentor. But what I've done is I've taken buddies or maintenance techs that have been with the company for some time, and actually going to be training them on what my expectation is using the HappyCo app to how we're going to train staff that are currently on the properties to new staff that are coming in, to make them feel like they're part of the team and up to date with a lot of how we do things here. And part of that process is a checklist that goes down to what our policies are to basically what we use for technology. You know, we use HappyCo which has been awesome and we're just touching bases of the program where there's so much more and how easy it is, simple to use the program, so we're going down those lines of instructing and showing them how to use that. We use a program called buyer access. That's been huge, especially during the times of trying to find PPE supplies, that's been absolutely crazy. It is getting better but there was a time that was absolutely not but they've been able to help us as our assistants to locate supplies as best as they possibly can. And you know, there's a time that we will order by the bulk and just kind of sending it out to the properties. But now we're basically back to the sites ordering it. I have also developed a safety PPE and sanitizing chemical checklists to make sure each week they're checking their supplies and make sure they have supplies for at least, you know, I like to tell them at least two months in advance, keep stuff because the way things are today, and it's hard to gather, you know, supplies. So we created that checklist that we weekly review, just to make sure that they're staying on top of that, and ordering and making sure they have the right stuff. And of course, just like many others, we use the Yardi program for our work orders and my area maintenance manager, which is great, that works with me basically go over all the work orders for all the properties to determine what's an emergency or urgent and making sure that we're handling those things, but also keeping track of the work orders that we don't consider high urgency at this point. But we're also preparing our maintenance staff for what we will think of is probably overwhelming. Everybody's at home and not knowing what everybody's going through right now, and actually not putting in work orders. But once they open up, we're trying to prepare for a flood of open work orders and service calls that are going to need to be attended. And so we want to get our supplies repaired. And with all that, using the technology that we have today, like buyers access, where we have dashboards with all our supplies for each property, by putting in the number of things that you need for supplies and pushing a button, and it keeps it somewhat simple. So, those are kind of the things that we're doing here.
Glennis Markison 16:32
Yeah no, I think that's amazing that you have this flexibility, but you're also on the ball always and thinking ahead. I mean, this sourcing thing. I've talked to other people about their navigation with different vendors, and it just seems so tough to get supplies. So it's amazing that you're using tech to really ensure that that two month out mark is not something to worry about. So I'm curious if we could really scale back a bit and just talk about training with maintenance crews. I mean, they're in the belly of the beast right now with COVID and all these different concerns, but it's your approach to training, is so distinct with your baseball background and your coaching. I think you touched a bit about it with a buddy program. But if you could just kind of touch on what are some of the key challenges to training techs effectively and how you've really overcome those in the industry?
John Morales 17:14
Well you know, today, things are not what they used to be when I was back becoming, going through the ropes of being, a maintenance technician. And it seemed, as I believe, more individuals took it a little bit more seriously than what we're finding today, in all respects. So the training concept that I use is the same concept I use when I coach youth. And what I mean by that is basically when you're at a practice, you break down things into stations. And there's the saying that practice makes perfect. That's actually wrong. That's a myth. Practice makes you better and that means that you get to continue to practice what you're doing to get better. There's never perfect because you can always be better. And so I use that same concept and mentality with training the staff. And so I'd like to break things down into what I call stepping stones, simple. I try not to make it difficult, you know, so I create a training basis. I want to break it down, there's three ways that I see it. One each, you know, every person learns differently. So you have the one that can just visually see it, and they got it. There's the ones that actually have to have the documents and they can read it and do it. And there's those that you actually physically have to instruct. That's no different from being on a field coaching. You know, everybody learns three different ways and you have to pick up on those. And so I put all those three into play when I do my training aspects. So that basically they get the concept, but a step further. It goes back to my buddy program because the buddy program, I have it where the individual will be able to ask them questions or assistance whenever they need it, not just myself or the area maintenance manager. You know, we do this as a team. And we're all there to support each other at the end of the day. But give us more of an avenue and hands on approach to help train and get a better understanding of what we're working on.
Glennis Markison 19:12
Yeah, I think that's incredibly helpful to hear. I mean, these different ways people learn, I think, are not always rarely considered by managers in any industry, honestly. And so I'm curious when something does go wrong, when there's a moment where you need to give feedback, because they haven't quite addressed a safety need, or they haven't. They've made some sort of small mistake or big mistake. And that's the moment where you have so many different ways to express it with your tone and they could be resentful, or they could be really encouraged. How do you think the secret to feedback works with maintenance crews?
John Morales 19:40
Well, you know, I've been blessed to be trained and have mentors through the years, and one of my mentors told me this little wording, if it's a problem that can't be fixed, if it's a situation anything can be corrected, and with that, it's a sense of humour that he has I've learned, I like to be, kind of funny with my guys. And ask anybody, I have a good sense of humour.
Glennis Markison 20:06
That's why you're here, John.
John Morales 20:10
So I believe that being able to be open and be yourself, you know, I'm a huge Yankees fan. So I kind of rub it into all the Angel fans and Dodger fans over in California. But I use tones like that to just spark up a little bit of challenging, but make it funny and happy. And I like to use that concept. So when I have an individual that's having an issue, or maybe did something wrong, we try to fall back to the fact of how he did. And typically if we had to train properly and understood, we can kind of go back to see where the error was created and start from there. But I also like to be the supporter to say, okay, you know, we've made this mistake, let's look in some areas that we can continue to help you grow in those areas. I'm all about what's called coachable. If I believe that a staff member is coachable, then it's a plus, if they're not coachable, you'll know fairly quickly. Everybody has been in the industry long enough to know if they want it or not. So the ball is back in their court. We're here to help you. We're here to support you, do whatever I have, I’m easy to get a reach of and I can come to your property when I'm available to be there, including anybody from our buddy program to help you, bro. And so that's kind of the concept of how I do things here.
Glennis Markison 21:22
Yeah, and I'm sure humor plays into the use of technology too. I mean, especially if people are a little afraid of it. But can you talk about how you've helped techs who maybe really only wanted to work with their hands, how you've persuaded them that maybe tech can actually make work easier, as opposed to more work?
John Morales 21:37
Yeah, absolutely. Because that's, you know, a lot of the maintenance techs are used to certain ways they've done things through the years, and as today, as things are changing, our maintenance staff are out there on the field, and they see more of the residents than the people in the office, and so we want that customer service and using like HappyCo for inspections when they're out in a property with the buddy program and myself, that what we're developing is being able to show them how we're using that program, but also being customer servicers, same token, having that smile on our face. And of course, we're mastering that now. So it's kind of hard. But you can still see the facial impressions, but with the technology, being able to actually show them how much time this is going to save them from their normal, typical day working, how they used to do inspections, for example, on the property, daily writing notes and stuff like that, where actually they're using their cell phones, or pads at the property, taking pictures and writing the documentation on the reports to HappyCo and they're done. Once they're completed, they're done. Work orders are created straight from there, when needed, and it keeps it somewhat so much more simpler than it's ever had before. No different whenI've also developed bringing into the program with the buyers access technology where basically you know what, they know exactly what's on the property, we have this historical information of what's been ordered to life by property. So we know what parts are pretty much there. And so creating a dashboard for them. And like I said, it's just pushing a couple buttons, what do you need to order, it's not looking for what you need, and such in that aspect they have at their fingertips. So being able to sit with them, and showing them this, they basically are saying, wow, this is so much easier now, I can get a lot more things done. And that's where we're headed. And HappyCo has been a huge part in helping us start looking in that direction.
Glennis Markison 23:37
Yeah, I'm really glad to hear that. That's the change you've seen. I'm also curious, I mean, talking about positive spins in the workplace, like, what can you say about the importance of saying, you know, great work, great job to your techs right now. I mean, the way that COVID has stressed everybody out, what would you say is the importance of recognizing that someone did something really amazing and they showed quick thinking in a crisis, especially right now.
John Morales 24:00
Absolutely, you know, I'm a big pusher about complimenting people for their efforts. And when I meet and talk with them weekly on the phone, and we discuss how they're doing things, or I know or hear something from the regional managers or the VPS, and CEO of a company, how maintenance tech did this, I'm going to announce it to everybody, and I'm going to show them my appreciation. I'm also going to call them and share that appreciation with them. And if I'm at their property, I'll bring it back up back in the day and I hope to implement this through WSH here at this management company, as I continue to change the culture here, myself or anybody else's if they see somebody that's doing a great deed, you know, we'll give them a gift certificate to like a fast food restaurant, Subway, or something to compliment them. “Hey, I saw you wearing the proper PPE today”, “That was a great job. Thank you”, “Please go have lunch, on us”, we appreciate that. Or you know, “I saw you with that customer and you made them super happy how you handled that situation. Here's a little gift card to buy yourself lunch or here's a gas card for a couple bucks to fill up your gas” and make your day a little easier. And those are the types of things I'd like to implement to keep making sure our maintenance staff here are appreciated. I've also created, like most companies have an annual Appreciate-the-Maintenance Staff. You know, I've introduced that here. So you know, there's time that we actually spend, where I asked all the site managers to appreciate your maintenance guys every day, even though we should every day, but the reality is sometimes it's difficult, but we want to show that appreciation, have a drink for them, have a lunch for them, have a you know, a candy bar for the day, show them your appreciation. I'm also developing an award ceremony here for an annual event where I appreciate many categories of the maintenance staff to show them how much we appreciate them. So the culture here at WSH has never been these types of areas before, so this is new to the entire portfolio. So we're introducing this now. And you know, it's been a great supporter from the CEOs and VPS, including all the staff, because without their support, it's difficult to do any of this.
Glennis Markison 26:14
Yeah, I think that's so lovely. I mean, when you're called an essential worker every day, there's some fear. And then there's also an opportunity to really shine and prove yourself and protect people. So it's amazing that you're even, for wearing PP, you're telling somebody that they're really, they're on it, and they're doing the right thing. So I'm curious, in a little quick minute that we have left, I mean, just one more positive note, have you seen something with one of your techs on a site or interacting with the resident where you're like, wow, I did this, I trained them well, and I encourage them, and now they're really giving back when it matters most.
John Morales 26:44
Yeah, you know, absolutely. But I think it's a whole team effort, right? So what I mean by that is that basically, when I'm meeting with my team members on Thursdays and discussing what they're doing at the properties and how things are going, the excitement from them. Of course, that first one that started was fear, just like all of us back home with our families and so on. But it's gotten more into a positive challenge of them wanting to make sure that their residents at their sites are safe, and they're doing everything possible they possibly can. They're there, they're each day in and out with this mentality of, I'm going to make sure this area is taken care of, so that these residents are safe. And I'm hearing that day in day out with my maintenance staff, and it makes me feel proud that I'm part of this team, that I have that atmosphere. And so for me to point out one singular person, I believe we're doing this as a team, I can't say that we're not because everybody's putting their input as we meet on our Thursday meetings. But when I go to the properties, I'm seeing the same thing, the same, you know, tone and the body language is all positive, of we're going to get through this and we're going to find ways to continue to make things better and improve as we go. Life and maintenance is not the same no more. We're going to a whole new different change, a whole new generation of what’s coming forward at this point. And I think my team is feeling like they're ready for this. And they're prepared to, wanting to get to those steps. And I look forward to start opening things up for everybody at their sites and being positive. So it's definitely a team effort.
Glennis Markison 28:27
Yeah, I think that's fantastic. I mean, you've obviously just like with baseball, you know, you've trained them for the next level, and they're ready. So that's really nice to hear. And I just, I want to thank you so much, John, for being here on Voices. I think you gave so richly of your time and all of these great insights for listeners, so I really appreciate it.
John Morales 28:41
Well, I thank you for having me. Thank you.
Glennis Markison 28:43
If you'd like to hear from other voices in multifamily, or learn how to share your voice, head to voices.happy.co. You can find Voices on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast player. Voices is produced by HappyCo, the leading real-time property operations platform for multifamily and student housing. We're on a mission to elevate property management to community management, prioritizing staff and resident well- being. That starts by listening to you, the voices of multifamily. I'm Glennis Markison. Thanks for listening. Also, feel free to take a minute and rate or review this podcast. That will help us share the voices of multifamily.
Glennis is a writer and producer from San Francisco. Taking the city’s trains and buses with riders of all ages and backgrounds inspired Glennis to go into journalism and share people’s stories for a living. As HappyCo's Senior Content Producer, she’s excited to highlight diverse voices and share stories from within the Multifamily industry.
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