April 22, 2020

Matt Johnson: Maintenance From the Front Lines

As essential workers, maintenance techs are on the front lines of the pandemic. How should their supervisors protect, support and train them? Paradigm Maintenance Supervisor Matt Johnson explains.

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Matt Johnson is a senior-level maintenance supervisor with over 25 years of experience in multifamily housing, property management and construction. Over his career he has worked with at least 7000 units within multiple asset types including stabilized, new development/construction, distressed and those in the process of repositioning/renovating. Among Matt’s many strengths is that of being a problem solver. He is the “go-to” person when there is an issue that appears to be unsolvable. His current responsibilities for Paradigm Management Company include direct oversight of the day-to-day service operations of a 500+ unit high-rise while also providing technical consulting, oversight and mentoring for the entire Paradigm portfolio.

Audio Transcript

Glennis Markison
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. Today, our guest is Matt Johnson, senior level maintenance supervisor at Paradigm Management Company. With over 25 years of experience in multifamily housing, property management and construction across new developments and distress properties, Matt is considered the go-to person when a maintenance problem appears to be unsolvable. Today on Voices, Matt joins us to discuss the ways daily maintenance has changed since the COVID-19 outbreak, and how to handle the biggest problems teams now face. Welcome to Voices, Matt. Thanks so much for joining us.

Matt Johnson
Hello. Thank you for having me.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, we're really glad to. I would just love to have you set the stage a bit. So if you wouldn't mind discussing and describing a typical day in maintenance at Paradigm before COVID, and then paint the picture of how a day looks today for your team. So what you're prioritizing, how you're entering units? I think that'd be a really helpful comparison.

Matt Johnson
Well typically we have whichever staff, the size of the staff that we have on each particular property is what it is. And we'll divide the team up to do apartment turnovers because, hey, we have vacants, we need to turn them, get them ready for people to move in, and then work orders as needed, or as, we try to do 24-hour turnaround on all the work orders, if at all possible. So we pulled from the turn crew to put on work orders or vice versa, depending on what the need of the day is. And then we no longer have in-house housekeeping reporters. We started contracting that out a couple years ago, and it works well for us. So we have a third party contractor that does our housekeeping services, and they also do the cleaning on the turns. So it's just a juggling act to re-prioritize for what's important that particular day, and it changes everyday and sometimes two or three times a day, depending on the need. So that's a pretty typical day on just about any property, whether it be Paradigm or anybody else, and now we still prioritize those things. We still try to get the work done in a reasonable amount of time while still protecting the safety of the employees and the staff. It actually has to go face-to-face with the resident or in their home, and we're seeing a downturn on turns. Obviously we don't get the traffic through the office and the move-in dates, as we were getting in months past, to fill the vacancies that we have, so that's becoming an issue. Now, we have a little bit more time and we're focusing on building infrastructure, light fixtures, upgrades, major projects, small projects that have been delayed because of other priorities that were at the time.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, and how is that looking in terms of the things you've had to close and the way you've had to approach high touch areas? I mean, I don't doubt if you could describe the many areas that are considered high touch and how you've handled those post-outbreak. I think it would be interesting to see how you're setting those priorities.

Matt Johnson
Well in general, we have multiple properties in the portfolio, but I'll speak to the one that is my primary focus. I've got one building in Alexandria that is 505 units, 24 stories tall, and I think somewhere on upwards of 800,000 square feet, give or take, under one roof. And the housekeeping staff, which like I said, is a third party contract, and some of my staff, spend the bulk of their day doing nothing but cleaning high touch surfaces: door knobs, door handles, trash chute doors, that kind of thing. Give or take, we're trying to maintain cleaning about 200 points of contact every two hours, just to keep it sanitized, and at least try to keep whatever bugs might be on the door handles and the touch surfaces clean. As far as amenity spaces, we closed all those down a few weeks ago, about the same time that President Trump issued his social distancing, and then the state governor started mandating business closures and facility closures all over the place. So luckily, we've been without the fitness center. From a maintenance standpoint, it's good because we don't have to put the extra time and materials that we don't have into cleaning thousands of surfaces on a very large fitness center, and business center, and club room, and all the other amenities spaces that we have in the building. And, that's pretty much it. We just have certain amount of people that do their day-to-day work, and then everybody else is cleaning.

Glennis Markison
Yeah. I mean, that's so amazing to have to hit 200 touch points, you know, in a few hours. So I'm curious, and you're really not alone in this fight between hospitals and apartment complexes, how are you navigating vendors and sourcing supplies? I mean, that is such a hurdle, I would imagine. So can you weigh in on anything you've learned that would be of use to other people and how to get these things?

Matt Johnson
Be creative. Honestly, we're not necessarily navigating vendors. We're still using the same vendors and trying to check outside of our normal circle of vendors. But the reality is that nobody has the product. If you need hand sanitizer, you're not going to get it. If you need antiseptic or regular sanitizers to clean surfaces with, you're probably not gonna find it. I've gone through third party vendors that we don't typically use and purchased some off-brand cleaning supplies, which are viable for viruses and bacteria and that kind of thing, and we've just had to use those. And then as far as hand sanitizer, basically, we were told to purchase what we can a couple weeks ago and there was nothing really available. So we had to get creative and buy hand sanitizer in general. And the refills don't fit our dispensers, so we get creative and refill the bottles that do fit with the hand sanitizer from a third party company. But at the current rate of use and theft, I'd say we probably have about two weeks before we're out, and we can't get resupplied because nobody has it. It's just kind of the world we're living in currently.

Glennis Markison
Yeah. No, I mean, that takes a lot of just mental effort to figure out all those hurdles and to tell people. And so I'm wondering, how are you talking to people right now between the third party housekeepers and then the maintenance staff? Can you recommend, I mean, is it phone calls? Is it emails, daily meetings? How are you getting everybody on the same page? Because this is a lot of stuff to communicate to a lot of people.

Matt Johnson
We have a daily meeting, or at least I do. It's just kind of the way I work things with my staff, is we have a daily meeting in the morning, set goals, and send everybody off to do their thing. But we also have two-way radios, so if something pops up, we can always re-divert somebody without actually having to track them down. You know, like I said, we have 800,000 square feet here so we could be anywhere, and two-way radios is an easy way to call and re-divert an employee or a staff member to do something because somebody spilled something here, or somebody coughed on a door there, or whatever the case may be. And then the office staff also has radios so that they can communicate with us, since they are the front line of contact for most of the residents. So if anything pops up, we're usually within communication.

Glennis Markison
That's good. Yeah, and how have you seen collaboration within different teams at Paradigm that maybe you didn't before? I mean, I'm curious, you must be hearing a lot from legal and from the front desk. Can you talk about that collaborating among, even, leaders?

Matt Johnson
Most of the stuff is designated from or dictated through corporate, and we have a little bit of input, but ultimately, the guidelines come from them. So a couple weeks ago, when things started to break rough, the corporate office got together and we had a few telephone conversations back and forth and emails back and forth, and they came off the guideline about basically scaling back on work orders and turns and other services that we offer, in an effort to A) maintain the property and the asset and B) protect our people from possible exposure. Other than that, we haven't really had to communicate much. It's typically on an as-needed basis. If something pops up, we'll make a phone call or send an email, and we'll come up with a decision to move on. Most of the main supervisors, at least in this company, and the property managers themselves, have enough autonomy to make a decision on their own, and the one good thing about working for Paradigm over the years is they typically will back up what you decide as long as there's a logic behind it. So that makes life a lot easier in cases like this, where you typically have to make a decision quickly. You don't have time to wait for 16 people to weigh in, and they'll usually go with the most logical choice of a decision, so it makes life a little easier.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, no, that's good. And can you describe some of the policies, in terms of if a maintenance tech gets sick, or if there's information that someone in a unit is sick? How are you kind of diving into these safety issues where you're just on the ground telling your crews, you're advising them about maybe do or do not come into this apartment? And then also, just on a workplace policy level, what are some of these protections that you've really been proud to see in case someone is out for two weeks, etcetera?

Matt Johnson
As far as the leave policy, that was dictated through our HR department, and I really don't know all the ins and outs of it, but we're fully staffed. We're designated essential by DHS a couple weeks ago, so we're all at work, we're all getting paid, and then there is sick leave available if somebody does get sick, and they're gonna be out for two weeks, plain and simple. I have not had that on site here, and I don't believe that anywhere, other assets, have had employees sick yet. It's expected at some point. I think the DC metro area, which is where we're located was 12,000 people infected as of this morning, and they're expecting that to grow. So it's probably a matter of time before some more people start to get ill. And the reality is that they will have two weeks off to take care of themselves and get healthy again. And well, people that remain, will cover the gap and we'll scale back on work orders and other services that we provide. Right now, we have the opportunity to not do things that are not considered an emergency. That is, our only requirement is to do the emergency work orders. We're trying to do as much as possible within reason because the reality is, the maintenance staff on this property and every other property in anybody's portfolio are the ones that see the residents on a day-to-day basis. We're the ones that retain the residents when it comes time for renewal, so we try to provide the service in a professional manner and make them happy. That's pretty much our job. So unless we have reason to not, we're gonna continue to do that. And like I said, we have the right to refuse service. If somebody's in their apartment sick and we know it, we won't go on. We'll tell them, you know, we can't help you today, let us know when you get better. Or if it's actually an emergency, then we'll put on gloves and masks, and ask them to step back and go somewhere else, and we'll do what we have to do. And then when we're finished, we dump the gloves, dump the masks, sanitize our hands, and Lysol our uniforms, and move on to the next job.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, I mean, you talked very frankly about the reality is, so the reality is you guys are essential and you're there to show up every day. But I don't doubt there's some nervousness around that and some anxiety among either the person who's the tech or maybe their family for them. So how are you building a healthy work culture around this? I mean, you obviously sound like you know how to get a mission-critical thing done. And how are you making sure people feel comfortable and motivated as they do it?

Matt Johnson
Honestly, I'm not doing anything different than normal. Some people may call it old fashioned or a different leadership style, but I work off the premise that you lead to people all the time. And when things get crazy, they will follow anyway, because that is, it's more of a root behavior than anything. But the trust and confidence has to be built prior to something going crazy. So the trust and confidence is built, they trust me, and they know that I'm here to protect them and also lead them. And as a result, I don't really have to do much other than say, "Be careful, do this, and go get this done for me", and they will. So the upside of that is, is that if you are leading ahead of time, when disaster comes, you don't have to second guess and worry who's gonna show up, who's not gonna show up, and most of their anxieties and fears, even if they are nervous, which, you know, we have some people that are nervous and anxious, but they trust that I have their best interests at heart, and it seems to work well for us.

Glennis Markison
Yeah. Can you talk a little bit more about how you built that trust? I know that there is a big turnover issue, not just in maintenance, but other parts of multifamily because you have such concrete skills that you could go anywhere if a boss hurt your feelings or if the boss didn't give you a chance to promote yourself, etcetera. So, how do you think you knew to do that? I mean, you've been 25 years in this business, but how do you think you are building trust ahead of a crisis where people know you're the guy to follow?

Matt Johnson
Some of it is confidence. I think confidence and knowledge, and the job itself goes a long way. It's something that's learned over a lifetime of experience, not necessarily something that you can teach right away, but basically character and integrity. I'm not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I do try to always have character and integrity, and treat my employees as if they are important. And they are important to me and to the organization as a whole. And you treat people like people, like human beings and that they have value and they are important to you. It means a lot more to most of them than just the occasional pat on the back, "Yeah, thanks. Whatever", it's a lifestyle or no, it's not a management tactic. It's a leadership ability. Either you have it, you grew up with it, or you don't.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, I mean, does some of it involve, do you think, working at the range of properties you did? You were in new developments. You were in distress communities. I mean, facing high pressure in totally different environments, do you feel like you're harnessing some of that now in this crisis? And I'm just curious how your background plays in, because you have quite a varied background.

Matt Johnson
That speaks more towards the experience and the knowledge base for how to fix this or how to repair that and being able to explain that process to an employee or subordinate or coworker, for that matter. That experience goes towards the knowledge base. But the leadership ability, if you can consider that a thing, honestly probably came from growing up. I grew up with a military background. I've never actually served a day in my life, but I could argue the point that I spent 18 years of my life in the Navy. My father was a Navy when I was born. He was a Navy when I left the house, and he led people. And it's more of a "watch this behavior and repeat it" and hey, that works, so you continue to do it. So, it's kind of a hard thing to explain. I'm a big fan of quotes from famous people throughout history. There was one, "Leadership is solving problems. When people stop bringing you their problems is the day they've lost confidence in you." And either way, your leadership ability is over. So as long as they have confidence in you that you're there to protect them, they will do anything you ask them to do, and that's very important on a day-to-day basis, and it actually has transferred into emergency management, if you want to refer to this situation as emergency management, the people will follow.

Glennis Markison
And what if there is a moment where they just brought something in from their outside world? The stress, the negativity, the worry, etcetera, and you have a conflict with the guy or you see two people in your team have a conflict. That is, just case specific. They're nervous, they're stressed. Now, what is some of the recommendations you can kind of have around, "Hey, this went down and this was not totally positive as an exchange, but this is how we heal from it. This is how we go forward"? So are you dealing with a couple, even, disagreements here and there? Do you have a recommendation around how people can get through those and just do that great and essential work that they're supposed to?

Matt Johnson
No, typically I'll separate and distract, and I'll talk with the individual on an individual basis or both individuals separately, just to reassure them that hey, everything's cool. We're great, everything's wonderful. And, you know, I'm here to listen if you have a problem, because the reality is that as people that lead other people, we don't just deal with the work issues. We have to deal with the individual, and the individual is a sum of work and personal life, and it's very similar to parenting, in that aspect. You have to be dedicated to that employee's well-being, regardless if it's solely professional or sometimes a personal nature. So, their mental health is important and you try to allay the anxiety and say, "Look, I know you're upset. You're scared. You're worried. Take a step back, cool off. I'll give you something to do where you can go not be around other people, or to try and allay some of that anxiety, and we'll regroup later." You have to take it into account. There's just no one solution for everything.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, I know. I think that's really remarkable. And I wonder, too, how humor is playing into this. I mean, I imagine the kind of mind who can repair so many different things, who could be kind to people who are nervous as a resident, etcetera, or a front desk person who has this kind of emergent thing they want handled, whether it's Corona or not, how does humor play into your work? I mean, I imagine it has to, right?

Matt Johnson
Well, yes it does. I don't know if you ever listen to Jimmy Buffet, but "If you can't laugh, you just go insane"? That quote actually plays a big part in my day-to-day life. Me, personally, I complain. I complain about anything and everything. It's just my nature, that's what I do. That's a stress relief for me. Sarcasm and humor falls in that as well. With military personnel, it's not unusual to have a lot of gallows humor or some dark sarcasm. It's not really politically correct anymore in the common workplace, so you can't permit a lot of it. But just joking and goofing off for five minutes here and 10 minutes there or whatever, just to decompress and blow off steam is an important morale booster for anybody, especially in the maintenance field. I don't deal a lot with the leasing or the office staff for corporate level people, but maintenance people are an interesting breed. If you get somebody that's good at repairing things, that has the mental capacity and the mechanical ability to repair things and be good at that, and understand how things work, typically, we are not the most personable people in the world. We're kind of anti-social, we do our own thing. Our brains just are wired differently. It's kind of a left brain, right brain type of thing. And as such, we have a dark sense of humor. Most of the people, myself included and others, have a little bit of a warped sense of humor. But that just relieves the stress of the day, and I believe that to be true of first responders. Firemen, EMT's, police officers, doctors, nurses, everybody that's dealing with this currently, even in their normal day-to-day thing, they just have a warped sense of humor because that's how they get through the day. The reality is, we have a job to do, regardless of our safety. We're gonna maintain and do it.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, and talk to me about this job you're doing now. It's a very day-to-day, everything's changing, you're being pulled in different directions, you're probably on the walkie-talkie more than ever, what are you seeing, what are you thinking multifamily will look like after the outbreak? I mean, you're just on an operations level, I'm curious how you're going to change your work priorities and get what "back to normal" looks like. But I'm also curious if you think anything will change about collaboration or leadership or technology. So, really getting into these big picture changes of what you think the industry may look like in three months or whatever it is, I'm very curious about.

Matt Johnson
I think that on one side of it, the corporate level, or what we normally refer to as management, and the maintenance side, it's all one large company or one large organization. But the reality is that we operate in different manners because we have different personalities and different types of people doing the job. But we will probably end up somehow bridging the gap and working closer together, especially when it comes to emergency preparedness. Because the reality is that you can say, hey, go buy two cases of hand sanitizer, but that doesn't make it so. It takes somebody to come up with a solution, and it's not always an easy solution. It's not always possible, so things have to be planned out ahead of time. You can't just, at the last minute, step up because, hey, there's no toilet paper anymore. So I think that would be one thing. Also the guys that are in our industry that have experience with mold or mildew remediation or asbestos remediation, probably have a little bit of knowledge on it, but the reality is that dawning personal protective equipment and then doffing it when you're finished is a skill in and of itself that most of us do not have. And just because you put on gloves doesn't mean that you're protected. You put on the gloves, use them correctly, remove them correctly, and then follow certain procedures. So I think the concept of industrial hygiene that you typically don't see in most industries and is more of a specialized thing, will become more prevalent in multifamily industry. We need to be able to put on personal protective equipment and use it correctly. There will be certifications, there'll be classes, whether they be online or in-person, something along those lines. I think ensuring that our people know how to protect themselves is more important than actually providing the materials and the equipment to do it, which, you know, the materials and equipment is nonexistent at this point. So we've got to get creative and make masks, and use dishwashing gloves, and some other odds and ends just to make it work.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, and I'm curious, on a recruitment level, I mean, so many people are losing jobs. They were used to and they were so fundamental to how they could care for their families and how they could function and have their own rent paid. Do you see that there might be an impulse? If this kind of role you serve as so essential in maintenance is marketed correctly, or if the onboarding stuff works, are you hopeful that there might be a new crop of people who could really think that the tinkering they did in a mechanic shop or elsewhere, that that would be of great use in maintenance and in multifamily? What do you think about the next generation of people that might go into this work? I mean, how do you find them?

Matt Johnson
I think that's a novel thought. Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs, if you're familiar, started an organization a few years back that basically promotes trade schools, and I personally think it's a great idea and would be helpful to not only our industry, but lots of industries that provide service and blue collar styled work. But having said that, there's a cultural shift that would have to occur for that to happen. And you're right, there are a lot of people that are currently unemployed, and when this is over, they may find jobs, they may not find jobs. But the reality is that most people that are coming out of school in the last, I don't know, 10, 20, maybe even 30 years, are more focused on getting a college education, which is great, and getting a job that pays well, that you basically get to sit behind a computer. Because technology is all the rage nowadays, the service and trades are hurting as a result, and getting skilled people in the door, it doesn't happen very easily. It's very hard to find people that 1) are willing to do the job, but 2) also have the ability to do it. So I think that if what you describe comes about, then there's gonna be a reeducation that needs to happen because the tinkering is great. It might mean you enjoy it, it doesn't mean that you're qualified or you're skilled enough to do it. I mean, hanging a picture in your house and repairing a leaky faucet, great. That's the bare minimums off what we need, and there's a learning curve that would have to happen. Now having said that, I'm willing to take anybody that has a mechanical aptitude that wants to learn it, that's looking to make this a career, or at least a long term prospect of employment, because I mean, finding good people is paramount to keeping the business afloat.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, and I really would love to end this on a positive note, too, because we've touched on what the future might look like. What have you been really proud of, or what's made you laugh, or what's been a moment where you gotta just yell out the praise for somebody in this crisis where your team showed up and they did it and they did even better than you expected. I mean, I'd love to have a couple moments of light, because this has been a dark time, and so I'd like to know what's really moved you lately.

Matt Johnson
I haven't had to call any of my team and ask them where they are, why they're not at work. They show up early, they leave late. No problems, no questions, no issues. I mean, it's great. Typically, on our normal day-to-day, we got people that run late, "Oh, I called in sick". No, that's not, it really hasn't been an issue. But you know, as far as the thing that makes me kind of chuckle, and this is more of a personal thing than professional, but my mother, when I was a child, forced me to learn how to sew. Great, that's a good skill. 35 years later, I haven't needed that skill whatsoever. Now I'm sewing masks because we can't find personal protective equipment. We can't find dust masks, N95 masks, any kind of masks. So, you know, we're making masks for those who need them, because the couple that we did have in stock are getting worn out. So, yay mom. You know, that's kind of the funny thing that made me chuckle the other day.

Glennis Markison
Oh, that's wonderful, really wonderful. I mean, I just have to thank you so much, Matt, for being here and sharing these on-the-ground insights. I mean, it's great to feature you on Voices. I appreciate you taking the time.  

Matt Johnson
Well, thank you for having me. Anytime.  

Glennis Markison
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 assure the voices of multifamily.

Our Host

Glennis Markison

Glennis is a writer/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 a content producer at HappyCo, she’s excited to highlight diverse voices and share stories from within the Multifamily industry.

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