July 27, 2020

Nick Hecox: Facing Turnover? Give Techs a Voice

Chronic turnover plus a global pandemic? With multifamily maintenance teams under more stress than ever, now is the time to change culture for the better. Nick Hecox, Maintenance Director at Al Angelo, breaks down best practices for meaningful training, conscientious feedback, tech adoption and more.

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Nick Hecox has been in the Property Management industry for 15 years, beginning as a Maintenance Technician and eventually advancing into his current role as Director of Maintenance. Nick currently oversees a maintenance division responsible for maintaining more than 2100 residential units and 800K sq/ft of commercial/office space, including capital improvements and new construction.

Audio Transcript

Nick Hecox 0:00
I think that's why we put so much focus on our entry level hires because we really look at when we hire a porter, literally one of the things we consider is, could you see this person being a maintenance supervisor someday?

Glennis Markison 0:19
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. And this season of voices will feature industry leaders who are actively embracing change. Today on Voices, our guest is Nick Hecox, Maintenance Director at the Al Angelo company. Nick has been in the property management industry for 15 years, beginning as a maintenance technician. And eventually advancing into his current role as Director of Maintenance. Nick currently oversees a maintenance division responsible for maintaining more than 2,100 residential units and 800,000 square feet of commercial office space, including capital improvements and new construction. Nick joins us today to discuss valuable ways to embrace change and maintenance culture. He'll explain how maintenance directors can rethink training and feedback, as well as offer strategies to create a collaborative environment where techs are given a voice on software and policy. Welcome to Voices, Nick. Thanks for joining us.

Nick Hecox 1:50
Well, thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be on.

Glennis Markison 1:54
Yeah, we're really glad to feature you and I really think before we explore general maintenance, culture challenges and opportunities, I'm just wondering if you could describe how the current health crisis, how it's changed the nature of day to day maintenance workflow at your properties, really how it's affected techs on the front lines?

Nick Hecox 2:10
Of course, yeah, what a change. For the most part, the biggest change that we felt is that it slowed us down to complete our day to day operations and maintenance. Everything just takes longer now, you know, we, like so many companies in the industry, we've developed a procedure for our PPE, for sanitizing. Oftentimes, those are on very specific schedules, you know, it's just become a lot more involved to complete the day to day tasks that we used to do. So yeah, it's been, it's been quite a change, for sure. Kind of flipped the table of our normal operations.

Glennis Markison 2:51
Yeah. And I'm just curious in such a difficult and busy time, I mean, how have you been working to offer support and really provide guidance so that morale is you know, as high as it can be in these kinds of days?

Nick Hecox 3:01
The biggest thing that I've tried to remain focused on is the team itself. We're asking for lots of input. We really value the team response, you know, in keeping them part of the conversation with our program changes going forward. We've asked for, any concerns that anyone may have, we really want to have an open dialogue with all of the COVID related things that have been coming down the line, we've been sending regular COVID updates to all the staff. I think the big thing there is, we want to make sure that people don't feel out of touch or confused about how we should be responding and reacting. We've been discussing a lot of procedural changes as a group. So before we actually implement those, we generally will talk about them amongst the maintenance teams and and more specifically, amongst maintenance supervisors. So those discussions usually go along the lines of, we recognize a need, we recognize an area we need to change or modify, and I will ask, generally, ask those supervisors as a whole, you know, we should talk it through, we want to ask for feedback, ask for ideas. If I have some ideas, I'll run them by them and ask them, is this something that would be comfortable with you? Do you anticipate hearing concerns about this from your team? And we try to first foresee those issues before they actually go out as a new program or policy.

Glennis Markison 4:36
Yeah, I mean, this sounds so democratic. And I really want to dig into how you started to think this way later on. But I'm curious too, I mean, technology must play into this mix of keeping everybody on the same page. So are there kind of best practices you can advise? How to use technology and really get people in sync when there's just so much to know every day?

Nick Hecox 4:55
Yes, my biggest advice would be always be looking for new and better ways to do things and be ready to embrace change. It just feels like things have sped up, at least to me. It sure feels like the last three months feel almost like a year, right? So you just really need to be willing to make changes, make swift moves, be ready to implement changes quicker than we used to. I think we used to, at least on my end, we used to consider things longer. And in the last several months, it seems like we've been much quicker to see when we see a need when we see we're ready to make a change. We jump on that quicker. The other thing, just being open minded. We're, I think a lot of times, we create our processes and it's kind of like, well, if it isn't broke, don't touch it, let it work. And sometimes we have to remind ourselves that there could be platforms or systems out there that could help us do these things more efficiently or more streamlined. And so we want to just, you know, it's important to always be on the lookout for those things and be open minded.

Glennis Markison 6:07
Yeah, I think that's so helpful for listeners. I mean, this is the time where you could just scream out and say, I want things to be how they used to be, you know, and you're obviously changing course, quite seamlessly. It sounds like, I'm curious, too, I mean, turning to maintenance culture in general. I've heard that there was an experience some years ago, where you faced unexpected turnover. And so if you could go into that, and really, why it inspired you to do some soul searching. I think that'd be fascinating.

Nick Hecox 6:30
Yeah, so this was probably in my career, one of the biggest challenges that I faced but also one of the biggest times to really wake up and force myself to grow. Quite some years ago, we had a summer, we're based in the Pacific Northwest, so in the summertime, that's really our busiest season. You know, any of your outdoor activities are saved up for the summer months when it's dry and up to complete, and so our summers get very busy. And it's always, it's the hardest time of the year to be short staffed and this particular summer for a variety of reasons, each technician had different reasons for leaving us, but we lost five technicians in six weeks out and I really took that as a wake up call. I took it personally that all of these very good technicians, they chose to leave, they chose to leave our group for another group, and I really took it upon myself. I needed to understand why I even reached out to many of them and asked if they would be honest with me and tell us where we could improve. You know, it was really, and when I say I took it personally, I very much did, even thinking back in time on it now. I took those losses personally and I to this day, when people, if they inform us that unfortunately, they're gonna leave our group, I always give attention to understand why. Is it something we could have changed? Is it something we could have done better? And even if that means that we don't have an opportunity to continue working with that person, at least we have an opportunity to grow from the loss and try to understand how we can work better as leaders in our group, and try to make a better work environment for everyone on our teams.

Glennis Markison 8:33
Yeah, I mean, it takes a lot of courage to ask those questions, you know, because it does suggest something about, you know, your own management, which I'm sure you're actively working on as you find this stuff out and do the soul searching. So I'm curious. I mean, what do you think often goes wrong in maintenance team culture, overall? Where managers might be surprised when people leave? Like, what are some common threads, you think?

Nick Hecox 8:54
You know, I think that there are several things. I think that even the feedback in those
situations, it wasn't all the same. Everybody kind of had their own unique perspective of what led to their decision. But oftentimes we heard things like the technician did not feel that they were provided a path for advancement, or at least if there was a path, they didn't feel like it was achievable or it was out of reach for them for one reason or another. Unclear goals is another one. You know, when we, at a site level, the team goals should be very open, honest, clear, with how are we going to get there. It should be a team effort to get to the end, whether that's completing goals, our rate that we try to complete our work orders or service requests in certain timeframes, or maybe that's our timeframes that we're trying to complete our unit turnovers, or our quality control rating sets, whatever those goals are, they need to be very, very clear to the site teams. When they're not clear, that leads to a feeling of unfair criticism. It makes technicians feel like they're not heard. They're not recognized or not appreciated. It ultimately leads to a bad morale. And so it's really important to focus on clear expectations, clear goals.

Glennis Markison 10:25
Yeah, I think that's interesting. I mean, really, because when you, the simple question is, what are we trying to get done? And then it can have so many ripple effects when that question isn't clear. I mean, that's, you know, I can see why that really derails a lot. I mean, I'm curious like from the beginning, from the onboarding and from the training moment, and how would you advise maintenance directors really rethink that from scratch?

Nick Hecox 10:46
Our most successful approaches have been promoting from within. So we spend the most focus on entry level tech hires. We look for positive attitudes to focus on customer service, a can-do spirit. But most importantly, positivity. Whoever you bring in your team, you want them to fit in with what our goals are. The positive attitude for us is the core, we put that first and foremost over the mechanical experience that they have as a technician, Our outlook is that if they have some sort of a mechanical aptitude, and even if that's not direct in our industry experience, you know, maybe they've always enjoyed mechanicing with vehicles or they they build things or whatever that may be, if there's some sort of mechanical aptitude combined with that positive attitude, we can really train the rest. And so then once hired, we pair them with our best. It's important that once they come into the door, they are immediately put into a place where they're with some of our best people for training, so lots of feedback all along the way. The other thing is employee referrals. We've had really good success by focusing on employee referrals. When we have an opening within our company, we try to share that we generally had very good success with our already in-house people. Giving referrals to people that are somebody they know, somehow somebody that they know, that has worked really well for us. And the other thing that I would say is just, I think it's important, we're always planning the next move with our promotable people. Like, always be looking at who's promotable, where are they in their career track with us, and where do they want to be, and focus on that. So you kind of don't wait for something to happen and open up. Be thinking about those things ahead of time.

Glennis Markison 12:55
Yeah, I mean, I think that's so helpful for managers to understand, you know, that that person, and growing under their watch, the person they've trained wants to be encouraged, you know. So from a start, to have them paired with the best I think is so, so useful. I mean, I'm curious too though, when there are moments where you have to give feedback, somebody made a mistake. It's the first week, it's the first day, it's their second year. How do you do that? I mean, it can go so well or so wrong. And so I'd really love to hear about it.

Nick Hecox 13:22
I agree, this is probably the biggest area for things to go wrong because everyone remembers corrective conversations and if done wrong, the damage there can last a long time. And I think I certainly admit that I've made mistakes in this over the years and I've grown. I've read a lot of books and tried to try to figure out the best approaches and in the end, it really is a simple thing. There's something that needs to change and you don't have the power to make the person change. All you can do is point out that issue and help coach them how to change, and the moment you kind of take yourself out of that equation, it becomes so much simpler. Our goal is to kind of point out the obvious, point out what the issue is, and talk with that person, treat them how you would hope to be treated in this similar situation. It doesn't have to be such a negative conversation quite often, you know, I really try to be in these situations as much as possible. Try to be positive and upbeat about it. Outline why you need to have this conversation, what it's impacting on the team or the property, and try to get them to understand why this is important. Because if it's simply a matter of you did this wrong and you can't do that again, there. They may not be as eager to fix it and their focus may be more on being upset with you personally. You really have to focus on getting them to understand why this needs to be fixed and if they can understand what they're impacting and why doing it the way they're doing is impacting it, then they can recognize there is some responsibility here, and it's on me to fix it.

Glennis Markison 15:04
Yeah. I mean, I think that these books have served you really well. I just want to say, I mean, the empathy there is very clear, and I hope listeners really make use of it. I'm curious, too, I mean, relatedly, you know, resolving conflicts, there was probably already the potential for tension among techs when they're all trying to get different things done every day and be on the same page. And now COVID has obviously added anxiety. So how, if you could share some examples of ways that you've really eased tension when there's a bit of a conflict?

Nick Hecox 15:31
Yeah. So, you know, I think there are so many coaching scenarios. They happen all the time, you know, they can be little coaching, they can be big coaching, but I think the most frequent one that I see in our teams is lack of communication or some sort of a communication breakdown, where suddenly there are assumptions instead of communication. And what I usually see is this slowly progresses, you know. It can start as just failure to give an update on something, and pretty soon that failure is, I haven't given an update on it in weeks or months. And I assume that people around me just automatically know. And little do I know that that is creating an issue in the team where people feel that I'm withholding information. You know, there's, there's all these little scenarios that can happen with lack of communication. And it's the biggest reason that I see techs, especially maintenance supervisors fail. I try to catch it early, I try to point out when I see it. We constantly remind supervisors don't let the open communication break down. The second that I would say is probably a lack of, and I touched base on this earlier, a lack of clear expectations. So you know, just again, it really ties back into communication, but kind of assuming that people know what they should be doing. You know, there's no harm in reminding or just being clear. And it could be work requests, it could be turnovers, could be property duties, but when people know what the expectation is, and what the goal is, they're much more likely to achieve it. And if they don't, and then you have to have a coaching or, you know, “hey, what happened?” kind of communication, they're much more likely to be like, well, I didn't know, you know, I assumed it was this way because I didn't know otherwise. So those are kind of just our run-of-the-mill things we run into, but I would say those are probably two of our most common that we see.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, I mean, in terms of that question, you know, that statement. I didn't know there's obviously a need to, I'm sure as techs grow at a job to develop new skills over time, and so I'm curious whether it's adopting technology or whether it's a new kind of repair work they haven't done. How do you make sure that techs have that opportunity to keep growing with their skillset? How do you do it?

Nick Hecox
You know, I would like to think that we hire with focus on the bottom up, and we coach with leadership focus from the top down. So what I mean by that is we really spend time talking with our supervisors about issues or conflicts within their team. And then we ask them, we coach them, and we ask them to fix it. So if, as a supervisor, if you kind of know, well, I can just pass along some of the issues in my team, and somebody else will come in and try to fix it for me, it doesn't push them to grow as leaders. And so our focus more is about coaching them how to resolve problems that they're in, within their team and at their site, and then allowing them to fix it. It builds them and it also gives them the freedom of being able to understand that they're in charge of the future of their team, they can mould, it's how much effort are they going to put in, in order to correct that issue.

Glennis Markison 18:54
Yeah, I think that's wonderful.

Nick Hecox 18:56
And then just focusing on the teams themselves. So just, I try not to, and it's back to the focusing on the leadership, and I try not to intervene unless it's really necessary.

Glennis Markison 19:06
Yeah, I mean, it really gives them a sense of agency. I think the supervisors, to feel like they also have goals to grow as leaders, and they can help really do that with a sense of freedom, I think, too. And I'm wondering, I mean, we obviously dive into the negative here. I mean, what do you think is the importance of recognizing great work to you know, the quick thinking among your techs? Because all these coaching moments, I'm sure there's an opportunity to say you pulled that off and effects I mean, I'm curious, just the reason you think it's so valuable to give a compliment.

Nick Hecox 19:36
I think it's very, very important. You know, everyone, it's just human nature. We all want to feel recognized for our hard efforts. And so you can't skip over the good jobs. This doesn't have to even necessarily always be money, items. You know, it doesn't have to always be related to money. This can be a lot of just sharing the accomplishments. So when a specific team does really good, whether it could be anything, they just met a goal or maybe they found a process that saves the company money, or it could be anything. Those things should be shared, you know, I think that while a lot of times people don't want to acknowledge the recognition personally, it's still appreciated, it still is appreciated when you share accomplishments of a team. It makes them feel good, and it should, you know, they accomplished something. So the other thing is, I would say we don't, we want to focus on the team. It's important to not take positive recognition yourself as the leader. I think that you need to be quick to recognize when we could have done better as a leader you know, and recognize that yourself in that way where it's like, hey guys, I could have done better on this and I'll do it better next time. But when it comes time to pay, you know, we did great, it's more about the team did great. You know, it's not I, it's the whole group that accomplished it. So I think it's just important to recognize the whole group.

Glennis Markison 21:09
Yeah. I mean, I think that's really part of the collaborative spirit. You've really inserted into Al Angelo. And I'm curious, I mean, I've, we've spoken briefly about it, but just the way that you give techs a voice when it comes to feedback on software, when it comes to even standard operating procedures, could you touch on why that kind of collaborative side of your culture is so valuable and important?

Nick Hecox 21:29
Yeah, definitely. Well, I mean, you've probably gathered by now, I just think it's so important to listen. I feel that if we think we know better, then we stand a big chance, bigger risk of failing. You have to listen to them. I feel that, you know, you respect the group enough to place them in their roles. So we can't forget that we should be listening and really, we're just kind of steering the direction, but they're the team.

Glennis Markison 21:58
Yeah, no, I think that's really about, and then you touched on this earlier, you talked about promoting from within. But can you say why that's so important for techs to see, you know, even if it's their friend, and maybe they're jealous for a minute or two, why they know that it's possible for them to also grow? And just, again, why you think that's a really critical piece of the culture at Al Angelo?

Nick Hecox 22:18
Well yeah, you know, we have most of our supervisors, or at least a good portion of them, started as technicians or even porters. So, you know, through promoting the beyond site teams, they have watched their peers ascend within our company. I think that you know, they share that with the other new hires, they talk about it. I've heard it said before, where you know, hey, if you work hard, you do a good job, you can be a supervisor here. You can grow, that builds confidence in new hires. It also is really helpful because as people grow within your company and go to new, bigger roles, they're familiar already with your policies and your procedures. It's such a simple, smoother transition than hiring from outside and spending. It can take weeks or longer to make a new hire from outside comfortable with your policies and manuals. And there's often just so much to learn. It just takes time. And so you kind of skip a step. So yeah, no, you've probably gathered, I really love the idea of promoting from within. It's exciting. It's fun. It's just positive. And I think that's why we put so much focus on our entry level hires, because we really look at when we hire a porter, literally one of the things we consider is, could you see this person being a maintenance supervisor someday? I mean, that's how we look at it. So it's a big part of what we do.

Glennis Markison 23:41
Yeah, and I would love to end on an especially positive note and just ask you, what are some of the positive moments you can describe during this health crisis that have made you really convinced that you've done the right thing, the way you've trained techs across Al Angelo?

Nick Hecox 23:54
You know, it's really been a pleasant surprise to me how smooth we, our group, has moved right over into this new world of all of these COVID procedures. You know, there's a lot of concerns out there, there's a lot of concerns with regard to our technicians’ safety, or tenant safety. It's really been a positive experience in a way, because it's shown that we through the foundation, is that we have with these things, we've been able to work through these changes and these difficulties and kind of just flow with it. So it's been really nice to watch. I truly feel like it's just a team camaraderie mix. It comes back to just, I'm proud to be a part of it.

Glennis Markison 24:43
Yeah, I mean, I so appreciate your sharing all these insights about work culture. I mean, it's something that happens every day, but people don't always think about their role in it, you know, and especially their role to change it. So I just really want to thank you for being here, Nick.

Nick Hecox
Hey, thank you very much for having me.

Glennis Markison 25:03
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 favourite 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.

Our Host

Glennis Markison

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.