December 14, 2020

Owen Fleming: Supporting Techs Through COVID

With COVID-19 cases ramping up this winter, what does it take to manage techs compassionately? HNN Communities Maintenance & Capital Projects Manager Owen Fleming shares his path to multifamily management — and how it's helped him craft best practices for software choices and HR programs in the current crisis.

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Owen Fleming has more than 23 years of multifamily housing experience with diverse projects including new construction, acquisitions, dispositions and extensive asset rehabilitation and renovation. He is currently the Maintenance & Capital Projects Manager at HNN Communities. Owen is a knowledgeable leader in all facets of residential and commercial building including construction management, environmental oversight and project supervision. He is also well versed in business risk mitigation and operational functions involving budgeting, contract negotiation, bid analysis, vendor management, code compliance, and workplace safety.

Audio Transcript

Owen Fleming 0:00
We're not going to cut their paycheck. So if an employee was suddenly cut to 20 hours a week, they would still make their 40 hour paycheck every week. And that relieves a lot of people's tension that hey, I'm actually going to be okay.

Glennis Markison 0:23
Hi, I'm Glennis Markison from HappyCo. Welcome to Voices where we feature fresh perspectives in multifamily. The industry is now facing a fundamental shift in workplace dynamics, resident experience and business operations. In season two, Voices will feature multifamily leaders who are actively embracing change. Our guest today is Owen Fleming maintenance and capital projects manager at hm and communities based in Bellevue, Washington, and has more than 23 years of work experience in multifamily housing, from acquisitions and renovations to new construction and environmental oversight. Today on Voices, he'll share strategies on advancing in the industry, embracing technology to solve problems, and managing maintenance teams, especially during a crisis like COVID-19. Thanks for joining us.

Owen Fleming 1:13
Thank you for having me.

Glennis Markison 1:14
Yeah, I wanted to start by learning just a little bit about your background and multifamily. I mean, I understand you actually have a family connection to the business. So, I'm kind of curious how that shaped your curiosity about the industry?

Owen Fleming 1:25
Yeah, I do. My parents got into multifamily. I guess I was maybe single digits in age at the time, didn't pay much attention to it. It was just what they did for a living. And typically, they lived on site, smaller sites at that time. This was the late 80s. So I guess I grew up around it.

Glennis Markison 1:47
Yeah. I mean, were you helping them turn units or anything? Did it really get kind of hands on that way?

Owen Fleming 1:51
I do remember it a couple times on the weekends, where we would maybe go in and paint a unit or I'd watch him fix something in a vacant unit. And it was just wasn't so much of a job at that point. It was just something that they did.

Glennis Markison 2:09
Yeah. And did they teach you things about managing people? I mean, I imagine these were interesting. dinnertime conversations.

Owen Fleming 2:15
Oh, absolutely. I think, for me, it was just the normal dinnertime talk. So I didn't think anything else of it. I did absorb the information. In retrospect.

Glennis Markison 2:28
Yeah. I mean, do you remember them saying things about conflicts they had to help solve or just the way you kind of encourage somebody to who really may not know what they're doing in the beginning?

Owen Fleming 2:37
Oh, yeah, behind closed doors, or there was always a conflict. You know, I can't believe that this person feels this way or would do that. But there was also a lot of mentorship about how they can help people and encourage people to grow.

Glennis Markison 2:51
Yeah, we're gonna get to growth in the industry. I mean, I'm curious At first, I mean, how did you take an interest in the operation side of multifamily? Was that were you learning anything about that in high school or college? No, I

Owen Fleming 3:02
wasn't, I actually went to school for an entirely different career. I was going into multimedia development, and my high school and early college was centred around that photography, film, audio production, and and website. So for me getting in the multifamily was just a way to pay the bills and save up money for college.

Glennis Markison 3:27
Yeah, I mean, when working with your hands, so did that kind of tinkering. Do you think it's now helping you that kind of experimentation with machines and wiring and everything?

Owen Fleming 3:36
Definitely. I've always had a kind of a natural knack around, repairing things, and understanding how how physical devices work and are put together. So that that definitely played into it a little bit. But like I said, it wasn't what I was planning to do for a career. Mm hmm.

Glennis Markison 3:55
But I understand that once you started, I mean, you you made a career pretty quickly out of it, and that you advanced quickly. So I'm just kind of curious for anyone listening, how do you think that you prove that you were so capable to managers, hard work,

Owen Fleming 4:09
come in every day, work your shift, and then go out of the way notice things and take care of them without being asked to put the time and dedication in?

Glennis Markison 4:19
Yeah. What does that look like? I mean, can you name some times where you really thought you kind of actively made a sacrifice, and you just knew it was the right thing to do? Even if it was not the most convenient thing to do?

Owen Fleming 4:28
Why go back? 23 years here? Yeah. You know, as a groundskeeper, I would notice things going on in the outside of the property. And even though during those days, the groundskeeper they were just in charge of grounds. I would notice things in the maintenance department and ask what I could do to either learn how to do that myself and take stress off the maintenance crew or, or it was something I knew how to do. I just take the initiative and get it done.

Glennis Markison 4:57
And it did that always work with managers. I mean, did they sometimes I'm saying this guy's a little too hungry. I don't know if I like that he's maybe looking for my role, or did you feel you really had a positive influence from above? No,

Owen Fleming 5:09
I've been lucky. I've always had really positive influences from above that they've encouraged that growth and, and actually reward initiative.

Glennis Markison 5:18
Yeah, that's great. No, it's great.

Owen Fleming 5:19
I have seen it. Yeah, I've seen it in the industry, where were some people can feel threatened.

Glennis Markison 5:25
Yeah, I mean, I definitely want to get to that later how you're managing people. But I'm curious too, along your growth path, you were really evidently pushing for the next best thing always in technology. So I'd love to know more about maybe that's from your high school and college experience. But why you felt technology could be a real game changer in multifamily. And if you also sense that not all of your colleagues were necessarily on the same page.

Owen Fleming 5:49
Yeah, I guess maybe. I've always been interested in technology from from a young kid. But I guess that may be a takeaway from my schooling as well, where in multimedia and and production and website design, you're always kind of designing for the next thing that comes out. It's not a stagnant industry by any means.

Glennis Markison 6:11
Yeah, that's fascinating. I mean, did you see that? As you said, Hey, we should we try the software? Do you think this will actually save us time that, that everybody was always on the same page? Or can you just describe some of that either tension or acceptance of your ideas that way to push for tech?

Owen Fleming 6:26
Yeah, not everybody was always on the same page. There's very much a, this is how we've always done it. So why can't we continue doing it this way? mentality, even today, and sometimes that takes a little bit to break through. But usually, once you teach the background and give them the understanding of why the change is necessary, there, they're accepting of it.

Glennis Markison 6:52
Yeah. Is that the kind of fear that the results won't be as valuable as they were with a manual method? Or is it more that they'll break something? Because that's what I'm curious to when someone resists technology? Like what do you think their main hesitations are?

Owen Fleming 7:06
You know, there is some fear that maybe they'll break something. But the, the primary fear that I've always encountered is fear of the technology itself. It's, it's just an unknown thing that they haven't dealt with.

Glennis Markison 7:18
Yeah. And so to ease them into a place of kind of comfort around that, does it? Does it usually feel that showing their results? Is the kind of best way? Or is it maybe more one on one instruction,

Owen Fleming 7:27
I actually use both. Some people respond a lot better to that one on one hands on instruction. And some people, they just have a natural knack to be able to dive in and play around with it. Kind of this no fear attitude. Yeah.

Glennis Markison 7:42
And I'm curious if we could get in a before and after kind of picture. If you look at something like work orders, can you describe the kind of hurdles that you face, doing it in a manual style, and then having picked up a technology solution, just really how that's changed. So

Owen Fleming 7:55
for sure, just recently, we switched over to tasks. And prior to that, we were doing handprinted, work orders through yardie, which it worked, but it was bulky, the office would be involved, they'd have to print out copies of the work order. And if there was any sort of a change after the initial print was created, they would have to find that work order. And good luck, if it's already in the field. If it's in the field, or they're creating a second work order for the same unit, and and make those changes, make sure everybody's up to date, and it took a lot of time. And sometimes work orders Get lost. You just don't know where they've gone.

Glennis Markison 8:34
Right? And what what about the transparency at that point? I mean, there's this does that you can't see something and then you kind of aggress on somebody or you ask questions like what is that lack of oversight? Maybe due for the culture side of things? Oh, it's hard.

Owen Fleming 8:48
Yeah, you you have to do weekly audits, or sometimes daily audits, depending on the size of the property and how much how much work order load that comes in. And then you've got to go through your bins every morning, we've got a large property that deals sometimes 6070 work orders a day, and they were taking an hour and a half every morning just to to audit the prior days work orders, make sure there was no reprints make sure that everybody had their, their assigned duties for the day. And, and keep track of everything. And then on top of that, they have to look at what they have printed out and compare it to what's on the computer. And if something's not printed out, then they have to print that out and figure out who didn't do their job.

Glennis Markison 9:34
Right. And I imagine I mean, with tasks are you now saving time or kind of easing the scheduling process in ways you just really couldn't before? I mean, I'm Imagine you're able to spend time very differently.

Owen Fleming 9:45
Yeah, tasks has been an absolute lifesaver, that that large property I mentioned we, we were using tasks for I think four hours before they reached out to me and thanked me for how much time it took

Glennis Markison 10:00
Wow, no, that's amazing. I mean, I'm curious, especially in a COVID era where we find ourselves how is how important is it to have data you can actually trust with so many other things changing? What does it feel like this is really especially the time that you can trust the reports you're looking at?

Unknown Speaker 10:15
Well, it's absolutely invaluable. Especially in COVID, we, we can log on. And right now, in COVID, we've got for the protection of our staffs. Some measures in place where we're not completing all work orders, if it's not a high priority, if it's something that can wait, we're putting it on hold status. But it gives us a dashboard where we can see portfolio wide what's on hold, what's still being completed, and, and how quickly the staff is responding to those urgent or priority requests.

Glennis Markison 10:49
Yeah, and were some of these I mean, you have to name names, but were some of these supervisors, perhaps a bit sceptical at first, and perhaps during COVID, you're seeing people say, you know what, this is actually the thing we need right now or you still you've got some sceptics in the room,

Owen Fleming 11:03
we still have a couple sceptics in the room, but we're, we're getting through that. And we've got some that dove right in, they love it. And some that maybe took him a couple days of playing around with it. And once they, once they played around with it, and realised that they can assign these tasks from anywhere to anybody. They came back and went, you know what, this was great.

Glennis Markison 11:26
Wow, I bet you feel good as a manager pushing for this. embracing it.

Owen Fleming 11:30
Oh, honestly, I knew it was gonna happen eventually.

Glennis Markison 11:33
Oh, good. Okay. See, that's the confidence that brought you to the voices stage today. I'm also curious, so let's, let's talk management during COVID, kind of in general, if you could just spell out what you feel have been the main challenges from scheduling people on site, keeping them safe. All of those things, what are the kind of biggest challenges you've seen and how you've really worked overcome them in a maintenance specific level?

Owen Fleming 11:57
Well, going back to, I guess, in March, when, when everything first hit, and there, there was a lot of uncertainty in the world at that point, over the virus. And everybody, I think industry wide really struggled as to what the right thing was, for their employees for the residents. And, and yeah, led to a lot of overnight policies being developed and cowichan. And communities handled it was we, we decided to break our teams up a little bit on site for their safety. So by breaking them up, we would work them in shifts, one day on one day off, or, you know, it's up to the portfolio manager for the site. But we split these teams up with the hopes that if one team had a COVID exposure, and they had the quarantine, the second team could step in and still run the property. And we even had a backup plan on top of that, where SR properties were trained in, in the functions of other properties and how to gain access and get keys. I guess, fortunately, on that end, we use technology pretty widely. So every property uses the exact same systems and methods and policies and procedures. So that wasn't too far of a stretch for us to be able to say, hey, if if property a goes offline, and the team has to quarantine property B is going to step and run it.

Glennis Markison 13:29
Wow, that's very coordinated. I mean, in terms of these specific communication platforms you're using, like how does the maintenance tech know when he's working and what to do that day, he's getting emails, he's getting calls, or it's in tasks, like, just the kind of nitty gritty, I think would be helpful for people to hear.

Owen Fleming 13:45
Yeah, all of the above. Every one of our employees has a name based email assigned to them. And they can log in from anywhere and check that so that that's really still our primary communication means company wide for for scheduling, and in person to person communication, that's not urgent, we'll just send an email. So there's documentation on it. But on top of that, we also widely use voice platforms and, and more your face to face meeting platforms that go to connect and zoom and Microsoft Teams, we're, we're not really limiting employees on which platform they, they have to use.

Glennis Markison 14:31
Yeah, but they've been grateful for that. And I'm curious too, I mean, especially with face to face with video, you're able to kind of communicate tone pretty well, like this is my expectation and are there challenges for you to meet it? But a lot of what could be happening with all this tension around the air and COVID is that you're going to have conflicts and so I'm just really curious if you can talk about the way you're helping people with that stress on your your teams and also when something does happen, and there is a bit of a feud, how you're using reaching out and talking to people about it.

Owen Fleming 15:02
Yeah, that's, uh, those technologies I like to speak face to face are incredible. And you're right, they do help with the, with the tone, then email can always communicate. And let's say so it's nice to see people's faces nowadays because a lot of us are working remotely, or we don't get that chance to see our team on a daily basis, like we once did. But yeah, you know, there was a lot of uncertainty in the early days. And you could you can tell you can look at people and tell if they were stressed out, they, they didn't know if the company was going to be okay if there was going to be layoffs and and you're watching the news. And it's just doom and gloom on the news of companies laying off people being sent home and nobody collecting paychecks. And that scares a lot of people. So early on as a leadership team, and we got together with HR and we made the decision that, yeah, we were going to cut, cut people's hours and keep them trying to keep them off site for their safety. But we were not going to cut their paycheck. So if an employee was suddenly CUT TO 20 hours a week, they would still make their 40 hour paycheck every week. And that leaves a lot of people's tension that hey, I'm actually going to be okay.

Glennis Markison 16:23
I'm also curious, just diving into that HR lens on things. I don't know that I've heard a lot about HR and maintenance working very closely in a company and I would love to see that more in multifamily. But why why do you think that this is really proven? A great collaboration between your HR team and your maintenance side at Hnm? Like how did you guys really start talking during COVID to help text on the ground? And beyond the the hours and the pay? What other things has HR done to really improve the the mental space of the people on the front lines?

Owen Fleming 16:54
Yeah, I think there's a stigma around HR, through a lot of companies that they're they're like this big brother oversight. And that's not the case at all. At H&M, HR has always been then highly involved in the development of the employees. And and until recently, they actually acted as a training department for us as well. So they they've always been very hands on.

Glennis Markison 17:26
Yeah. And so when COVID struck, I mean, what did you ask them? And what did they ask you about the needs of people on the front lines? Is I really understand there's at HSN particularly, there's a great, there are health benefits that weren't there before? Can you kind of share some of those? Because I think that that's really novel, and I bet isn't a second wave of COVID would be, I think, reassuring to a lot of people.

Owen Fleming 17:47
Yeah, absolutely. from the get go HR started asking what they can do for the employees. And and we would send out questionnaires, anonymous questionnaires that think every every couple weeks, to the entire company. And they would get the responses back and tally them up. And it was things like what are you most worried about with with your current situation? And all the way down to how are if you have children? How are you dealing with the schools being closed. So they they really through these questionnaires tried to dive into what's what's happening with all of our employees in their, in their work lives and in their their lives away from work and got got a whole bunch of data out of these questionnaires that allowed them to say, Okay, so we're seeing this, this big uncertainty around childcare, and if they have young children at home, how that's going to affect their work schedule. So then they started looking for solutions to these problems. And we're able to approach our health care providers and roll out a additional benefits package that has ultimately called culminated in and childcare assistance and get get some, like 10 days that you can have emergency childcare that's taken care of, and tutoring assistance for, for employees children's.

Glennis Markison 19:23
That's really remarkable. I mean, it does seem it a lot of companies, it's very cut and dry, you work and you give your service and then you get money in return. But you've done a lot at each end and make an employee feel like their whole self is respected and what kind of feedback Are you getting from people who've benefited from all of these new programmes get a really good feedback from them.

Owen Fleming 19:42
They just feel appreciated. And you look outside the industry and there's not a lot of places that are doing this yet. You're right, you you're expected to come in, do your shift and go home and you're going to get a paycheck and return and probably some medical and benefits in a 401k.

Glennis Markison 20:02
So closing up. I mean, I'm curious, it sounds like what you learned about management from your parents and the skills you developed on the ground, your hunger for technology. I mean, that's all really helping you thrive right now. So I'm just kind of curious, since technology clearly isn't going anywhere, what kinds of problems? Are you excited to solve with that going forward?

Owen Fleming 20:21
Yeah, we, we wouldn't have been able to do any of this without technology from from our IT department, setting up managers and leasing agents with the ability to work from home and receive incoming calls on the business lines of home to remote inspections, and remote management and work orders. The technology's really allowed us to stay in the game and stay on top of everything when we haven't been able to physically be on site or go in the units. So it's not going anywhere. it's here to stay. And I think now we, the big challenge is figure out when things return to normal, how we're going to keep implementing this technology into our daily work style while being on site.

Glennis Markison 21:09
Yeah. And does that come up with compliance? Does it come up with kind of sidewalk curb appeal? I mean, I'm curious on the specifics, like you really you have a lot of avenues to go with. I think now that you have the support from people

Owen Fleming 21:21
Yeah, we do. It ties into everything from from leasing to maintenance, curb appeal, compliance, corporate management, everybody being able to get into the same system and see what's going on at any given time is incredible.

Glennis Markison 21:39
Yeah. Oh, and thank you so much for joining me on voices. I mean, this was really a great time to have you and hear about the management and technology mix that you've been really brewing very successfully.

Owen Fleming 21:49
Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

Glennis Markison 21:57
If you'd like to hear from other voices in multifamily or learn how to share your voice, head to voices that 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, prioritising 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.

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