March 29, 2020

Steve Boyack: CEO Insights on the Coronavirus Crisis

How should leaders manage student housing and multifamily communities during the COVID-19 pandemic? Steve Boyack, CEO of CA Management Services, shares on-the-ground insights from every angle: culture and maintenance through communication and technology.

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Audio Transcript

Glennis Markison
Hi, I'm Glen Markison from HappyCo. Welcome to Voices where we feature fresh perspectives from Multifamily. Our guests share their voices on emerging trends, leadership strategies and much more. Today, our guest is Steve Boyack, a CEO of CTA Management Service will be advising operators on how to lead teams during the COVID-19 outbreak from safety and operation strategy to financial concerns and communication tactics. Well, first of all, Steve, thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate it.

Steve Boyack
My pleasure.

Glennis Markison
Yeah. So I would just kind of like to dive right in. I mean, so many people could benefit right now, I think from your leadership expertise. So I think the key right now is what are the biggest challenges that anybody operating rental housing, what are they facing right now with the covert outbreak?

Steve Boyack
You know, I think it's just an unprecedented event. So people are being called upon to put together plans and plans of action that are just atypical to their day-to-day. And so, you know, the highest degrees of communication and, contact with field staff so that they feel supported and have you know a good structure so that much of the decision making is out of their hands as possible, not necessarily because they're not capable, it's just because they're gonna be dealing with so many people and situations that to have decisions at the ready for them is critical.

Glennis Markison
And so would you say, with student housing that there are particular challenges that may be distinct from traditional Multifamily or senior housing right now?

Steve Boyack
Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think I'm a student housing side, one of the biggest challenges with this particular outbreak is just the concept that the people in that age range are meant to believe that they're gonna live forever. And that this you know, that this illness or disease is not looking for them and absolutely their wrong.

Glennis Markison
Yeah. And how has kind of university closures nationwide, how have those affected just the ability to operate student housing?

Steve Boyack
No. You have your typical student housing properties that are loose gonna by the bed. And you also have some properties that have been master leased by universities. So the by the bed scenario, you know, the residents themselves make the decisions but when you have a master lease, which we do on a few or properties when the university says it's time to go, then it's certainly time to go and they clean out our properties as well. One of the things that we've noticed is probably about 60% or 70% of students, are picking up and going home. But then you have 30% that are staying in there because they want to, or frankly because they need to. And to a very small degree, we've picked up a little bit of leasing at a few properties because now you have the international students who have been told that they need to clear out of the dorms, and they have nowhere to go, they're not in that position to return to their countries. So they need somewhere to stay.

Glennis Markison
Interesting. And how have just the closures happened with gyms and libraries closing at schools? How are you navigating all of the shared spaces and student housing right now?

Steve Boyack
You know, one of our initial thoughts and planned responses with the universities were indicating that they were about to shut down their study areas, gyms, other common spaces. We thought that we'd get an influx of people you know who no longer could use the university's resources, using ours. And so we started putting limits on the number of people that could congregate in those areas. You know that to 10 or fewer. And I think it was actually fairly limited where we saw that happening. This thing has progressed so quickly that within a day or two, possibly three of us putting them in place, the majority of our common areas were shut down altogether. So it became a bit of a non-issue. And with regard to closing our common areas, almost universally, it's been positively received. There's been, you know, as typical a few people who are frustrated or upset by it. But by and large, we've received a lot of nice emails from people thanking us for our proactive stance on managing through this.

Glennis Markison
Wow. Yeah. I mean, I think before diving into the communication peace, I'd really like to go into operations like just on a broad level, what has changed about maintenance right now. Who's doing it? What are they checking? How are you kind of keeping tabs on all the ways that that whole sector of Multifamily and student housing, how that needs to change?

Steve Boyack
You know it's another area, almost universally, the plans that we started discussing and putting in place were evolving on a daily basis and sometimes even more than once a day. But our initial thoughts were to get the proper PPE or personal protective equipment to the maintenance staff so that they would be equipped to handle things. We immediately reached out to all of our suppliers in which regards to things like cleaning solutions. We made sure that the cleaning solutions that we're using were certified to be effective against the virus on in any instances where they weren't, we replaced them with ones that were on the list. And then we immediately put into place enhanced cleaning protocols for any of the common areas and really any of the high touch surfaces. So any time you're dealing with the lights, which are a doorknob or a faucet or anything like that, those went into protocols where they were being clean multiple times a day. As some of the amenities spaces were still open, specifically, which regards to fitness centers. Those went into enhanced cleaning protocols, so they were being cleaned a couple of times a day on and in the instance of some of the Multifamily properties were you mean shut down for an hour or so a day for deeper cleaning. But we wanted to try and leave as many of the resources are open to the residents for as long as possible. But like I said, it was just a matter of days before those all went offline. I think some of the biggest challenges for the maintenance team now are you know how to respond to the typical day-to-day. We needed to put measures in place so that as work orders came in, you were triaging them and assessing really the necessity of actually performing the work orders and, you know, ultimately and very quickly ended up in a situation where only the highest priority work orders were being assigned to team members and then even then processes put in place to make sure that residents were being asked if they had symptoms or anybody in the household head symptoms prior to any of our team members being allowed to enter the units.

Glennis Markison
And how have you been balancing internal maintenance staff with a need for third party help? Is that something you can kind of weigh in on to advise other people?

Steve Boyack
Well, two things. One, probably about a week ago, we decided to split our staff into both on the maintenance side and on the leasing side so that we would never have full staff on the properties were kind of limiting our response to work orders and limiting leasing and other activities were able to send half of the staff to work from home, where the other half was working on the property. And then the strategy is to flip the staff every few weeks so that there never in contact with each other and have those 14 days stay at home. And in with regard to know the enhanced cleaning protocols, we've ended that out to 3rd party who is more adept at dealing with the complexity in the sensitivities of dealing with that type of cleaning. And then you also put into place protocols for if work orders actually were deemed to be emergency and somebody indicated that they were self-quarantining, well, then, that would have to be done by 3rd party vendor who's actually licensed to handle situations like that. And then you also put together protocols if we did have to respond to anybody who did have a positive result and had, you know, in the instance of maybe an office staff member, thankfully, we haven't had a yet but in the instant that we do have a positive result on a staff member, we have their party standing by to do deep cleanings of office spaces or maintenance shops are anywhere necessary.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, I mean, before we hit on the resident piece, I'm interested in how you're engaging just with the idea of a workplace right now. I mean, how is paid time off changing or sick leave and just getting into the staff perspective? How are you communicating with staff? If they're fearing their sick et cetera. I'd love to kind of go into how your notion of a workplace is changing right now, kind of on an organizational and communication level.

Steve Boyack
Well, they're certainly, you know, multiple facets to it. On the corporate side, there's been universal change. Everybody working remotely. But when it comes to the properties themselves the person who I talked about breaking the teams into two and having them work, kind of shipped air shift the orkin there can be. I wouldn't wanna indicate that. But then you have on the student housing side you a lot of actual community assistance or CA s who are part-time employees who a lot of us have, that they're called upon to do, really a most enhance were reduced execution protocols that we have going on right now. A lot of the tests that they do are no longer necessary, and the majority of them have actually decided to go home. So in most instances, those persons are people have been furloughed, and when they come back, their jobs, assuming that the world resumes at a normal pace, will be offered back to them for any of the staff members who are symptomatic. They're asked to go home and self-quarantine for 14 days. Those folks are continued to be paid during that time. And if their timeframes, you know, go past, you know, a couple of days or into the full two week range than short term disability could kick in. We're in a unique situation that our company offers unlimited PTO, but at. sometime, at some point, they're situation switches from being obviously time off to being a medical response. So, our strategy right now is to put people in short on disability in the event that they have to be out for a longer period of time.

Glennis Markison
Interesting. And how are you navigating privacy laws around, you know, HIPPA and all of that stuff is so sensitive what you can say about a resident who's sick, what you can say to staff about a staff member who's sick? Is it really tough to kind of get the legal latest on all of these issues before communicating broadly to staff and ensuring, too, that your own staff know what to say and what not to say?

Steve Boyack
Yes, that comes down to, you know, having a team, a crisis response team on the corporate side that also includes some operational people having them come together and to have a lot of these conversations. We put a daily phone call together for our field teams so that we can be consuming as much real-time information and real-time issues from the field possible. And then I've been bringing it to this team, the crisis response team so that they can write policy in response around it. Our in house counsel is working with outside counsel to make sure that we're quickly drafting any sort of language that we could provide to the staff. I mean, the nature of our business in general, is such that we're not allowed to share a lot of information about people. So, you know that initial sense of that is ingrained, I think, in all of the employees. But when it comes to a crisis situation like this where emotions are high and concerns or high at least they have that base to rely upon, I think probably the biggest challenges, you know, for employees, the teams are generally pretty small. So if someone's out, it's kind of understood why they're out. Although it's not communicated by us, you know it's one person or another, but with regards to the residents, you know, they're either going to tell us or they're not. We had had one instance of a resident who did test positive, and we actually found out about it through their Instagram post.

Glennis Markison
Wow, that is 2020.

Steve Boyack
Yeah, which was a completely unique way of finding out for sure. But, you know, our on-site staff immediately reached out to her the Instagram Post, our biggest one of our biggest no questions that we're asking ourselves is what's our responsibility to roommate in its student housing environment? And that's where a real challenge comes in because, well, it will their roommate let them know the one who's affected on if not whose responsibility is it. Is it the CDC? The Health Department? Is it ours? And so you know, we've decided that to be overly cautious and in the instance where that happens that we actually would notify were made. Well, that's happened in this instance on Instagram. She posted that she and her roommates we're all aware of her diagnosis, and they were all quarantining in place. So we just communicated with them and then, you know, offered them whatever assistance we could for things like removing trash from the unit or helping with a new package or food deliveries to the front door. Another service is that we had agreed upon with our team would take on two teeth, amount of outside traffic into the building Minimal, but also to encourage the highest degree that they don't come out of their apartment or even something as simple as throwing away their trash. We would help them with that.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, this is so fascinating on a communication level. Instagram is so 2020 that you'd be finding out about a public health crisis update from a social media platform. What can you say about the way that you're communicating to staff and residents is an email you know, Instagram kind of thing? I mean, how are you communicating? On what platforms have you found the most successful? Talk about that a little more if you can. The tone around your messaging.

Steve Boyack
Yeah. So for the communications are being drafted. A couple of times a week and our crisis response plan, we have to scheduled messages and frankly, other messages in the event that they're necessary would go out. But we're joining too formal communications to the residence of each property into communications to the staff about any policies, procedures or changes. And the ones to the residents. They're going out through our CR M platform. Ones to the staff are going out through email. And then, like I said a minute ago. We have two calls a day. We have one in the morning for the field staff so that we could hear what's going on and, if necessary, spend you know, the better portion of our day responding to their actual needs. So we can head those out in the past as soon as possible. And then because, you know, we have a lot of senior executives, investment partners in just investors in general that are really interested in what? The day today. This looks like we have before call every day where we're communicating to the senior staff internally so that both acid management vertical heads they're hearing you immediately from us what the day to day looks like. And then we were hit from partners and investors with questions they're able to communicate real-time information. You asked about tone. It has been, I think, in the first couple of communications to any of those populations there was a lot of referencing to the CDC and other government agencies. Far as who the real experts are, but I think you were right. It was important for us in the, you know, in the next couple of days following the initial communications may make sure that people understood the amount of care that was to be taken and that there were support strategies, for both employees and the residents in place, and that you were a resource to all of that. We're here well, frankly, to be in service to all of them. So to the degree that you can lighten the tone, I think that's important. Certainly, in a lot of the written communications, legal jargon needs to be in there, but I think shorter information, shorter messages, that can have a little bit of heart to them as well as a little bit of bite make the most sense. The other thing that I think has been discussed quite a bit with our leadership team is, you know, don't trip over good on the way to perfect and miss an opportunity to share information quickly. I think what we've found is people are being very gracious if we get information out. Ah, you know, in eight or 10 hours later, it's no longer relevant. I think they appreciate how quickly things were moving and would rather have the bust frequent updates that they can get their hands on as opposed to us, you know, spending a dare to try and nail the language. And then by the time you delivered the message, it's stale.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, and I'm curious to what are the questions you're getting from residents? I mean, what do they want to know right now that they may not have thought to ask you two months ago?

Steve Boyack
Well, tell you, the biggest questions really have been on the student side, parents want to know how the buildings are being cleaned. You know, they want to know what protocols are in place to make sure that their kids are protected. So that's really the predominance of a lot of questions that we've gotten. They're starting to get on that side some questions around things like rent relief and being able to potentially get outta leases and stuff like that, given that universities air switching to online format. So, you know, that's fairly typical. On the Multifamily side, it's, it's pretty stressful for a lot of folks who are in that population where the jobs are at risk. And so we've already had to make some decisions or have some communications around people who have we located to new markets to take a job only to find out, you know, a week or two after their arrival, that their job is, no longer existing. So there's a lot of that going on.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, And if you could elaborate just on how that financial equation is working, I mean, you know, obviously, I'm sure on the news about this aid package we're getting eventually from the federal government. What are you kind of doing on a budgeting forecasting growth level? I mean, what, you there are so many unknowns. How are you navigating rents and what it might mean if you don't get it going forward?

Steve Boyack
Well, that's the biggest "What if" right now, on the student side, rents are doing on the 10th month on the Multifamily. It's typically the first or the fifth, and so everybody's kind of holding their breath right now because you do have your communicators, but, largely the residents don't communicate. So we're putting a lot of options in place for people since we're not doing a lot of face to face right now. Enhancing the ability to pay online, waiving any sort of late fees or payment processing fees were trying to remove as much of the friction from people transitioning to an online payment method as possible. There's been discussions about what might happen to payment programs. We have a defined payment program right now if anybody were to need any sort of relief from the timing of payment standpoint. But we're looking at relaxing those time frames and maybe extending them slightly. But as you can imagine, the part of our portfolio management team, there's a big desire to start to understand. You know, your friends are gonna be paid in April, and it's hard to guess with regard to the universities that have mastered leased properties and sent their students home. These conversations haven't happened yet, but we're anticipating we'll get those calls as well.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, I mean, turning to a more positive look on this. Have you seen things within your own teams and seen things from residents, and you've alluded to it a little bit, but that have really felt heartening. I mean, we're in such a crisis now, but could you weigh in on the positive communication-wise or creativity wise? And are you seeing things in this crisis that you're actually kind of moved and inspired by?

Steve Boyack
You know, it certainly took a day or two for people to get through to what the new normal is. And, not surprising to me, knowing the hearts of the folks that we have in the field took them really no time at all to move into, you know, the positive side of things. I've already seen communications from the field about, you know, as the school's meaning "the grade schools" shut down in their neighborhood. They needed help getting the kids school supplies from their schools to their homes. And I know at least one of our properties donated a lot of backpacks and duffel bags, and just different swag items typically give out to prospective residents. They donated those to the school system how kids get their school supplies back to them at their homes lots of instances of people running around. They're asking people if they are gonna venture out kind of pulling their friends in the building to see if they can do things for them as well. There certainly is a lot of excitement on the team's level to continue trying to engage from a distance. There are blog posts that are going out, people are putting together workout plans for residents, their putting together both playlists and binge you watching lists, and the emails flying back and forth have been a lot of fun to watch.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, that's wonderful. And I'm curious, too, as a leader, I mean, it's just a given that your title is CEO and you have to show up to work every day right now, even if you would very much prefer not to for understandable reasons. What is it taking for you to lead right now? What is someone who also is in your shoes, what kind of traits do they have to display right now and then relatedly, how are you letting yourself rest and breathe for a second to recharge?

Steve Boyack
You know, really, it's a good question to me is someone who is at least attempting in my day to day to be more of a leader than a manager. It's really actually encouraging to show up every day and watch the team shine. You know, the fact that really to an employee, we haven't had anybody refuse to show up for work. We haven't had anybody who let their fear get in the way of actually executing and again continue to serve residents of each other in a really high capacity. And so, to me, it's inspiring just to watch people show up in that way and maybe surprise each other and surprise themselves. Yeah, so that, to me, feeds me for sure. And now, how do you rest? You know, I guess this past week and I had a minute to relax and recharge. And, you know, I have a tendency to want workout on a daily basis so that I can keep my mind in my body fresh but I also have young kids who also feed me. So, spending a lot of time with them has been really great. You know, I'm typically on the road to work in the morning and on the road back and so to have a couple of extra hours a day to dedicate time with them has been really great. And, you know, this week we were required to sacrifice our spring break in response to this. And so not just because school has been called off, but kids are off for spring break also. Being able to take the time in between phone calls and before and after work to go down in some time with them has been really great.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, that sounds wonderful. I mean, you're obviously balancing an enormous level of empathy for another side of your brain that has to act strategically under pressure. And so I'm curious with all these rewarding examples you've seen in the workplace of people being creative and being collaborative, and you've got such a, I don't know, a tight ship right now of these calls that you're doing regularly. What are you seeing? What are you predicting going forward in terms of how multifamily workplaces might change for the better if they keep doing as you're doing, which is, you know, fighting a brave fight right now?

Steve Boyack
You know, I think there's a couple of things that are gonna come out of it in a friend of mine in the industry and I were having a conversation the other day that was intriguing because it really pointed to, you know, who are the superstars and what are the skills that you know of our future leaders. And certainly, this experience is showing that people who can think and respond in a very elastic way in this situation, Really. I mean, I guess none of them, you know, either have ever or will ever I have to deal with again in their lives or certainly dealt with in the past and to see them change what the day to day looks like for them and continue to, you know, show up in new and really effective ways to be open, you know, to change has really been encouraging. And I think it will change from the characteristics we look for in our next leaders. The other things that I think will changed quite a bit, you know, I'm I personally, I'm someone who's had a home office for years, and it's just been used to collect dust. And I've enjoyed the certain moments of working from home over the last few weeks. And so, you know, I think I'll probably give myself permission to do that a little bit more. But I think to me the thing I'm most excited about is, in our industry is often very slow to respond to new technologies and things and there's a lot of naysayers to launching new things, or I'm sure there are people in everybody's office have never initiated a Skype meeting or anything like that before. With the current necessity that created to do all that, I can't begin to imagine how many people are saying, this is really actually pretty good or this was easier. I wish I had done this, you know so much longer ago. So I think it may unlock some interest around new ways of conducting business and new technologies, which could have implications for corporate offices that could have implications for the offices at the sight level. Implications for the where people sit when we hire him, you know, there's a lot of stalwarts or to say that you know, all of our employees need to be sitting within our view and I think there's a lot of people are gonna walk away at the end of this crisis and see how much work got done so effectively by people who couldn't see each other or meet each other at the water cooler or coffeemaker. So, I think it's going to open people's minds up to new ways of doing things, which hopefully will need to an era of innovation and new ideas.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, that was really wonderful. I mean, I'm just so grateful that you took the time for joining us on Voices. I mean, the courage and the compassion you're carrying on with in this crisis is profound. So I really want to thank you for joining us on the show.  

Steve Boyack
Thanks for the opportunity.  

Glennis Markison
If you'd like to hear from other voices and Multifamily or learn how to share your voice, head to Voices dot Happy dot 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. Our mission is 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 continue to share the voices of Multifamily.

As CEO at CA Management Services, Steve Boyack is responsible for driving the performance and growth of the CA’s property management platform both domestically and internationally, while also implementing best practices and innovation strategies that will help to differentiate CA in the marketplace. Prior to joining CA, Steve was the senior managing director at Greystar where he was responsible for overseeing real estate operations and leading the expansion of the company’s footprint in key Midwest markets. In addition, he oversaw Greystar’s national construction and maintenance operations. Steve joined Greystar in 2017 from the Laramar Group, where, as chief operating officer, he was responsible for overseeing all facets of property operations for the company as well as participating in both the executive committee and investment committee.

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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