April 08, 2020

Steve Duceatt: Crisis Strategies for Multifamily Maintenance

How do you respond when the COVID-19 pandemic puts your multifamily maintenance teams at risk? Steve Duceatt, RADCO Director of Maintenance & Facilities, offers a how-to on the most pressing issues: from sourcing supplies and communicating effectively to motivating teams and leveraging technology.

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Steve Duceatt joined RADCO Residential in October 2017. As the Director of Maintenance & Facilities, Steve oversees maintenance operations across the entire RADCO portfolio. He is a multifamily professional with 24 years of experience in the industry. Steve began his career as a Maintenance Technician and worked his way up to national operations positions with several major industry players. Steve is considered an industry expert in facilities and maintenance operations, as well as construction and renovation. He has a passion for leading, developing, and training service teams. He has earned several industry certifications, including CAM and CAPS.

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 Steve Duceatt, director of maintenance and facilities at Radco. With 24 years of experience in multifamily, Steve is considered an industry expert on maintenance operations. In fact, he knows the challenges and opportunities of maintenance firsthand, having started as a tech and worked his way up to national operations positions. Welcome to Voices, Steve. Thanks so much for being here.

Steve Duceatt
Yeah, thanks Glennis. Super excited to be here. I appreciate the offer.

Glennis Markison
Yeah. No, I would love to just kind of just dive right in. I mean, as COVID has obviously changed multifamily maintenance in profound ways, I mean, through your lens at Radco, could you go into how the pandemic has been changing just the day to day of maintenance for you and kind of what you're prioritizing, how you're even accessing units?

Steve Duceatt
Yeah. So it is ever-changing, almost on a daily basis, as you just mentioned. You know, as things started, we were trying to dispute kind of social distancing, wash your hands well as this progressed. Now the use of PPE, properly using PPE. A lot of that is played into how we do business, especially today with stay-at-home, quarantine. So we're dealing with a lot of issues with staffing as well, from our team as well as vendors and supply chain, all that stuff, trying to reach our community. So we've had to shift dramatically in how we step our properties, how we operate properties, what we respond to, what we don't respond to running, right? I mean, to how we lease apartments, to how we're turning those apartments, to how we're moving people in. The whole thing has been kind of turned upside down with COVID-19. So yeah, it's a really interesting time we're in for sure.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, and if you could go into just the work orders, when somebody has a broken pipe that's really spewing something versus when someone feels maybe their bathtub has a tiny little nick in it, can you talk about what you're getting as far as work orders right now and how you're prioritizing the need to go into a unit?

Steve Duceatt
Yes, so we've elected to really only respond to emergency work orders. So those being HVAC fire, flood, I mean anything that we would, the industry would consider an emergency work order, and we'll respond to those during the day. Really, the way that that works is if an emergency comes in, an office team, a property manager, a leasing agent will call that resident, get a little bit more information on what that emergency is, find out if there's any reason why we should be concerned about entering their apartment, if they're self-quarantined, whatever information they want to give to us. And if it seems that it's a safe environment for our team to go into, our team will go. We'll put on proper PPE, they'll put on a mask, they'll put on gloves, they'll go in and complete that work order. We'll ask the resident to stay a minimum of six feet away from the technician or firmly in another room while they're in there doing repairs, and then our service tech will go in there and perform the emergency repair. If it does become obvious when we're talking to that resident that they're either self-quarantined, sick, or maybe have a confirmed case, we've elected not to send our teams in, and we put contractors in all of our markets on standby to be able to respond to those emergencies for us. So the way we'll handle those is the technician will be there, they'll be available, they'll talk to the resident, they'll coordinate with the contractor, we'll be through the whole process of making sure that that emergency is taken care of, with the exception of entering that apartment. We'll stay outside and work through the emergency that way.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, I mean, that takes an amazing amount of coordination and communication. So what are the kind of platforms you're using to communicate? What can you recommend for operators? It sounds like you're calling residents, but in terms of getting all the latest information on the safety for maintenance techs and the safety for residents, how are you communicating that across your staff just to know everyone has the latest?

Steve Duceatt
So we are trying to stay up-to-date on this is as much as possible. We have, I think within our organization, I mean, right now, Glennis, it's all about communication because everybody is, you know, you're in home offices, you might be on property, you're all over the United States. So the way that we're communicating is we have daily huddles everyday. Like myself, I meet with my regional service managers every morning. The SVP of Operations is meeting with her directors and regionals. We're all meeting with our teams and then each head of that department boils up to daily huddles. So we have a daily ladder of information, starting from the sight level, working all the way up through different huddles, different team huddles, all the way up to, through our COO and through our owner. So we're able to communicate things on a daily basis and make changes to that pretty much instantaneously. So that's working out well with us. I also, this week on Wednesday, we're having our first, I'm hosting our first kind of maintenance town hall, is really what it is, to kind of recap everything we're doing, make sure that everybody is 100% comfortable with what our policies are. They understand our vendor shortages when things may be coming in and really, just an open forum for them to ask questions about what's going on. I'm going to host that along with our SVP of Operations, and our director of HR. So we're really doing everything that we possibly can to stay in communication, from our owner down to really, down to our quarters, and keep them involved, engaged, and informed of our policies as they change, and really, what's kind of going on out there in the world as well.
 
Glennis Markison
Yeah, I mean, I think that sounds so critical right now to be kind of overly communicating as everyone has all of these doubts. I really do want to dive into this work culture piece. But before we do, how are you handling this national shortage of gloves and disinfectant and masks, like you're not in this alone in this fight for supplies. So is there anything you can recommend about the way you're either using them or finding them? 

Steve Duceatt
So I will tell you that for myself, that absorbs the majority of my day and has been for the last, at least, week and a half, just constantly communicating with our national vendors. But as well, the key here really is, you need to look outside the box. All of our national vendors, like HC Supply, Wilmar, the big players, they're having a shortage in almost all PPE. A lot of it's being redirected and re-steered towards the health care, or they just can't get orders in because everybody's ordering through them. So we're networking with other business partners that have been able to maybe link us or direct us or connect us with other leads. So we looked at our marketing vendors, where do they get their materials from? Really, through that networking through all sorts of different business partners, we've been able to source PPE here and there. The problem with it is, what everybody is experiencing as well, is you may have an order, but those orders might not show up, especially dealing with masks right now. You know, they're getting seized at customs, they're getting redirected, or orders are just getting canceled. So it's tough but, you know, it's just requiring a lot of, again, a lot of communication, a lot of networking, a lot of reaching out, and a lot of really, looking at different channels and avenues that you wouldn't normally be going down to try to source this.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, it sounds like an amazing amount of creativity, honestly, and resilience to get through this because like you said, you're thinking outside of the box. I'm curious too, how technology is helping you, in ways you did expect or didn't, whether it's the importance of inspections, documenting the requests for work orders? I'd love to hear how technology is really playing into multifamily now.

Steve Duceatt
Right, so really, we've kind of been forced into a position in our industry where we really can't do favors. For one, it's unhealthy, for two, it just doesn't make any sense. And three, it's just not really an option, right? So the Zoom calls, the HappyCo apps, the mobile maintenance, every bit of technology now is really kind of playing into what we're doing. With Happy, we still have to turn units. We still have to move people in, we still have to do these things to try to keep the business moving forward and to serve our residents. So utilizing that technology now is even more important because we have real time access to what's going on. Yardi is our property management platform, so utilizing that technology, kind of looking to see where work orders are, how are the teams from the HappyCo perspective, how are the teams doing on the turns, where are they at, what's been scheduled, what has been completed? So really, a lot of the data and the management is really being based on just looking through technology because we're not on the site. So we have to look at other ways to kind of manage and to lead the teams, even though we're in the midst of this crazy pandemic.

Glennis Markison
Yeah. I mean, do you think that this data and the collection of it is certainly gonna help you when things, if they ever look the same, go back to normal, obviously? Cause you must be collecting a backlog sense in this, too. I'm curious about how you're gonna start addressing issues that are somewhat urgent, but not so urgent as to really coordinate the safety of a maintenance tech getting into a unit.

Steve Duceatt
Yeah, I really do think that what we're seeing and what we're doing and where we're moving is gonna be a game changer in the industry. I think it's proven and it's really driving, the importance of technology and utilizing it. I think it's proven that we can utilize this technology and still manage and lead a team without actually being there, by having the ability to use HappyCo Inspections, Zoom, all the other technologies that are out there. So I think it's gonna be a big game changer, and if it doesn't, it allows us to, kind of looking forward, thinking we're able to see what work orders are out there and kind of look at how can we respond to those and what can we do, right? So we're looking, my team right now and myself, we're working with our L&D department, and we're putting together like 30 to 45 seconds how-to videos. So how to unclog the garbage disposal, how to change a furnace filter. I mean, really, any of those things that we could do 30 to 45 seconds videos on that we can send to the residents, be a link or what not, on how they can take care of some items that we just can't respond to.

Glennis Markison
Wow. I mean, you're going from maintenance into marketing in a crisis, which I honestly think is stunning. Yeah, I mean, I'm curious, too. Let's talk about how you're communicating with your maintenance techs right now because you once were one. And so I'd love to kind of broadly go into the tone you're using around the messaging, especially as you have to warn people about risks. But then also, how you're boosting morale.

Steve Duceatt
Yeah, so it's like I mentioned, we have a really great huddle system that we've implemented. So really, a lot of the property managers are meeting with their team every morning. The site manager's meeting with the regionals on a huddle, the regionals are meeting with directors, and it really kind of moves its way up the chain of command there. My regional service managers are in constant, as well as the regional managers, are in constant contact with the sights, with the teams, making sure that they have what they need. We have people that may be out, that may have special circumstances, so we're still trying to coordinate work for us, for any teams that might may be down or need help. It's definitely proven challenging, but all through communication and really kind of working in steering the teams is really helpful. I would write down just vendor updates of who has things that may be in stock, orders we can place. I know for myself, I place a lot of large orders for PPE, and then delegate what goes up to properties. We keep everybody informed, we're tracking numbers and all that. I think right now, communication is key because especially for the people that are out there, they want to know that we're here, we have their back, we're getting them everything that they need to perform their jobs, that they're safe, your family's safe, their teammates are safe. It's really kind of driving that message and having that compassion. I'm really excited about this forum we're about to do as well, because really, we're looking at this being either a weekly or a biweekly forum where it really does give our service teams the ability to talk with us in real time and have answers. We've also instituted a survey in different channels and links that they can click on or go down, to ask questions, either anonymously or not. It's all different for people within our company.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, and are you getting some of those answers back? I mean, I'm curious if they're surprising you, that you're really, I mean, I'm sure you always were, but especially hearing from techs directly now.

Steve Duceatt
What it's really done is just made me so proud of the people that are out there and the team that's out there. I can say this is a Radco thing, but I think this is really an Americans in the U. S. thing, right? I think we're all doing everything we possibly can to help each other out, to keep each other safe. Whether it's the team, whether it's the conversation we're having, whether it's the vendors that are reaching out or the people that they're putting us in contact with, I think it's just awesome and it's amazing to me to see how everybody's coming together to try to control this thing and really get through it and work together, and to keep everybody safe.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, I mean, do you think when you recall your time as a maintenance tech, do you think you had as many opportunities to be heard and to ask questions? And if you didn't, how are you seeing this kind of biweekly town hall experience maybe even going forward? Are you curious to make some changes in which maintenance techs really have a voice?

Steve Duceatt
You know, it's a very different time than when I started in this industry 24, 25 years ago, right? So right now, I think we are making it important and I think we always have in our culture. But right now, we want it to be even more important that we want our people, especially our frontline people that are in this, to be heard. And we want them to have every avenue and every opportunity that they need, to talk with me, to talk with anybody within the company, just that if they have a suggestion or a what-if or whatever it could possibly be to make them feel safe, to make them feel comfortable. Whatever it takes to get them the answers is really what we're trying to do and give them platforms and opportunities to have a voice. So I'm super excited about the forum tomorrow. I think it's gonna be a great opportunity. We've had a lot of great feedback from our techs. We've had some concerns from them as well, that we've had to work through. But I think just giving them a voice and allowing them to have that platform is super important in getting through this.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, and in terms of policy too, I should have a little, a couple questions ago, really gone into how you're changing either paid time off for sick leave. How are you making clear to them if they do, in fact, get COVID themselves or if a loved one does, how are you making clear that there's a safety net or something different about the protections they'll have around being sick?

Steve Duceatt
Yes, so I think we've done an amazing job as a company to support our teams. Any expense related to COVID-19, if they've become infected, we will be covering all expenses for that. Even though a lot of our teams are on a reduced workload and maybe reduced hours, we're still paying all of our employees 40 hours a week. We really want to take care of them and we want them to feel comfortable and as safe as possible going through this. And we don't want them to have any sort of expense if they become infected. So, yeah, that's how we're dealing with that.

Glennis Markison
I think that's enormously empathetic. And I'm curious cause you've really touched on creativity and resilience and the technical side of this. What do you think it takes to lead on a national level? Maintenance, right now.

Steve Duceatt
I think it's just really staying connected. I mean, like I said, you can't give up and throw your hands up in the air because I can't find this from this vendor. It really is networking and really kind of, utilizing the people that are around you. Somebody might, it could be anybody, that turns you on to let's just say, the vendor that may have, masks available, or it could be that the grocery store that can get them. Interestingly enough, in Florida, my regional manager down there has literally a grocery store, and he's paying a little bit above normal price, but has been able to pretty continually get masks at a rate, or his teams, down there. So it's really staying connected. It's really just researching what's going on. I think a lot of organizations like yourself, like the National Apartment Association, are sending out fantastic updates on this. For me, it's staying connected, it's communicate, it's constantly letting the teams know the status and what's changing, and really just staying engaged with your people and with your vendors.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, and I'm curious, too. Is humor playing into this at all? I mean, I would imagine the kind of mind that's clever enough to be repairing all kinds of different things in an apartment, could be a pretty funny person, you know? So are you trying in your messaging or your phone calls to show some lightness, even though this is such a dark time?

Steve Duceatt
Yeah. I mean, smiles. As much as we possibly can, try to find the silver lining in this, if you will, or the humor, or just whatever it possibly is. I mean, we don't know a lot about this and we obviously don't know how long it could be before we get out of this. So we really need to try to stay positive and as a leader, try to keep that smile on there and let the folks know, that we're doing everything we can for you. It is trying to find that positivity, and the biggest way to do that is to really go on your way to find what is it that your team's doing that you can you can give them a shout out. Even simple things, whatever it could possibly be that that team is doing well or that person, and then constantly give the shout outs and thank you's. And just remind them that they're the ones out there that are really keeping our business moving forward and that they're the frontline worker out there that's keeping us moving forward.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, and are they enjoying too, the process of being part of these 30, 40 second videos? I think that's so creative that their work is honestly being framed and given that stage that maybe it was taken for granted before. I think that's great. 

Steve Duceatt
Yeah, I think we're gonna try to involve them in as much as we possibly can. In different things that can keep them kind of motivated. It's a little difficult to do that, but I think, doing these forums, just having constant touch points with the teams, our operation side, our regional property managers. I mean, they're doing a fantastic job. They've done virtual pizza parties with their teams, we really are doing everything that we possibly can to stay in contact with them, even if it's virtually. Whether it be a virtual happy hour or, like I said, the regional managers, they'll buy lunch, they'll have it delivered, and then they'll get on a Zoom call and have lunch with the teams. I mean, we're really doing everything we can to try to keep business as usual in this incredibly unusual circumstance that we're in.

Glennis Markison
Well I'm curious, yeah. I mean, going forward, like the work that you're doing around praise and the work that you're doing around collaborating, do you want to make this more of the month and the biweekly exchange that you'll have with techs? 

Steve Duceatt
It is, yeah. Like I mentioned earlier, I think we're gonna see a lot of changes, and a lot of good, positive changes that come out of this. When we finally see the end and we're back out there, completely business as usual. I think we're gonna see a lot of communication, in the way that we communicate, change. I think we're gonna see how much, although technology has been awesome as it comes into our industry, especially within the last couple years, I think we're going to see that that takes off even more. We're at a point now where we've proven that technology can and should be used, and look at what it's doing, it's keeping us moving forward through this crazy pandemic. So, I think that plays a lot into it. I think, as we move through this and we kind of can see and kind of judge when the end point is or when we may be able to get back to something a little more normal, we're gonna have to look at how we respond to the work that's out there because this whole thing is unfortunate, but it's also unfortunate as to the timing of when it's happening because we're moving into the busiest season for our industry, very quickly. HVAC season's coming up, the big rush for turns and movements, all that is on the horizon here. So planning for that and getting everybody geared up for that is something we're, myself, I'm definitely looking at, in planning for.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, and I think before I go into the most, sort of, rewarding experiences you've had lately with techs interacting or giving feedback, I'm curious. Like on a day to day, how are you prioritizing this urgent need to get the vendor issue done, to communicate the latest from the CDC, and then also the forward-looking aspect of how HVAC season and moving will affect you. Like if you could tell other operators how with all of this communication coming to you and coming from you every day, how you're sensing what's the biggest priority? I mean, it's just amazing what you're juggling right now. 

Steve Duceatt
Yeah. I mean, there's a lot of priorities that are happening constantly. And really, the biggest priority is to make sure that the teams are safe and to make sure that we're able to safely respond to our residents and keep them safe, keep them comfortable while they're in their homes. So guidelines and things are changing constantly, and making sure that the teams have that information is key. We're looking towards allowing or helping residents to kind of self fix their search requests through these videos. We have teams now that are calling residents and kind of talking them through smaller work orders that we feel that they could take care of on their own. But there is going to come a time when we're gonna be out of this and we're gonna have a large workload. So for us, we're looking to gear up right now. My team and I, we're looking at hiring and employing teams that would be able to come on and really address emergencies as a separate team to help out the onsite teams, as we're able to kind of get back into the swing of things. So it's constantly changing, Glennis. I wish I could give you an absolute, kind of, "well here's my solution to this", but it's by bits and pieces and by what's changing, we're trying to create what the end of this looks like and how we're going to respond to it.

Glennis Markison
Yeah. I mean, it sounds like your tolerance for uncertainty is amazing. I mean, you're really serious, and you're taking it in strides, I'd have to say. Well, I would really love to end this, and you've set and infused the call with positivity. But I'd love to end this on a couple specific examples of somebody reaching out and doing more than you expected them even to have to do for a task, or somebody saying thank you, or somebody praising someone. I would love to hear about how there's some positivity even in this really uncertain and dark time.

Steve Duceatt
So I mean, I think our teams are, I think it's just amazing to see the compassion and the caring that is coming out of this, from the leaders, from our leaders, all the way down to the people on site. We have so many different service team members that are willing to go over to different sites to help out, that are willing to come to work on a daily basis. There's a lot of concern out there, but they know that they have a job to do and just all of the folks that are pulling together and really just making this happen. I mean, even down to our vendors, it's not just me reaching out to them, it's them reaching out to me, "hey, what can I help you with?" or letting me know "hey, we got this in stock". Right down to like the virtual pizza parties or the virtual happy hours that are happening. It's just, I think everybody as a whole has really just come together in an amazing way to help each other and to keep to us moving forward. So I mean, it blows me away.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, well, thank you so much for sharing all of these insights, honestly, from a strategic to the work culture angles. I mean, I think this will help a lot of people in a time when they need it. So I really, really appreciate you joining us on voices, Steve. 

Steve Duceatt
Absolutely. Very happy to be here, Glennis. Thank you.

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 Happy Co, 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 wellbeing 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/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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