Given the austere multifamily climate, with new ventures few and far between, and rent growth hard to come by, how do you keep the hyper up within your company? How do you keep people feeling good about their jobs and the company’s prospects?

These were the tough questions put to a panel of industry leaders at the 2009 MFE Conference in Las Vegas. Most panelists had gone through strategic layoffs in the last year, though some had recently added personnel. And they all planned to be stingy with raises next year, if they offered them at all.

The panel discussion, coupled with audience participation, produced 20 great ideas to keep up the hyper within your company. Some of these ideas may be difficult to execute. Others may be as easy as sending out an e-mail. But all of them are worth doing.

1. Share the bad news as well as the good. “If you don’t share the bad news, people will make up their own,” said moderator Dave Woodward, managing partner and CEO of Laramar Communities. “The rumor mill is incredibly efficient... and inaccurate.”

2. Make yourself available. Whether you call special meetings at the regional or property level, invite key employees to launch, or just make a point to keep your office door open, it’s important for executives to be available during stressful times. 
3. Have a contest. Nothing motivates people like a game, especially with a monetary outcome. At Nashville, Tenn.-based Freeman Webb Company, they had a contest to see which property could decorate the best leasing room rest room. “You could only spend $100,” said Dan Ford, director of property management, “but some people went all out. It was probably among the strangest things we’ve done.”

4. Get out from behind the desk. This is the wrong time for leaders to hide in the office. “I’m not a big fan of meetings,” said Thomas Shelton, president of Western National Property Management, based in Orange County, Calif., “but you can’t get together too much with your employees in this market.” In company meetings, Shelton talks about what’s going on their company—they’ve added about 2,500 units in the last year—and what companies are experiencing as well.

5. Offer people extra vacation time. Christina Steeg, senior vice president for marketing and training at Simpson Housing, networked with one national real estate company that offered everyone a week off, without pay: 97 percent of employees took it. The company put a positive spin on the offer; here’s a chance to help the company reduce expenses, prevent a layoff, and enjoy some time off.

6. Communicate regularly and meaningfully with employees. With so much email flying back and forth within the company, it’s sometimes difficult to convey key messages. The CEO of Great Western does a monthly newsletter highlighting new projects that’s mailed with paychecks. Woodward orchestrates a quarterly company-wide conference call.

7. Help employees give back to their communities. In response to comments at a company town hall meeting, Simpson created a Simpson Gives Back program. Employees can donate an entire day to a charity of their choice. “We had an overwhelming response from employees who often can’t afford to give time or money to charities,” Steeg said.

8. Recognize great performance. Simpson runs a Circle of Sales program that rewards agents for growth in net contract value. Responding to this, an audience member said she videos top performers, puts the interviews on YouTube, then sends out a company email with the link and an invitation to watch. Voila, a new star is born!

9. Have a raffle for residents or prospects. “We did a crazy thing,” Ford said. “We gave away a car.” Though expensive, the web-based promotion paid multiple dividends. It energized employees at the property level who wanted favorite tenants to win. Plus, the winning resident wound up offering countless free testimonials. The company plans to raffle cash during the holidays this year.

10. Have more fun at meetings. Things aren’t the same at Freeman Webb since the company started to theme its yearly management meetings. The first theme, race-car driving, proved so popular—with a special screening of “Talladega Nights,” and multiple Ricky Bobby impersonations—that managers now vote on the theme for each year. 

11. Make something extraordinary out of the ordinary. What began at Simpson as a simple bring-your-dog-to-work day has evolved into a full-on celebration. Dog owners and their better half now compete in a beauty contest, participate in a parade, and get their portraits taken.

12. Invest in your people. Study after study shows that employees want more training so that they can do a more effective job and further their careers. The panel and audience agreed that training can go right to the bottom line by improving renewal rates, tenant acquisition, and NOI.

13. Reward tenure. Rewarding tenure is one of those little things that’s easy to overlook. “When I miss one, I do hear about it,” said Ford, adding that his 30-year-old company still has three original employees. Instead of handing out pins or lapels, Simpson allows employees to pick items from a gift catalog.

13. Send personal notes. How many times have people in the company achieved something significant, and you didn’t recognize their accomplishment? “I can tell from my experience that things like personal calls and hand written notes are very effective, and don’t cost anything except your time,” said Woodward.

14. Throw a big party. Freeman-Webb shuts down Tennessee operations for a half day every December and buses employees in for a big party. “We hand out every award you can dream of,” said Ford. “Everyone dresses up in holiday garb. We recognize tenure. We talk about special things that happened this year, what’s going to happen next year.”

15. Do something goofy. It started out as a joke, but now it’s a tradition. In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, Laramar has a Turkey Bowl. Employees bowl frozen birds down the hallway, knocking over cans of cranberries and pumpkin filling. This has been going on for five years.

16. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Great Western executives participate in a dunking booth at company parties. Two years ago, they agreed to wash employee cars from 9 a.m. to noon. The event proved so popular, however, that car wash hours had to be extended 6 p.m. That may be why the event wasn’t repeated the following year.

17. Reward company credo. Every company has a mission statement; fewer put money where their mouth is. At Simpson, managers use a company credo program to herald the accomplishments of everyday work. Great Western does a call for nominations; winners go to lunch with the executive committee.

18. Eliminate boondoggles. It’s funny how word gets around when company executives leave on a company retreat to an exotic place where little planning takes place. By the same token, employees may question why the company is having a big holiday party when raises are small or salaries capped. “We’re not going to have a big huge boondoggle holiday party this year either,” said Simpson’s Steeg.

19. Celebrate birthdays. An audience member got everyone’s attention when she said that she never misses an employee’s birthday. Even when she doesn’t know the employee personally, she sends a card with an invitation to call or email. A personal touch goes a long way.

20. Decorate in style. At Simpson, departments compete for the best Halloween decorations. The IT department one year became a graveyard. Another company pits properties in a competition for the strangest winter holiday lighting schemes.