"The way you win in the marketplace is through people," Peter Lynch, chief people officer at Cardinal Group Cos., told attendees at the Multifamily Executive Conference in Las Vegas in mid-September.
"The way you win in the marketplace is through people," Peter Lynch, chief people officer at Cardinal Group Cos., told attendees at the Multifamily Executive Conference in Las Vegas in mid-September.

The importance of people—whether employees, residents, or clients—was a major discussion point at the annual Multifamily Executive Conference, which was back in person in mid-September in Las Vegas.

“The way you win in the marketplace is through people,” said Peter Lynch, chief people officer at Cardinal Group Cos. “People are the greatest advantage to a company.”

Several industry leaders shared their tips for hiring and retaining talent in a challenging environment, developing a robust company culture for current and prospective employees, and prioritizing diversity and equity.

Contagious Company Culture

Conversation, connection, and calling are the three critical components to creating a powerful workplace culture that will help recruit and retain talent, according to Lynch.

“There’s a ‘great resignation’ that people fear is coming, and culture will save you,” Lynch said.

His first strategy is around the power of conversation, noting that many people ask vague questions such as “how are you doing?” that generate one-word answers. “Ask better questions and stimulate amazing conversation,” he told the audience.

With more than half of the workforce feeling invisible, he said his second strategy is around connection. “The No. 1 driver of performance is recognition,” he said. “If you build connection, you’ll win the game.”

Lynch also added that employees want to see authenticity, and strong leaders can make real connections by showing their weaknesses.

His third strategy is finding a calling that feels special through introspection and extrospection. “Do real introspective work on the things that make you awesome and the things that make you awesome that you don’t like,” he said.

Finding the New Normal

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided new perspectives for industry executives on striking the right balance between working from home and going back to the office.

The industry must accept the new normal, said Steadfast Apartment REIT president Ella Neyland, adding that she sees it as an opportunity and not a one-size-fits-all solution.

For Neyland, being in the office is beneficial for interacting and being collaborative with colleagues. However, she said while the executive team and senior management need to be in the office, different working environments can be created for departments such as human resources and marketing.

“We can provide flexibility for groups that don’t need to be in the office all the time,” she said.

Greg Bates, president and CEO of GID, said he also realized during the pandemic that he’s a social learner and needs to be in an office setting with colleagues.

“We plan to return to a work-to-work situation,” he said, but added that the Boston-based firm has strived to be flexible around work schedules so people have time to enjoy hobbies and go to children’s sporting or school events.

“We have doubled down on our people, and our culture has gotten a lot stronger and helped attract new talent,” he said. “At the end of the day, energy is infectious. That is more important than financial rewards.”

Proactive Approaches to Find New Talent

Allison Dunavant, vice president of organizational development at Camden; Ashley Napoli, vice president of human resources at Continental Properties; and Marcella Eppsteiner, senior vice president of marketing, training, and revenue management at Mission Rock Residential, shared several strategies for a proactive approach to finding new talent—from updating benefits and leveraging technology to linking culture, brand, and marketing.

“What are we asking employees to do on-site?” asked Dunavant. “We have a unique opportunity to look at the things that can be automated or streamlined so employees can focus on their strengths.”

On benefit packages, Napoli said it’s important to stay relevant and competitive. Some of the changes recently made at Continental Properties are closing property offices on holidays, summer hours, a relaxed dress code, expanded paid time off and rollover benefits, telehealth, as well as incentives for living on-site.

“I would encourage you to do a cost benefit analysis,” she said. “You don’t need to be a trendsetter, but you need to stay relevant.”

Dunavant added that you have to be creative and can no longer just provide a standard set of benefits for new employees.

“The pandemic has changed a lot,” she said, adding that one benefit Camden offered during the pandemic was a learning stipend to help employees whose children were at home doing virtual school. “Employees want more than compensation. Think outside the box, and build a value proposition for them.”

Eppsteiner also emphasized it’s important for your branding to match your culture to get the right message out to prospective talent.

“The tone, the wording, the images need to reflect the experience,” she said. Mission Rock Residential recently rewrote job descriptions to lead with the mission, shifting from the focus on daily tasks to impact-based roles.

GSEs’ Focus on DEI

Executives from government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac weighed in on what they are doing around diversity, equity, and inclusion for their workforce, their lender networks, and residents.

“One piece is how do you bring diverse talent into the workforce,” said Rob Levin, multifamily chief customer officer and senior vice president at Fannie Mae.

Fannie Mae has provided mentors through Project Destined, an organization that partners with commercial real estate firms to provide an eight-week internship program. It also is working with its Delegated Underwriting and Servicing (DUS) lenders to recruit more diverse employees.

Levin said almost all of its DUS lenders posted job listings, and the ad campaign and links to the job openings, which launched in August, already had 18,000 views.

“We have to do it, not just for ESG and being good for our organizations, but it’s good for our nation,” he said.

While Freddie Mac supports liquidity, stability, and affordability, equity has become a fourth pillar for the firm, said Ian Ouwerkerk, vice president of multifamily underwriting at the GSE.

Internally, Freddie Mac has doubled down on recruitment and mentorship. Externally, it focuses on supporting diverse borrowers, renters, and the community. One priority, Ouwerkerk said, is building credit for renters and incentivizing landlords to report positive rental payments. The GSE also is partnering with operators to provide access to financial training for residents, from creating a household budget to saving for a house downpayment.