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A detailed and comprehensive onboarding process is critical to make new hires feel comfortable and to position them for success. But today’s multifamily associates don’t want their growth and development to end there.

In an industry in which attracting and retaining high-performing talent is crucial, operators are using a variety of methods to equip their associates to continually grow and develop.

“Offering a robust learning and development program ensures you’ll keep the people who you want the most—those eager to learn and hungry to grow and develop,” says Jenny Schoellhorn, director of learning and development for Birchstone Residential. “If they don’t have that opportunity, they’ll seek it out elsewhere.”

It is no secret that engaged employees fuel company success. Yet according to a recent poll from Gallup, employee engagement across industries has declined in recent years after about a decade of gradual improvement. The poll indicates that 32% of employees were engaged in 2022 (a decrease from the high-water mark of 36% in 2020), while 17% were actively disengaged, the highest total since 2000.

Opportunities for growth and development were heavily desired by respondents, and ostensibly factored into their reported engagement levels. Aware of the glaring need, cutting-edge multifamily organizations have prominently factored learning and development initiatives into the associate life cycle and have reaped the benefits.

Make All L&D Materials Accessible for Everyone—and Get Creative

At Birchstone Residential, a Coppell, Texas-based operator that launched in 2020, learning and development is a primary priority. The company ensures L&D opportunities are available and accessible to everybody, an initiative that includes an open library of materials available for self-service-style learning. Additionally, all materials are available digitally, such as training materials that employees can access at their leisure.

“We’re here to partner with our associates no matter what their ambitions are—whether they want to be a lifelong leasing agent because they love sales, or someone who wishes to explore different departments,” Schoellhorn says. “We’ve had a maintenance team member who eventually became part of the operations team. And one of the leaders at Birchstone started as a porter in the industry, moved up to property manager, and continued up the ladder to director of maintenance.”

Every piece of content pertaining to any role at Birchstone is available for anyone, Schoellhorn says. Employees are free to absorb it at their own pace and have the green light to cross-train for other roles or branches within the organization. Birchstone also utilizes a pairing system, in which new hires are paired with an established associate, such as a tenured property manager, to assist with the onboarding process. The established associate remains a go-to source after the initial pairing, which is part of the company's focus on one-on-one support.

“What I’ve commonly seen in my years in the industry is a one-size-fits-all approach,” Schoellhorn says. “‘Here’s how you go from a leasing agent to an assistant to a property manager—and you have to take these specific steps to make it happen.’ I don’t think the world works that way, so we focus on giving our team members opportunities that might be outside of the classic route or support that might not look the same for every team member every time, because everyone has different needs.”

Birchstone also focuses on contemporary training and leadership development, including personality assessments (using tools such CliftonStrengths, The Predictive Index, and Topgrading) to better connect with associates on a personal and professional level.

"Don’t ignore that people are hungry for feedback as well," Schoellhorn says. "They want constructive feedback to help them grow, and when you create a culture of growing and learning, your underachievers will be filtered out because they won’t feel comfortable if everyone around them is pushing them to grow. They can either buy in or move on. It helps the entire organization when everyone shares a vision for excellence."

Development Programs and Mental Health Breaks

Mill Creek Residential, one of the nation's most established developers and operators, has various yearly on-site programs designed to foster associate growth. These include development and leadership training programs for service technicians, assistant community managers, community managers, and regional managers. In addition to the extensive onboarding training program, associates have access to self-paced learning opportunities to spur further workforce development.

“We really give them the tools they need to support their own curiosity and growth in the way they prefer,” says Taryn Silva, vice president of learning and development of property operations for Mill Creek. “One of the things I love about what we do today is that we have cultivated and curated so many on-demand, self-service learning opportunities. The courses and job resources are not solely focused on day-to-day tasks, which of course are important, but they also focus on wellness and skill set development. For instance, if you’re not an Excel pro, not a problem, you can quickly hop in and take a course.”

In the last two years when everyone’s mental health has been tested by the pandemic and its impacts, adding wellness courses have been especially beneficial, according to Silva. The courses provide the opportunity for associates to take a few minutes to reset, which Silva notes is unique in the industry. It’s part of Mill Creek’s mission to focus on associates as a whole and what they need to be supported and successful.

It’s universally known that many industries struggle to find ways to support the personal development of associates, including mentoring, coaching, and mapping a path to personal growth. Silva believes that in a people-centric industry such as multifamily, it should be a primary focus. Mill Creek's L&D initiatives factor into one of the company's core values, she says, which is to create a culture of continuous improvement.

“The truth is that associates want to stay with an organization when they believe it really cares about their personal and professional development, and we want to provide them with that opportunity,” Silva says.

Further Evolution of Associate Development

The consequences of undeveloped associates are clear. The lack of engagement will eventually lead to poor resident retention and perhaps worse—quiet quitting. This buzz term from the 2020s pertains to associates who do the bare minimum to keep their jobs but essentially have checked out. Cue one of the many sadly humorous lines from “Office Space” on the topic.

Through L&D initiatives, the apartment industry has done a commendable job of creating engaged associates and offering a blueprint for them to move forward. As such an important undertaking, these efforts are bound to further evolve. Schoellhorn anticipates companies will continue to enhance learning opportunities, some in microburst, social-media-style snippets that are easy to digest. Tech will also assist, she says, including plug-ins for search engines that can filter into the learning management system.

“There will be a continual gap between companies who do it well and those who don't,” Schoellhorn says. “Those on the plus side will continue to successfully adopt new technologies and outpace their competitors.”

Silva says the industry can benefit from combining a back-to-basics approach with the proper mix of technology to reconnect and engage associates. That effort will set the stage for further growth.

“I’d also like to see associates continue to pursue mentorships and development opportunities that are aligned with their passions,” Silva says. “Growth doesn’t have to be limited to one department. For instance, an on-site associate could grow to join the technology team or another area of the organization.”

Eager and engaged associates not only create a pleasant work environment. They decrease turnover, which prevents high replacement costs, and lead to happier renters, which results in higher resident retention rates. Learning and development programs help make it happen.