How flexibility in condo management could help attract and retain talent

Wednesday, December 14, 2022
By Rebecca Melnyk –


The pandemic has prompted a widespread reevaluation of the workplace across industries, but some members of Ontario’s condo sector have long foreseen shifts that are necessary to improve a property manager’s working conditions and ease the labour shortage that is expected to hit a crisis level.

There are now fewer experienced managers for boards to choose from. Ontario currently houses 12,120 condo corporations and, according to the most recent data from the CMRAO, 3,858 licensed managers, of which 2,417 are general licensees.

Stacey Kurck, Vice President of Client Engagement and Business Development at FirstService Residential, says flexible staffing models could be one way to attract and retain skilled talent, while relieving some financial pressure that boards are experiencing amid rising costs.

“Most buildings in the GTA request a full-time experienced manager in the site office,” she says. “By changing the staffing structure at buildings, in this labour shortage market, we can create staffing models that align with the budget of the building and yet still maintain good quality managers.”

The Canadian workplace is undergoing a mindset shift, where being on-site Monday to Friday, nine-to-five, isn’t necessarily making workers more productive. As Kurck explains, for condo managers, while much depends upon the community (perhaps it’s a brand-new high-rise that requires a lot of directional guidance) and what sorts of issues pop up (“if you have a flood in the building that changes everything; it’s all hands on deck”), there’s not much of a difference between being on-site versus managing the asset from home or a head office.

Flexibility could also trickle down to cost savings, specifically when considering the addition of on-site support staff. “If the board agrees to reduce the needed site hours of the general licensed property manager because their management company is able to manage most of the administrative tasks from their operations support centre, this would provide a reduction in need of an onsite property manager and, therefore, reduce the budget for management somewhat,” explains Kurck.

“Additionally, for the communities that still want the presence of someone onsite, having a limited licensed property manager and/or a qualified condo administrator can fulfill those needed site hours.”

She advises that condos with more than 350 units could support a full-time property manager and administrator. Condos with more than 800 units could have three staff onsite such as a property manager, assistant property manager and administrator. “To have one property manager assigned to the community full-time is considered a luxury customer service model, compared to other markets such as British Columbia.”

Staffing perspectives from the West Coast

Strata managers, as they are called in British Columbia, are not sited, but rather handle portfolios from a head office. One manager oversees multiple buildings from afar, and this has always been the case since the industry started up. There is heavy reliance on trades, where vendors and other site staff keep them abreast of the daily happenings within the multi-residential buildings.

Sean Ingraham, Senior Vice President of FirstService Residential BC, says within his company there are seven to eight buildings per strata manager, compared to the industry average of 12 to 16. Up until the pandemic, the 102 licensees were traveling to their downtown Vancouver office every day to care for their buildings.

When COVID hit, the B.C. branch had a strong IT background and was able to send employees home to work with little interruption. “We’re seeing greater flexibility on our end with what strata managers do,” he says. “If they have an AGM and don’t get home till midnight, we’re flexible on their start time.”

Vancouver is also one of the most expensive places to live in Canada. Some of Ingraham’s team members live far out in the suburbs and were commuting almost one-and-half hours each way. Now, some are able to travel to the office one day a week and work the other four days at home.

“Productivity for us is actually better because they don’t have to commute,” says Ingraham. “It’s also better for our managers because with the shift to technology and being able to work remotely, they’re able to work from site.”

In that respect, customer service has also improved. Managers are able to spend time at the condo, to “get the scope” of various projects while working from an amenity room via Wi-Fi. “It’s been really interesting to see that shift, where now our managers can be more fluid and move around buildings and their home and still continue to do work,” says Ingraham, noting “a large part of the job is administrative.”

A looming danger

Companies with fluid staffing models have an easier time recruiting talent, says Ingraham. “Some of our competitors are going back to old school— ‘got to be in the office at 8:30 every day’—and I know we’re winning talent from those that are inflexible.”

His company recently hired a strata manager to facilitate onboarding teams. Although she lives four hours from the office, they were able to hire the “class-A talent” by being flexible.

“We have four-and-a-half day work weeks here in Ontario for FirstService,” adds Kurck. “Essentially, we know managers manage more than eight hours a day. . . I’d say 90 per cent of boards have no problem with it and believe it’s the right thing to do.”

“It’s also about retaining top talent—the ones we are training to keep here,” she says. For instance, a senior manager at the company who works at a 1000-plus unit high-rise in downtown Toronto recently moved over an hour away.

“The board didn’t want to lose her and said they’d be flexible. She committed to twice a week on site,” says Kurck. “Because of her senior position, she trained the on-site staff. . . they have their daily meetings over Zoom. At the end of the day, we’d find her another home if that board was not going to be flexible.”

In B.C., a group of associations started waving red flags to the BC Financial Services Authority (BCFSA). “We are warning the government and regulator that there is a danger to the public coming because so many managers are in the older demographic,” says Ingraham.

New data from the BCFSA reveals that 36 per cent of managers in B.C. are Boomers, between 56 and 75 years old. “It’s rare in our industry that someone works at 65,” he says. “It’s going to be a crisis soon if they start retiring in the next four to five years because there are not nearly enough people coming into the industry to replace them. There are lots of new stratas being built, and legislation, compliance and legal are getting more and more challenging.”

The same issues apply to Ontario, except Boomers already started retiring early in 2017 when CMRAO licensing rolled out. “We already had approximately 25 per cent attrition, and the GTA region is seeing over 50 new condos register per year,” says Kurck.

“We’re typically not an industry that has people fresh out of high school, and rarely college,” she adds. “It’s about learning that skill and it usually takes time for someone to mature to deal with people who maybe aren’t at their best.”

Shifting the paradigm and future trends

In B.C., there are few companies with dedicated people who train new hires on how to manage a building. “In most cases, like when I started, you’re thrown the keys on day two and you’ve got to learn,” says Ingraham. “So, attrition in the industry is super high. All these people are in sink or swim and most of them sink.”

FirstService BC kickstarted a training program that has been running for five years. Out of its 102 strata managers, 27 per cent went through the program. They had been newly licensed and trained to be portfolio managers over six months. “It’s a big financial investment, deep into the six figures every year for us, but it’s better because we’re getting great candidates. Out of all the managers who trained—we only lost two.”

There is also a shift to more of a ‘support network around managers’, for instance, specialists with technical know-how who help managers to handle portfolios. “The expectation of the client is that sometimes the manager knows everything—from HR and working with the on-site associates to being a roofing expert. “It’s nice to see the industry shift where there is support around that manager so they don’t have to be the expert in everything, and I think we’re going to continue to see that trend,” says Ingraham.

In the shift to progressive staffing models in Ontario, management companies could offer flexible solutions like back-end operational teams or administrators. Kurck acknowledges this extra support is typically seen with larger management firms who can roll out policies with flexible workplace models.

If a company has a 24-7-365 customer care department to address common questions, she says a condo could migrate 50 per cent of a property manager’s day-to-day administrative duties. This would allow for more focus on the property, meeting with specialists and working on the budget. “The overall expenses can be reduced by a variety of ways, such as using AvidXchange and having a verified vendor program like VIVE.”

Board members also figure highly into the paradigm shift, as newer members might have less antiquated ideas of what a manager’s workplace should look like.

“If you’ve never been a board member, you have a fresh perspective,” says Kurck. “There are a lot more people living in condos than ever before who are new to community living, but they’re professionals for the most part. Maybe they’re an accountant by day and join the board because they want to take control of their assets. When they’re learning that, they can learn by saying what is needed.”

For starters, must the friendly face downstairs be a general licensed manager since there are only 2000 to go around? Or, can boards be open to new faces who are being trained, eager to learn and backed with resources?

“Boards are always looking to save money, although it’s not always possible if you want quality management. Let’s continue to ensure managers are employed and paid appropriately, while also providing a more flexible work environment, benefits that matter, and a work environment that is harassment free.”