Bob Abbott from Alarca Realty in North Carolina used to be a work-from-home skeptic. Now, he’s an advocate, and we asked him to join The Property Management Show to talk about how to establish a virtual property management team and what you can do to keep your team members productive and accountable. We asked him to talk about the tools he uses to make this work for him and his company.

Introducing Bob Abbott and Alarca Realty

Alarca Realty handles properties in the Charlotte, North Carolina market. They’ve been in business since 2005, and Bob got started in real estate because he wanted to flip houses. Then, he moved into property management and was comfortably building that business when the last economic storm arrived. He and his company have been focused on property management since 2010.

Transition from Brick and Mortar Office to Virtual Property Management Team

Turning your property management company into a remote business doesn’t happen overnight. Baby steps are best. Bob started by talking to people at conferences. He planned and mapped this out three years before taking any concrete steps.

Then, he turned some of his invoicing over to a company that provided virtual assistants. It was working well, so he hired another company called Virtually Incredible to help with processing applications.

As this continued to work, he began to hire virtual assistants on his own, without the help of a third-party company. Remote assistants and virtual team members began doing marketing and now they also talk to clients and tenants.

Cost was a factor in this decision; remote labor is cheaper. But for Bob, even more important was keeping his core team happy. His local employees were feeling overwhelmed, and as he slowly began to take things off their plates and advertise for the jobs they didn’t want to do, everybody began doing better work. It was a win for the company, the current team members, and the new remote workers.

This began in 2014, when Alarca Realty had three full-time employees and about 140 doors under management.

So: how remote can you take your property management business? For Bob, anyone who needs to set foot on the property obviously has to be a local employee. Everything else is done remotely. Bob has a separate maintenance company and the maintenance crews handling repairs and turnovers need to be in the local area.

Keeping the Company at a Comfortable Size

With his virtual property management team making growth easy, the company grew to managing 250 properties. Then, there was an epiphany about work/life balance, and Alarca Realty slowly began to shed the clients who weren’t fun to work with. Bob focused on keeping the happy clients and culling those who were never happy or who were difficult for the team to manage.

If you’re like most property managers, you probably remember the early days of signing every owner who wanted to hire you.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Alarca Realty is in a place where it’s okay to be selective, and they’re managing about 150 doors. The upside for Bob, he says, is that he can spend his summers with his family while working two to four hours a day.

Working with clients who align with the company’s vision has made a big difference, just as remote workers have. Any owner who didn’t want to perform necessary maintenance on their property was cut. Any owner who was abrasive and rude to Alarca’s team members was also cut. There was a bit of a financial hit initially, but the company is more productive now, and happier.

Checklists and Workflows and Process: More Important than Ever

It’s easy to think you’ve thought out an entire process before you implement it.

The basics can easily get lost when you’re planning to move your entire team remote. For example, new remote workers had to be trained on logging into PropertyWare. The training has to be specific, and Bob put together checklists and made videos.

He also used a tool called Screen CastOMatic, where he could film himself doing something. He’d share that link with his virtual assistants so they could see exactly how things were done. It’s an ongoing process because software changes and so do technologies. As you grow, more people are using your checklists, and you have to begin relying on those team members to update the checklists.

They don’t always do that.

Bob’s solution is pretty brilliant. In his market, the slowest months of the year are November and December. So, every Wednesday in November and December, the company closes for process improvement days. No one answers the phone or handles regular business. Instead, they focus on tightening up checklists and improving workflows and procedures.

It takes this part of the process out of the day-to-day work for Bob’s virtual property management company. It’s not an interruption.

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Accountability: Helping Team Members Own the Process

All accountability starts at the top. If you are being asked questions, you have to answer them. But, that only trains your employees to keep coming back to you with questions.

When one of Bob’s team members asks him a question, he answers by:

  • Asking what the checklist says.
  • Asking whether what the checklist says is wrong, and why.
  • Asking the employee’s suggestions for changing the checklist.

This has minimized the questions that his team asks. They solve the problems on their own and they can usually find their answers in those checklists. They no longer need the validation from the company’s owner that they’re doing the right thing.

The daily huddle is another way that everyone stays accountable and on task. If you have a traditional office, you can show up in the morning and people are grabbing coffee and talking intrinsically about what’s happening in the day. So for a remote team, you may need a 15-minute chat about the red flags for the day. Cover what’s going on during the day so the whole team is aware of any potential issues.

Maintaining Morale with Remote Team Members

When you are working remotely, maintaining positive morale is important. The daily huddle helps with this as well.

Bob’s team uses Slack, where people post random photos from their weekends or share jokes and conversations. This is a good way for Bob to give his team personal attention. The online community that’s established allows him to show his team members that they’re important and valued.

Listen to your virtual assistants when you’re looking for ways to improve morale. Most of them have done remote work for other companies. They can tell you what works and what doesn’t.

It’s hard to find a downside to remote workers, particularly in this environment. Alarca Realty’s business has not missed a beat during this crisis. Everything is moving along the same way that it always has. It takes time to establish the right systems, and you have to have the right personality to manage this successfully. You also need great documentation.

This is the opportunity many property management company owners have been waiting for; it’s a chance to let go of the tasks they don’t want to do. It optimizes your team. Remember also that you don’t have to create full time jobs for every remote worker you hire. If you have 20 hours of work a week and you can outsource to Planet Synergy, that’s a great way to start.

This won’t work for everyone. Some people love going to the office. They like going in and being with their employees. They like to see their team and have their tenants come in and pay rent.

Shared work spaces are still used by Bob and Alarca. If a tenant wants to see a human face or hand over a rent check, they can do that. He’s also using a mailing service where the company’s mail is picked up and opened, then scanned. It goes to one of the virtual assistants and no one even has to open any mail. It’s called Anytime Mailbox, and not only is this a time saver, it also eliminates junk mail.

Productivity and Accountability: Setting Standards

Bob was once skeptical of people working remotely because he expected they’d screw off all day and get no work done. You have to trust people. You know that there are people who don’t pull their weight; most company owners know who those people are, and you’re going to have them whether you’ve got a remote team or an in-person office staff.

There’s a tool called Time Doctor, which takes a screen shot every nine minutes that reflects what the team members are doing. They also have to record what they’re working on. The keystrokes of the mouse are recorded as well, so it’s easy to see what each employee is doing. It tracks productivity.

This may sound invasive and terrifying, but it’s not meant to be something that you’re watching all day long. Bob uses it only to verify any suspicions he has about a team member who may not be working the way they should be. He doesn’t monitor his team and reprimand them for watching a YouTube video once in a while.

Remote workers are accustomed to this. It’s not uncommon.

Hiring Remote Workers for Specific Jobs

Bob hires very specifically. He has one person who is a client service representative, and her job is to talk to everyone. She’s not doing any marketing or work orders; she’s talking to owners and tenants. Her job description is to pretend she’s the client so she can be responsive and provide an excellent service.

If your bookkeeper leaves your property management company, you can probably hire two or three remote workers for what you were paying your bookkeeper. That allows them to work better and to focus on specific parts of the bookkeeping job. It’s specialization that leads to better service.

Culture is every bit as important with your remote team. You have to hire for the right fit and position. No two people are in the same place at the same time. You’re still a team.

When COVID first hit the country, Alarca Realty sent out a bulk email to all tenants inviting them to get in touch if they needed help or if they were struggling with rent payments. The remote team was nervous about calling the tenants; they didn’t know what to expect from people who were stressed and financially unstable. So, Bob made the first four calls. He recorded himself talking to those tenants, and the team could use those videos as trainings. Now, they know how to handle these calls.

When you’re training people, it’s tempting to teach one instance. But, there are always going to be unique situations and stipulations. Providing multiple examples is extremely helpful.

Bob is quick to admit that employee onboarding is not his strongest skill. He’s working on getting the first 30 days really lined up for his new hires.

Nick Cook in Portland did a fantastic job on his onboarding manual. He has quizzes and links to videos and articles, and Bob has realized he can take those videos he made for the phone calls and make it part of his onboarding process.

Bob’s Four-Hour Remote Work Day

Bob’s work day is dramatically different than it once was. He does the huddles every day for both Alarca and his maintenance company. Then, he puts in about four hours a day. He can work more if he wants; there’s always something to do. But, the day-to-day tasks are in the capable hands of his remote team.

Two team members have been with the company for over three years. They have access to credit cards and are able to pay the bills. They pay utility bills and reconcile bank accounts. With remote work, the opportunity for fraud has actually disappeared. There are no paper checks and nothing to steal. The risk is low.

As the owner of a virtual property management company, Bob’s day now is spent managing and troubleshooting. He uses Help Scout, which is an email box that everyone can access to see what’s going on and what needs to be done. It shows previous emails and provides a summary that helps Bob with process improvement and business development.

He’s also doing business development and talking to potential owners. The next hire will likely be a BDM and an onboarding specialist.

Tools and Checklists for Virtual Property Management Teams

In addition to implementing EOS, the best tools Bob is using to keep his remote team accountable and productive are:

These things can help you keep a culture and a team together even while everyone is apart.

The checklist system will be your most important asset, and Process Street is a good place to start. A remote showing service like Tenant Turner or Rently is critical. Allow tenants to pay rent in cash at Walmart with a Rent Money or a Pay Near Me system.

Treat your remote workers like your team. They’re not different because they’re elsewhere.

We’re happy Bob was able to talk with us about his virtual property management team today. If you have any questions, contact him at Alarca Realty, or get in touch with our team at Fourandhalf.

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