Smiling Under The Mask
As our national isolation grinds on, and with little hope of change anytime soon, the crisis adrenaline that kept us going in the early weeks has worn off, and we’re over the novelty of it all. We’ve amused ourselves with Zoom backgrounds and we’ve delighted over one another’s kids and we’ve learned the value of the mute button. We’ve dug into the logistical challenges of this new landscape and figured out how we’ll survive. Small business owners, myself included, dove deep into the art of the pivot (in the before times, we thought we knew all about pivoting! Ha!). The new normal is getting old, and yet we know the end is nowhere in sight. It’s hard not to feel deeply burdened with the state of the world.
I’m the owner and founder of Flock, a family of mid-sized property management companies in Washington, DC that keeps 52 folks employed. Our weekly staff meetings have become an exercise in bearing witness, as we each begin to comprehend the scope of this crisis, grapple with what it means for us and our families, and slowly accept the painful reality that much more of this lies ahead. Possibly and unbearably, it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.
In this shared reality, I frequently remind myself that I have to leave room for the sadness, frustration and anger of my team members. Each of them are grieving on their own timelines.
I worry for their emotional and mental health. I worry about their families and their futures. I worry that they’re falling into the same internet rabbit holes as me, those gloomy places where you find disturbingly educated speculations on food supply chains, riots, political unrest, economic collapse. Where you read credible sources saying we’ll be here for 18 months, 24 months. Except nobody knows what “here” really is. That the lives we’re living now is a new baseline, and things will never really return to the way they were.
We cope by embracing kindness and celebrating the smallest of victories. We remind ourselves that the old way of life was pretty lousy for a whole lot of people and for our planet anyway, and that a newer, better way of life is ours for the making. My personal morale-boosting coping strategies include tapping into my inner inspirational leader; suspending disbelief; and, let’s be honest, a fair amount of wine.
A few days ago I was video chatting with our team member Ben Berkow about life during the pandemic. Hiring Ben was a big win for the company. When our residents slip into their new front doors and are welcomed by a fresh, perfectly maintained and prepared space, it’s Ben they have to thank.
He’s a former elementary school teacher with seriously good people skills who can also mix up a killer cocktail. Ben is a fountain of extroverted positivity and chatty good cheer, great with residents, clients and his team. To make a living helping folks navigate one of life’s most stressful activities–moving house–you’ve got to like people a lot. And anyone who knows Ben also knows the feeling is mutual.
Ben is not built for social distancing, nevermind a lockdown. Nearly all aspects of his job have become virtual, from managing maintenance to conducting move-out inspections, and he’s struggling. The human interactions he feeds on aren’t entirely gone, but he finds them disturbingly muted. “Video meetings are fine, and I’m grateful for the technology, but it’s not even close to the same,” he said. “And in the rare instances when I’m face to face with an actual person, I find myself smiling like crazy under the mask. Then I remember they can’t gauge my expression. But I just keep grinning, in the hope they can see it in my eyes.”
My team is bruised but still scrappy. The company is set back but still fundamentally well. It helps that our industry is essentially recession-proof. Maybe even depression proof. The reality is, everyone needs a place to live. Still, others in our field are not faring as well. Our saving grace has turned out to be the same asset that got the company this far, the asset that grew us from a single adobe bungalow in Tucson Arizona to a family of companies that aggregate $6.5 million in business annually. That asset is our company culture.
Our culture manifests in a lot of ways, one of which is transparency. This tool has served me well during this crisis. I chose early to be honest and painfully open. I prefer this over the quiet, solo fretting and sleeplessness nights that some CEOs are “leading with.” Not that worry and insomnia are strangers to me. I’m inclined to bolt out of bed at all hours with a new idea for salvaging what I can, or else to stay in bed all day long. But I talk about it with the team. I tell them what the outlook is, good or bad. I make sure they understand the numbers, and the danger those numbers represent. They knew very early on that our livelihoods were at stake. And with that, the bottom line was seen as ours, not just mine.
I realized very early on that the first payroll protection plan I could count on was simply to gut my salary, so I cut it by 75 percent. Servant survival mode is my new set point. In many ways this period feels like a return to the origins of the company. Very few members of my team remember the long period when the leader truly ate last. In the early days, to keep payroll…paid. I went four years without taking a salary: I’d promised to take care of my staff and I did. You can’t run a service based business with servers that are underpaid and too few. That math was simple, even if the financial realities scared me.
The math worked, as did the team. And they worked hard. As the company thrived, I committed to bonusing nearly all profits back to the talent. We added benefits whenever and however we could: unlimited time off, fully paid healthcare, cell phone coverage, commuter stipends, short and long term disability, three month paid family leave, 401k matches, student loan assistance, and more. We shared the bounty early and often, so much so that creating a “best place to work” sometimes felt like an exercise in outbidding ourselves. And to be honest, some folks began to take these measures for granted rather than understanding them as an investment in our culture and our team. In the minds of a few, no matter how much we did, it never seemed quite enough.
Corona times changed all that, as our team looks around and sees how many friends and family have been left in the cold by their employers. With genuine transparency, we eliminated every unnecessary expense and put under lock and key every job and every benefit we could. These measures, along with the leaders eat last mind-set, have not gone unnoticed. Gratitude has emerged stronger than before. My team has seen that not only am I willing to walk the talk, but that if necessary I’ll do it barefoot.
We’re also celebrating everything. We no longer take for granted the small wins. We repaired a roof? Incredible! We leased a dinky parking space? Hell yes! Coached a tenant through a toilet flapper repair? WOOT!
“It’s the uncertainty,” Ben told me when we spoke recently. I’ve been scheduling one-on-one check-ins with every one of our fifty plus people. Check-ins are a big part of our culture. Even more so now. Every manager, every day, calls every member of their team. Task number one is to find how they’re doing, personally. How’s their health, how are their kids, parents, partner? How are the pets? The distant relatives? How’s their home? How’s their state of mind?
“I feel consumed by the unknown,” Ben said. What could I say to this? Exactly nothing: Despite my name, I have no wise words. All I can do is listen, and empathize. Ben recognizes this. At the end of the call he told me how he values the cultural foundation we’ve built, the trust and social capital necessary to support one another authentically. “I’m really comforted by these personal check-ins, both from my managers and with my team. Nobody has the answers, but here we all are, learning how to survive. Taking care of ourselves emotionally is a survival skill. And so is empathy.”
We closed our offices at 15th and U on March 13. That afternoon I stood with Grace, the Flock President and my professional right hand, under the now iconic mural of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. that we commissioned for the side of our building. When the Justice sent a personal note of appreciation, I was flying high. Now my work life feels more like a crash landing.
But it’s a crash we’ve survived. On Friday March, 13th, Grace and I wondered aloud how we would manage properties we couldn’t visit. How we would we survive remotely. How we would keep the team functioning. How we would solve problems–and do it as cheerfully as usual–when we can’t see them with our own eyes.
We’ve learned the answer isn’t Zoom meetings or Google Hangouts or virtual happy hours. These are nice, but they’re just tactics, not a safety net. What’s saving us now is the company culture we’ve worked so hard to develop. Leaning into our culture is a way of work life for our Flock, but we’ve never tried it during a pandemic. Yet it feels natural and authentic. Even as we distanced, we moved fast and furious to protect and nurture our connections to one another.
Practically, this means daily updates from me to the entire staff on business solvency, continuity and strategy. I keep transparency at the forefront, along with a bit of inspiration. We are deliberate about consistent and meaningful time to engage visually rather than reverting to audio calls. We give one another permission and leeway not to be operating at 100 percent, especially for those with kids at home. We give the staff time off: on a recent Friday, we designated a personal “(re)treat day,” the kind you can spend with a cocktail or two, or giving yourself a four hour pedicure, or while asleep. Nobody was watching. We have also gifted our team with simple, cost-effective surprises like delivering a six pack of craft beer or a nice red wine to their door.
Alongside personal check-ins, we launched a staff survey to determine not just productivity but everyone’s mental wellness and work-life balance. We hired a therapist to offer a professional ear during this time. And because philanthropy makes everyone feel better, we’re doubling down on our work to support the community. Last week we raised $4,000 in donations to help our local belagured restaurants deliver meals to medical teams and to staff tending to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. To be frank, we’ve never felt so rich. We are grateful for the reminder that good fortune is measured more than just financially.
Before Grace and I parted ways on that gorgeous March day, I had one last unanswerable question. “When?” I wanted her to tell me when we would return to this building, to our work home. When we would congratulate one another for having survived and succeeded.
She couldn’t, of course. “Who knows,” Grace said. “But we do know that we are essential. No matter what or when, we will always be welcoming people home.”
When I look through my bird watching binoculars, I see a future where we’ll be reunited sooner than we think. Human ingenuity will beat a path to safe togetherness once again. As for us, we’re busy working on a 24 month business plan that considers the need for Flock-branded personal protective equipment (already someone has invented a mask with a window for the hearing impaired, so safe smiling may be coming soon!), staff rotations, small scale meetings and whole new ways of engaging meaningfully with our residents, our property owners and our community. Soon enough we will emerge from this all-consuming unknown into a future we’ve created. We’ll nest back into our groove, tap into our creativity and our moxie, and when we come back together we’ll have invented a new normal that’s far better than the old.