By Erica Shatzer
In March, no one could have predicted that COVID-19 would be an ongoing issue and topic of discussion in November. Even though we are growing more accustomed to the “new normal” each passing day, with face masks becoming more of a fashionable (yet mandatory) accessory than a piece of protective equipment, the need for self-storage operators to provide focused leadership remains.
According to Ann Parham, CEO and president of Bulverde, Texas-based Joshua Management, positivity and flexibility have been—and will continue to be—necessary to ride out this pandemic, especially now that this persistent virus is supposedly mutating into an even more contagious strand that may be able to circumvent handwashing and face mask protections.
“You have to be able to bob and weave,” says Parham.
While there are numerous qualities that great leaders possess, Parham, who has been in the self-storage industry for 33 years, is adamant that the ability to stay calm has been one of the most valuable attributes throughout the pandemic.
“Being as positive as possible and not panicking” are paramount to success during troubling times like the ones we’ve experienced this year, she says. With no historical data on which to base her decisions, the only logical course of action was to use her professional experience and the information on hand to formulate a plan and relay that strategy to her team with cool conviction.
“People are scared of the unknown,” says Parham, noting that people often look to their leaders for direction, which means it is the self-storage owner/operator’s duty to set a good example. More often than not, employees will imitate the reaction(s) of their superiors when they are unsettled.
For that reason, she made handling employees’ concerns a priority. At first, similar to employees at other businesses, Joshua Management’s team members were anxious about their employment status. Obviously, the company’s goal was to retain its employees and remain open for business. But with so much uncertainty in the world, they required constant reassurance as well as guidance.
Under her leadership, Joshua Management conducted team meetings through the Microsoft Teams app on a weekly basis at the onset of the pandemic with an open-door policy for all employees. Once their primary worries were resolved and the dust began to settle, the weekly meetings dwindled to every other week. Employees had access to express any of their concerns whenever needed.
“Let them talk things through to alleviate fears,” says Parham, who adds that keeping employees in the loop is vital. “They need more attention than ever. They don’t need to feel like an island right now!”
Indeed, when it comes to unclear situations, such as the pandemic, communication can make or break a company’s morale. But remember that communication should be a two-way street. Instead of inundating personnel with loads of new procedures and potentially confusing information, Parham suggests involving employees in the decision-making process from the get-go. Considering that no one under 100 years of age has lived through a global pandemic before, it is entirely possible that they may have feasible ideas that you hadn’t contemplated.
Of course, as Parham stated earlier, it is important to keep the communication positive. Though it may be difficult to stay upbeat while handling the worrisome “what-ifs” that will likely arise, she says that having an arsenal of solutions for potential problems can help ease tension. In other words, if you plan for the worst but hope for the best, you can rest assured that you will be equipped to face whatever difficulties that may come your way. And while practicality and positivity aren’t one in the same, being prepared can certainly prevent negative outcomes, which in itself is encouraging.
What’s more, be sure to keep the lines of communication open. Not everyone may feel comfortable expressing their concerns with the entire team via a scheduled video conference meeting. Therefore, it would be considerate to remind your employees about how and when they can reach you individually.
Obviously, working remotely isn’t the same as being in a real office setting. There are some aspects to a self-storage manager’s job that may be out of tune with your company’s standards due to the pandemic. Thus, Parham advises owners and operators to reiterate their training.
It is particularly important to keep managers up to par with customer service, especially in the areas of conflict resolution, de-escalation, and communication skills, as unfortunate circumstances may result from COVID-19. Some of the “soft skills” that you may want to incorporate into your training include active listening, clear communication, positive language, persuasion, and empathy.
As for self-storage-specific training, the industry has several options for property managers. Here are a few to check out:
- Mini-Storage Messenger’s website, www.ministoragemessenger.com, offers various informative webinars and videos as well as numerous educational publications.
- The Self Storage Association (SSA) website, www.selfstorage.org, hosts an “Online University” for multimedia education and training, a manager certification program, and a variety of other resources.
- Your state self-storage association’s website may provide webinars and other virtual training opportunities in lieu of in-person conferences, many of which have been canceled or postponed due to COVID-19.
In addition, although it’s not “formal” training, encourage your managers to subscribe to self-storage newsletters, magazines, and blogs and/or join online forums. Staying informed and learning more about the industry is always beneficial.
Above all else, Parham advises self-storage owners and operators to be open to change. “Flexibility has been key during the pandemic,” she says. “Those who can’t bob and weave won’t make it.”
Certainly, the working world, including the business of self-storage, has had to endure some drastic adaptations this year. And as companies continue to refine their telecommuting options, there is no telling exactly what the future holds.
“It could be a whole different work environment,” says Parham.
However, she doesn’t see that as a cause for alarm. Instead, the move from corporate office buildings to remote offices should be viewed as an opportunity for improvement.
“Show no fear,” Parham says. “We’ll get through this. We’ve been through earthquakes, hurricanes, fires, and floods. We always rebound. Self-storage is resilient. We’ll live through this. We’ve always landed on our feet before.”
Uniting Teams Virtually
With so many employees working remotely for extended periods of time, it can be difficult for companies to maintain a strong team mentality. Moreover, most forms of entertainment and events, including the self-storage industry’s annual trade shows and conferences, have been canceled or postponed as a direct result of the pandemic. To keep your employees from feeling isolated, lonely, and/or depressed, consider hosting one of these “group” events or coming up with your own idea:
- Virtual Game Night – Using your preferred video conferencing tool, get your team online for a few rounds of Bingo, trivia, or another game. Providing prizes for the winners is a great way to increase participation. You can mail game cards to employees or send printable files via email.
- Arts And Crafts – Plan a virtual paint party through one of the video conferencing apps. Purchase the painting supplies and ship them to each employee’s home. If that doesn’t interest your team, think of another craft that can be completed on their own time and shared via a virtual “show and tell” conference.
- Online Classes – Ask employees for their input, then find a virtual class that everyone can attend to learn a new skill or develop an existing one.
- Taste Testing – There are several companies that sell monthly box or crate subscriptions for various kinds of foods. Sign up each employee to receive a box, then have a virtual taste testing after everyone has received their goodies via mail.
- Virtual Coffee Breaks – Schedule one hour every week when all employees can log onto a video conference for some coffee and casual conversation.
On the other hand, if your employees need a break from the virtual world, figure out a way to get them interacting without additional screen time, such as a local scavenger hunt that requires participants to call each other for clues or an employee pen pal program for those who have similar interests and enjoy receiving snail mail. There are countless ways to strengthen your team without meeting in person, so get creative!