A supportive and safe environment. Opportunities for professional development and growth. The ability to cultivate work-life harmony. These are the hallmarks of a workplace that prioritizes the mental and emotional well-being of its workers. In the midst of the uncertainty surrounding the future of the workplace, even as more employees return to in-person work following the pandemic’s twists and turns, a focus on employee well-being is more important than ever.
According to findings from a 2022 Stress in America poll conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based American Psychological Association (APA), “Equipping workers to manage daily stress and handle the inevitable challenges that affect their mental health costs money, time and energy. But, evidence shows that the cost of failing to support employees’ psychological well-being is often far higher.”
By taking key actions that support workers’ mental health, the report stated, employers can pave the way for a cultural shift that accepts and elevates help-seeking and other affirmative behaviors.
Research last year by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company echoes these sentiments. “Understanding, prioritizing, and planning for employees’ post-pandemic mental health is an important part of an organization’s return-to-work strategy,” the report said. According to McKinsey, as workplaces continue to shift to more in-person and hybrid approaches, many employees feel anxious about the unknown, including the potential for reduced autonomy, decreased flexibility and less supportive work environments.
With this in mind, it’s important for property professionals to support tenant companies as they provide reassurance to their employees about the next chapter of the workplace. And, with commercial property management itself a profession full of uncertainty even in the best of times, many of these lessons can be applied on the other side of the equation to benefit the mental health and well-being of property teams, too.
Varied Reactions to COVID-19
During his 42 years in commercial real estate, Joe Markling, BOMA Fellow, CPM, CRCMP, RPA, says the pandemic “was the strangest thing that happened to me, my staff and the industry. I have six people who work for me and they had six different reactions.”
Markling, now managing director and head of Real Estate Operations at USAA Real Estate, recalls that, for him, working remotely wasn’t difficult. Before COVID, he occasionally worked from home, but traveled extensively to meet people face-to-face. “However, not physically interacting with people did bother me quite a bit,” he says. The same was true for his team, which Markling describes as “a close-knit kind of family.”
“We are a work-in-the-office group, so remote work challenged all of us to stay focused and keep up our energy levels, although we kept in touch and tracked each other all the time,” he says. As a leader, Markling felt it challenging to mentor and develop his employees in an all-virtual environment, and he could feel his team’s mental and emotional well-being begin to flag.
“Unless you’ve been in the business a long time, you don’t understand that a lot of what you do is unsaid. I told my team the thing I felt most affected by during COVID closures was my ability to sense which way the wind was blowing, which comes from being here, walking around and watching and talking with people. Everybody was on their heels; everything felt like a priority. It was a very stressful time.”
This stress spilled over into virtual staff meetings, which paradoxically were scheduled to reduce uncertainty, provide context, share resources and then assign priorities—all of which can help keep stress at a minimum. “When you aren’t face to face, you may have a tendency to bark orders, create expectations and then click the leave button and walk away,” Markling adds. When everybody is working remotely, “it can become impersonal, and the lack of personal interaction is very harmful mentally for people.”
To relieve tensions and combat Zoom fatigue during closures, Markling and his team created a once-a-week in-person Thursday Lunch Club. “Physically being together, although it wasn’t mandatory, allowed us to laugh and joke, instead of participating in one-off meetings,” he says. “We still do that monthly, literally clock out for two hours.”
After two separate closures at their San Antonio office during the pandemic, Markling’s staff is no longer solely networking through Zoom. They are still communicating regularly, he said, but—happily, in his view—in the office. And, while USAA doesn’t offer regular work-for-home days, Markling says he allows each team member the occasional flexibility to do so, which, when needed, goes a long way in reducing stress.