Dramatic changes to how, when and where employees engage in work over the past several years have added increased pressure on company leaders and real estate human resource professionals to support their hard-earned corporate culture, maintain a sense of fairness in the workplace and recruit and retain the best talent to serve the commercial real estate sector. Navigating this ever-changing environment and offering insights into strategies used by their companies are Crystal Frey, Senior Vice President of Human Resources/Shared Services, Continental Realty Corporation; Sandy Krauer, Director of Human Resources, MCB Real Estate; and Holly Moye, Human Resources Director, Merritt Companies.

Change is the new norm

Crystal Frey (CF): “Our company was not affected by ‘The Great Resignation’ as was feared but the increased use of communication technology and the challenges caused by the pandemic encouraged us to partake in a ‘Great Reevaluation.’ The result was to double down with strategies and programs that highlight the corporate culture that we’ve worked hard to cultivate. This means providing more opportunities for our team members to connect in both the physical and digital worlds. Examples are regular collaboration days in which all team members work in the office on the same day, town halls to provide a forum for voices to be heard, and presentations by special guests. For example, during Black History Month, we invited Congressman Kweisi Mfume to speak about important issues impacting underrepresented communities, and we followed that up with a Book Club event addressing similar topics.”

Holly Moye (HM): “Our company returned to the workplace in full force very quickly when the pandemic started to subside and, thankfully, we lost very few employees. In fact, in response to continued growth and the opening of satellite offices, we added more than 20 people last year. Several employees requested to work on a hybrid schedule, but we did not wish to make exceptions for just a few. As a commercial real estate company, we believe in the value of an in-person work environment and believe that collaboration and culture suffer when many work from home. Our tremendous workplace culture is well known throughout the industry and we derive most of our candidates from referrals and those who embrace our values. We were a bit surprised by the salaries that certain people were asking for, but we consider that an industry-wide phenomenon.”

Sandy Krauer (SK): “One thing we’ve learned over the past few years is that ‘change is the new norm,’ so we’ve worked hard to adapt accordingly. Our company is experiencing dramatic growth, with a 78 percent increase in staff over the past year, following a 38 percent rise in 2021. On top of that, we moved into an expanded corporate headquarters space last year, with many of our employees working remotely because we ran out of room. So, we really experienced remote work early on. We still allow a hybrid work schedule as needed, but mostly for ‘heads-down’ work as performed by our financial, legal and development teams. That arrangement is just not possible with ‘people-facing’ job responsibilities such as property managers and leasing professionals. The most challenging positions we are recruiting for now are in the accounting sector, because of the high demand and the leverage many have with requesting hybrid or fully-remote arrangements. We are also diligent about creating a more diverse workforce and are extremely proud of our successes.”

People are the new amenity

CF: “We are extremely thoughtful about the intersection between space, technology and human connection. We recognize there are tools to have meetings and conversations from virtually anywhere, so it is important to make accommodations to simplify and provide value to the process. CRC has made light renovations to create hoteling office spaces. We are also repurposing conference rooms into hybrid environments where team members can engage with podcasts and training sessions. To encourage more interactions and create socialization opportunities, we’ve added stations where team members can obtain beer and nitro beverages through a card-operated system. Everything is deliberate to create and maintain a sense of family and belonging. We accomplish this in both small and large ways to show that we care about our people and celebrate humanity. We never let an employee milestone pass by, such as the birth of a child or a work anniversary, without recognizing it.”

HM: “Our founder, Leroy Merritt, believed that relationships were the core of our culture, that they were what made our company different, and that hiring good people who care about others will keep us successful. That mission has been handed down over the years and we still embrace it today. We are all part-owners of the company and that is one of the incentives that keep our employees loyal. But more importantly, we always want to do what’s best for our tenants and our stakeholders, even if that is not the easiest path. A small quirk about our company is that we don’t outwardly promote our job titles. We believe that performing your job well is what matters most. Everyone is empowered and expected to be a leader.”

SK: “Real estate is a highly competitive industry, and for companies to be successful, it is important to have their share of focused type ‘A’ personalities to attract tenants and complete complex transactions. If not careful, this can cause toxicity, so MCB Real Estate emphasizes a team-playing, information-sharing mentality that rewards collaboration. We collectively and openly promote a company culture of diversity, inclusion and acceptance and celebrate mutual respect and team success. We promote family and enjoy company-wide celebrations. We also come together to support any member of our team who encounters personal or health challenges. Recruiting volunteers for an important community cause is never a problem. Last year, we bused our entire company to attend the groundbreaking event for a significant new project in Hagerstown and it was great to share that moment with the entire team.”

A new playbook

CF: “Economic and social changes are occurring so rapidly that data is outdated by the time it is received. We find ourselves implementing strategies to meet both short-term and long-term goals simultaneously, and that takes renewed creativity. We recently sponsored a real estate graduate program which represented the first for any historically black college and university (HBCU) in the country. The school is in North Carolina, where we have a regional office.  We have a robust internship program with a track record for converting quite a few interns to full-time team members.  We are excited to be able to recruit from this program in North Carolina. We are also strategic about hiring virtual and hybrid roles  having  several key professionals working full-time in the financial centers of New York and Atlanta with supervisors in Baltimore, because it is vital to maintain a presence in those cities.”

HM: “Again we recall the teachings of Leroy Merritt, who believed that forming strong relationships and hiring good people was the key. Our leadership group believes in this mission and it is up to our younger team to carry this tradition and our corporate culture forward. Making this reality more challenging is our recent expansion into North Carolina and Florida — the further people are away from us, the harder it becomes to emphasize these philosophies.”

SK: “The commercial real estate industry has always exhibited a nature of friendly competition in Baltimore. That is the perfect scenario for sharing information and getting deals transacted, but less so for attracting talent. This is an extremely tight-knit community and it is hard to avoid employee poaching, so we often need to reach outside the market or delve into different industries to fill positions whenever possible. We have grown from 30 to 90 employees very quickly, so our processes are indeed working.”