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As Mental Health Suffers During Cold COVID Winter, Bosses Need To Step Up

Months of working from home, and market uncertainty, have strained many CRE employees.

For the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic, Kontor, a London- and New York-based, tech-focused office broker, found its employees pushing through the uncertainty. Co-founder James Townsend said that many staffers initially thrived during work-from-home life, increasing efficiency while dispensing with the drudgery of a daily commute. But then, winter arrived.

As the days have shortened, and virus levels have surged in both the U.S. and U.K., staff have understandably drifted, feeling more exhausted, isolated and, in some cases, burnt out. 

“Nobody’s business is set up to survive six to 12 months without any sales,” Townsend said. While Kontor has managed to pull together business and even make a small profit in 2020, it’s been challenging to navigate this year’s mental ups and downs.

The unexpected crises of 2020 have given employees many reasons to be stressed out this winter, but commercial real estate faces additional challenges that make this season an even more difficult time to keep employees healthy and motivated. Months of lockdowns, isolation and a lackluster market have left those who thrived in a sector based on performance and sales adrift, worrying about their compensation and job security during significant uncertainty. 

“It can be OK if you’re a midlevel or higher-up executive,” Townsend said about the increased mental strain and stress felt by his team and the CRE industry at large. “You have a relatively comfortable existence, and can get away from a lot of today’s distractions with a home office. The guys who are 25 to 30, working from their bedroom, struggling to have a private call, and may not have the proper office equipment, that’s difficult."

In such environments, management is a balancing act, veering between optimism and realism, with leaders acutely aware of the need to take the mental health of colleagues into account as they communicate strategy and deal with individuals in a team.

“I’m trying to keep people involved, and help them understand how important their role is,” Townsend said. “I’ve been focusing on not panicking people, but being upfront about where we are, our costs, how much runway we have.”  

As the days have shortened, and virus levels have surged in both the U.S. and U.K., staff have understandably drifted, feeling more exhausted, isolated and burnt out.

Managers across the CRE landscape spoke about the acute challenges mental health has posed during a year unlike any other. Columbia Property Trust CEO Nelson Mills said that after shutdowns and slowdowns, buildings in major markets such as New York, San Francisco and D.C. have been 10% occupied, which brings a new element of stress to the firm and leaves its employees wondering if they’ll have jobs in the new year.

“Early on we found people working too many hours, on the phone and Zoom all day working, and we had to remind ourselves and each other to establish some boundaries, turn it off at a certain hour, and get away from the desk,” Mills told Bisnow.

It is part of a wider mental health crisis hitting on all fronts this winter. A recent Psychology Today article noted increased rates of substance abuse, mood disorders and anxiety among children. In the U.S., 2 out of 5 adults have suffered from mental health issues this year, and in the U.K., 1 in 5 have suffered from depression. This is all before the next few months, expected to be some of the deadliest of the pandemic thus far. 

It’s clear winter has impacted morale, said Valerie Kelly, a lawyer and partner at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, a firm with a property and real estate focus. That is especially true for colleagues in New York City who live alone in apartments and haven’t been able to visit family.

That’s part of the reason her firm’s Morale Squad — an employee outreach and charity group that started pre-COVID, yet picked up significant momentum this year — has been crucial to keeping workers connected. 

“The combination of the uncertainty in real estate, isolation, and unprecedented nature of the pandemic has given us a lot of opportunities,” Kelly said. “When you talk to people one-on-one, many will tell you it’s made a meaningful impact on their pandemic experience.” 

CRE’s deal-based compensation structure has always been a factor in driving employees to work beyond the strictures of 9-to-5. With staff working remotely, at a time when work-life balance blurs, and struggling to hit sales goals, overwork is common. It’s extremely important to set boundaries, Mills said, to push away from the desk, and encourage staff to see family, exercise and take care of themselves. 

Kontor’s Townsend has observed how overwork can lead to frustration and burnout, and force leadership to challenge pre-existing compensation structures. It’s especially difficult to motivate young sales people — career-focused and financially incentivized to close transactions — when no deals are happening. Highly qualified staff can potentially walk into other jobs.

Company executives say employees need to turn it off and recharge, including getting off Zoom.

Kontor responded by pivoting to long-term compensation arrangements. Sales staff may have seen commission-based pay temporarily replaced with bonuses for getting a certain number of leads in the pipeline for 2021. More senior sales staff may have seen goals shift from closing deals to providing coaching and support for junior team members, with compensation for helping them close deals and filling the hopper with potential deals for next year. It’s a creative way to frontload 2021, while retaining experienced staff, Townsend said.

“I think long-term, this year will be seen as a short-term hit,” he said. “We feel good about where we’re going.” 

Even the most enlightened compensation structure, and forward-looking companies, still need to survive a winter of extreme stress, exhaustion and worry. Erin Peavey, an architect and design researcher at HKS who hosts a podcast that tackles design, loneliness and social connection, said that above all, bosses and leadership need to focus on authentic communication. 

“We’re all craving both the ability to say things are weird and also to have some piece of normalcy,” she said.  “Moments when leaders show their own vulnerabilities, open up to staff, and let them share their own stories are key.” 

Communication can come in many forms, including enforcing time off, and modeling behavior that supports self-care and work-life boundaries. 

“You can work your butt off for hours, but if we don’t turn it off, it doesn’t benefit creativity or productivity,” she said. “Competition is an incredibly hard instinct to overcome; it needs to be modeled from the top if people want to create a place where there’s increased value in human well-being.” 

Evolving norms around office communication have helped remote teams at Kontor keep in touch and keep tabs on each other, said Alexandra Sutter, the firm’s chief operating officer. The company holds numerous video calls, always with the camera on, and is very strict with updating Slack statuses to encourage conversation while respecting work-at-home boundaries.

One employee suffered from significant burnout, and Sutter credited the regular one-on-ones as being essential to truly understanding the mental challenges they, and others, were facing. 

“People can hide the truth for a half-hour on Zoom,” Townsend said. “When you’re in an environment where you may have to deal with redundancies and make cuts, everyone will tell you the world is great, and you won’t see the cracks in someone like you would in person.” 

Both Kontor and Columbia Property Trust have invested in counseling and mental health programs to help employees in need. Columbia offers a service for one-on-one chats with a therapist, while Kontor’s insurance plan covers mental health expenses. There are also more proactive measures, such as an employee group on Strava, a cycling app, which combines wellness and socialization.

At Savills, employees were given an extra week of leave, and mental health resources were expanded at no cost to include all employees and their dependents, regardless of which health plan they may be enrolled in. 

“Sure, deals need to be made, but people will remember how their firms treated them during this difficult time, and no one wants to be treated as a line item,” Northeast Region Lead Janet Woods said.

At Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, Kelly’s Morale Squad has been a great source of connection and even purpose during these difficult months. The employee group has held virtual events — karaoke, knitting group, cooking classes — but also engaged in meaningful charity and volunteerism. This year, the squad has sent care packages to nurses, provided teachers with personal protective equipment and standing desks, and sent toys to preschools. 

The sense of connection, optimism and meaning colleagues take away from these events does make a significant difference. There’s darkness around surges, winter, and holiday plans not materializing. But experiencing some empathy, and feeling like you’re making a difference, can help more people see the light and the end of the tunnel being lit by the positive vaccine news Kelly said. 

“It’s all about doing what you can in your own garden."

Related Topics: Mental Health, Compensation, COVID-19