My New Normal: Evergreen Real Estate Group CEO Steve Rappin
Evergreen Real Estate Group CEO Steve Rappin used to be a skeptic about working at home, but the pandemic has caused him to rethink the idea, and do a 180-degree turn.
On the whole, he said, remote working has gone well for him. He lives in north suburban Lake Bluff, Illinois, quite a ways from the office, for Evergreen, a Downtown Chicago-based multifamily developer and property management firm where he has worked for nearly 14 years.
Bisnow: Describe your work-from-home life and what you are doing in your spare time.
Rappin: This work-from-home period has been successful for Evergreen and for me, personally. I usually commute nearly three hours a day. Working from home has made me much more productive.
We have a busy household with three teenage kids. My wife usually works in the basement, while I take the upstairs. I do feel everyone is working more hours during the pandemic, given the constant availability of technology, but not having the commute has been a real treat.
It’s also been a pleasure consistently having family dinners for a change, and occasional family lunches.
Though I will offer our corporate employees significantly greater work from home flexibility in the future, there's a sense of camaraderie and partnership that is missing without seeing each other personally.
Bisnow: What is your company’s return-to-the-workplace plan?
Rappin: Since COVID-19 will likely prevent full offices around the city for the foreseeable future, Evergreen is taking the opportunity to fully rehab its 16K SF office in Chicago’s West Loop. The office will be modernized to incorporate best practices for the pandemic, including 6-foot distancing between every workspace, glass partitions and continued use of virtual technology for larger meetings. Our new workspace will be complete in early October, and we will determine other protocols at that time.
We have three divisions, development, construction and property management, that work together on the many affordable housing communities under our umbrella in nine states. While many employees are working remotely, we also plan to have two satellite offices for our construction and acquisitions teams during the office renovation.
We've signed up for an online COVID-19 monitoring program called HealthCheck. This will require every employee at the corporate offices, as well as all property site staff, to self-check-in daily to disclose any symptoms of COVID-19, their temperature and any possible exposure to someone with the disease. Of course, all properties and our corporate office will also have an abundance of PPE.
Bisnow: What will reopening businesses and workplaces look like for you personally?
Rappin: Just north of Chicago in Lake County, where I live, outdoor seating at restaurants has been available since May 28. I've dined outside twice and have no issues shopping with the appropriate social distancing and PPE. I plan to avoid crowded indoor spaces where social distancing isn't possible until it is safe to do so.
Bisnow: How will you manage the home front as stay-at-home restrictions ease and businesses reopen?
Rappin: As mentioned, I will continue working from home until October until the office renovation is complete. At that point, my kids should be back at school and it will be business as usual.
Bisnow: What was your impression of work from home before this got started? What is it now?
Rappin: Previously, I was very reluctant to allow employees to work from home. It just wasn’t an Evergreen policy I could get comfortable with. We did have summer Fridays, on which employees could work remotely, and they have truly appreciated that.
But now, I've seen how successful working from home can be. The work still gets done, and it offers tremendous value-added flexibility for the employees. I think the effectiveness of Zoom, Go-to-Meeting, Teams and cloud-based share have proven if your job isn’t directly working with customers, you can pretty much work effectively from anywhere.
I will say, however, some employees thrive much better in an office environment and are asking to come back. Once COVID-19 is resolved, Evergreen will be much more flexible from a work-from-home standpoint, but will still primarily be an office-based company.
Bisnow: How is your company fostering community and maintaining its culture from a distance?
Rappin: The current crisis has been a great opportunity to enhance Evergreen’s core values and company culture. Evergreen has an employee recognition program called “High Five,” where individual employees are recognized for going above and beyond.
In late March, we decided to give all 300 property site employees a High Five award, along with $350 for their dedication to our residents. Also, we made donations in employees' names to numerous COVID-19 charities for front-line workers, food banks and charities working with children and the elderly.
Also in March, I began sending monthly all-company “state of Evergreen” communications directly to all 360 employees, covering topics such as COVID-19, our appreciation for our employees, and words of support about the way Evergreen values diversity. We've begun weekly cross-functional leadership meetings via Zoom to handle the crisis. This has been a huge success and will carry on post-pandemic.
Bisnow: How do you think the coronavirus could permanently affect the way real estate does business?
Rappin: I think it’s a little early to tell, but one likely outcome is an outflow of residents in elevator buildings and crowded cities like Chicago, New York and San Francisco to suburban areas. I expect millennials, who were on the fence trying to decide whether to raise their kids in the city or move to the suburbs, will be first movers in this area. This could ultimately impact occupancy rates and new construction in urban areas.
If an economic recovery takes time and unemployment levels remain elevated, there will be upward pressure to deliver more affordable housing units. In addition, affordable senior housing is an area of expertise for us, both new-construction and rehab of senior communities, and the pandemic will likely exacerbate the already existing need for affordable senior housing.
Bisnow: What are you most hopeful about right now?
Rappin: With every crisis there comes new opportunity. Not for real estate, but for humanity. I'm hopeful that we are better prepared for any future pandemics. I am hopeful that the United States can truly improve its issues on race. I am hopeful that we can improve the quality of life of our employees by offering them greater work-at-home flexibility.