Use Staff Focus Groups to Keep in Touch with Tax Credit Sites
If you manage several tax credit sites or one very large one, you may find it hard to get an accurate day-by-day picture of how things are going at each of them. That’s because information tends to get altered in the course of reaching you. For example, maintenance staffers and leasing agents report to their supervisors, who in turn report to their property managers, who then report to you. At each stage, less and less information gets passed on.
So how do you find out about scheduling problems, personality conflicts, and mismanagement in your leasing office, or the spare parts shortage and service foul-ups in the maintenance department? You ask the employees who deal with these problems every day.
An effective way to keep abreast of the issues and problems at each site is to hold staff focus groups, says management expert Terry Schwartz. A focus group is an informal gathering of employees to learn firsthand about how the site is being managed. We’ll tell you the benefits of staff focus groups, how to conduct them, and how to overcome possible objections about them from your managers.
Benefits of Focus Groups
Focus groups have two main benefits:
Better information gathering. Focus groups help you gather information from your employees that can help you to better manage your sites. While a management hierarchy is vital, one of its drawbacks is that the hierarchy acts like an information filter. Employees don’t tell their supervisors everything they know; supervisors in turn don’t tell property managers everything; and then those managers may filter out or distort information even further before it gets to you.
Suppose there’s a situation in which a company offered bonuses to its managers if they kept their sites’ budgets below a certain threshold. In these situations, managers may have an incentive to slash a particular department’s budget to ensure their bonuses. If that department happened to be the maintenance department and its budget had been slashed to the point where the staff couldn’t do their jobs, a meeting with the manager wouldn’t have revealed this budget problem. The manager would have come up with an excuse for his maintenance staff’s shortcomings.
Improved employee morale. A second benefit of focus groups is that they improve morale and contribute to employee retention. Unit leasing and maintenance personnel turnover is very high, in part because it’s not a primary career choice and employees often feel they lack a voice in the company’s management, says Schwartz. Focus groups effectively put employees on a management level, making them part of a team and an added benefit to the company.
How to Conduct Focus Groups
The organization and conduct of focus groups should be informal. Here are some tips to get you started:
Timing. You don’t need to schedule focus groups regularly or even often. You want to keep in touch with your sites and give the employees a boost, but you don’t want to be intrusive or subvert your site managers. Convening a focus group once every few months should suffice.
Choosing employees. A focus group shouldn’t have more than two or three people, or it could turn into a gripe session. And which employees you decide to include in the group will depend on what you’re trying to learn. You’ll want to pull employees from the appropriate departments.
Where to meet. You can meet anywhere that the site manager can’t see or hear you. You may walk the property with a few members of the staff or go out to lunch, thus alleviating the feeling of interrogation that some employees may have if you meet in an office. If you walk the property, this also gives you the opportunity to ask about things that you notice in the site as you walk.
How to begin. An employee might be apprehensive if you ask him to take a walk with you. So be sure to explain right away the purpose of the walk. If the employee doesn’t know you, introduce yourself, and state that you’re trying to get a feel for how things are going at the site.
Overcoming Site Managers’ Objections
Some site managers may dislike this practice because it looks as if you’re going behind their backs or you suspect they’re hiding something, says Schwartz. But if they do get upset about it, they probably are hiding something, adds Schwartz.
To head off such problems, tell managers at the outset—when you hire them—that your practice is to occasionally speak directly with their subordinates. For current managers, tell them their staffs are a gold mine of management ideas that you want to take advantage of. If the managers think they could do a better job of that than you could, remind them that employees tend to be less candid with their immediate supervisors. If the managers are doing a good job, they’ll have nothing to fear. If they object, this is more reason to speak with their subordinates.
Terry Schwartz: Managing Partner, Dover Realty Advisors, LLC; 32400 Telegraph Rd., Ste. 202,
Bingham Farms, MI 48025; www.dovergroupinc.com.