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The modern workplace is undergoing an historic, unprecedented shift. From the coronavirus pandemic emerged a new focus on where and how people do their jobs; and the five-day, in-office week that has dominated American business culture for decades is slipping away in favor of a better paradigm that restores work-life balance.

Not only are workers demanding alternatives to traditional schedules and physical office environments, they have more bargaining power than ever. Employers have no choice but to pay attention. Many are implementing changes to attract talent and prevent turnover. Now’s the time for self-storage owners and operators to consider what their new workplace might look like and how it’ll ultimately impact their individual businesses and the industry as a whole.

Options to Explore

Some self-storage businesses were implementing workplace modifications even before the pandemic began. For example, satellite offices are often being used when a company has several facilities in proximity, so smaller crews can oversee multiple sites. Some operators have reduced their office hours to ensure in-person staffing only at the busiest times.

“We’ve become more accustomed to reducing office hours when shorthanded due to the difficult hiring climate,” says Charlie Fritts, president of self-storage management company Storage Investment Management LLC. The company’s facilities are now open five days per week rather than six.

Some self-storage operators are trying a work-from-home (WFH) model or a hybrid that mixes onsite hours with remote work. For example, they may allow four-day work weeks or more flexible hours. These approaches have alleviated some staffing pressure and anxiety.

“At our corporate offices, we’ve staggered the in-office staff and currently operate with most reporting to the office three days a week and working from home the other two,” says Stacie Maxwell, vice president of marketing and training for Universal Storage Group (USG), a Georgia-based self-storage owner and management firm. “This creates a much more flexible atmosphere for all employees, helping them to better achieve a good work-life balance.”

Cox’s Armored Mini Storage Management Inc., which manages facilities in Arizona, also moved to a hybrid model for its corporate employees during the pandemic.

CallPotential, which offers lead-management and communication software for self-storage, has shifted to a dedicated WFH schedule for all employees. “We still have an office but have expanded geographically to such a degree that we couldn’t return to the office if we wanted to,” says company owner Phil Murphy.

While it may be complex to introduce these types of options for onsite self-storage managers, there are still alternatives to traditional work hours. At the facility level, USG has introduced a four-day work week. Managers work for four, 10-hour shifts and keep their 40-hour earnings. “Once the schedules were worked out, everything else seemed to fall into place, and it feels very natural,” Maxwell says.

The Flexibility Factor

The pursuit of a better work-life balance has long been a goal for many workers, but the pandemic focused a bright spotlight on the issue. Allowing more agility in the workplace can ease employee stress and improve job satisfaction, which leads to better retention for your self-storage company. “Giving everyone the ability to be flexible helps their morale and lets them choose what works best for them,” says Diane Gibson, owner and president of Cox’s Armored Mini Storage.

It also leaves room for the unexpected. Personal emergencies, illnesses and medical procedures are part of life and can keep people away from the office. Your business needs to be nimble enough to adapt. “Our employees are able to plan better for life events and needs, and tend to personal matters such as doctors’ appointments and school functions on their WFH or extra off days, which benefits everyone’s personal lives tremendously,” Maxwell says.

A flexible work schedule has made a huge difference for Justin W., a self-storage manager in New Orleans. “When I’m feeling ill or have some kind of appointment or commitment, I am allowed to remain on the clock, forward the calls to my cell and work from wherever I am. While I accrue PTO, I’m more relaxed since I know I don’t have to use it when I’m ill or something comes up. I have the option to work remotely and still remain productive for the company,” he says.

The Role of Technology

Technology has played a huge role in the new self-storage work dynamic, as many tasks that once had to be completed by an onsite employee can now be accomplished in other ways. Tenants can rent and pay for units online or at kiosks, for example. Operators can perform key functions remotely. “Technology is vital to supporting a remote or work-from-home environment. It is hard to imagine operating without technology, even without these changes,” Maxwell says.

Offering remote work can help companies reach a bigger pool of candidates, too. “When it comes to hiring, there’s access to a lot more talent the further you are willing to reach geographically,” adds Murphy.

Still, with all this luxurious technology comes cost and effort to purchase, install and maintain it. If you’re entertaining a WFH or hybrid model for your employees, understand the investment involved. Just as your team needs tools to do their job when in the office, they’ll need resources and support to work remotely, for example, a laptop, mobile phone and basic office supplies. You may also need to cover internet services, depending on the employee’s situation.

“This is really going to be the way of working going forward, and if [employees] don’t have the tools they need to succeed, then our productivity pays the price,” Murphy says. “It’s like if we told our managers to go cut locks with a hacksaw. Sure, they could do it, but getting them a grinder or drill is going to make them a whole lot more efficient. Same goes for a desk. If they have to work at the kitchen table or somewhere else because they don’t have a desk, we aren’t hurting anyone other than ourselves.”

Staying Connected

Without a physical office to serve as a hub, keeping in sync with your self-storage employees might be more difficult. However, virtual meetings, check-in phone calls, chat apps and shared digital documents can help foster a team-like environment.

“Social connection is a challenge. We have always had a very strong culture, and with the physical separation, we have had to put a lot of effort into maintaining this,” Murphy says. “This has caused us to try just about every virtual team-building and connection tool, ranging from virtual happy hours to game nights. Even simple conversations that used to happen in the office now have to be taken online.”

In a WFH or hybrid work model, virtual connection is paramount. You’ll need ways to keep employees informed of company news, such as changes in policies and procedures. You’ll also want ways for coworkers to communicate and catch up. “We will toss ideas that we have at each other for promotions, how to deal with a given situation, problems that we have encountered, etc.,” says Justin W.

You also need ways to celebrate together. USG regularly hosts online events to welcome new employees and acknowledge birthdays and work anniversaries. “If something special happens in any of our employees’ lives, we want to hear about it and share it,” Maxwell says.

Rules and Regulations

Any significant workplace shift will require some structure. Whichever model you choose for your self-storage business, you’ll need to set and enforce clear boundaries and rules for employees. How will they record and verify their time? How will you know what projects they have underway? How will you gauge workflow and achievements? One of the biggest questions for employers may be, how do you limit on-the-clock downtime?

“We know that if an employee doesn’t have something specific to do, they’ll then look for something to do. And while this is a positive trait, careful planning helps ensure that the ‘something’ they find to do is beneficial to the company and not just a consumption of time and resources,” Maxwell says.

Of course, you want your self-storage employees to complete their work, not just log hours, so a system to track and evaluate productivity is imperative. “You must have metrics and reporting systems in place to make sure the work is getting done even when you can’t see the production,” Maxwell adds. “If it isn’t, but the employee has hours earned on their timesheet, then you need to investigate what they were working on instead of the assigned task or if they were even working at all.”

There are also legal factors to consider. “The shift from a conventional work environment, regardless of the industry, to a work-from-home model—even on a part-time basis—has legal implications that business owners need to be aware of and prepared for,” says Scott Zucker, an attorney with the Atlanta law firm of Weissmann Zucker Euster Morochnik & Garber, P.C., which specializes in business and self-storage law.

Understanding the laws in the states in which your employees reside is key. Differences might include minimum wage, paid time off, tax considerations, and even certain requirements around unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation coverage. You should also have policies in place to protect company data, especially when staff are using personal devices.

Finally, it’s wise to establish a safety policy for remote workers that includes guidelines and requirements of a home office. Proof of current homeowner’s or renter’s insurance should be a part of any WFH agreement.

“Having workers’ compensation and liability insurance in place for employees working away from a designated office must also be considered since injuries and claims are still applicable if the employee is acting within the scope of their employment,” Zucker says. “Owners and operators need to remain vigilant to recognize their responsibilities to their employees even if they’re performing their job duties at home or offsite.”

When considering a modification to your self-storage work model, think about how it’ll affect your staff as well as how to best present the options, perks and responsibilities of the new program. “Changing times require you to really work with the core staff to ensure everyone is happy and that you are listening to their ideas and needs in regard to their work schedules,” Gibson says.

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