When Missouri introduced the first phase of its reopening plan on May 4, Jill Butler, broker-owner of RedKey Realty Leaders in the St. Louis metro area, felt cautiously optimistic. Her long-standing plans to open a third office on Aug. 1 appeared to be on track. She was already working with a designer and contractors on the buildout before the U.S. was caught up in a pandemic. Of course, now, she’ll be operating under continued social distancing rules mandated by the state, along with office reconfigurations and rigorous cleaning procedures she’s developed that further promote safety.
Since mid-March, about three weeks before the state’s stay-at-home orders went into place, Butler and her agents and staff had been working from home while continuing to serve buyers and sellers. Weekly sales meeting in the office transformed into daily 9 a.m. videoconference calls focused on mindset, skillset, and action. “We’re investing in people,” says Butler, who made a big hire in early March—a sales manager for her new location. She says she hasn’t wavered on the decision, even when unknowns mounted as the virus spread. Buyers were still hunting for properties and putting offers in on homes despite new listings falling 45% from March to April and active listings down 18% year over year.
Butler anticipates real estate demand will grow in the weeks ahead, encouraged by pre-pandemic sales data. Redkey’s sales volume increased 33% in the first four months of the year, compared to the same period in 2019. “We’re leaning into this,” she says, explaining their decision to start reopening their two existing offices on May 12.
As more brokers prepare for prudent and careful office reopenings despite the persistence of the coronavirus across the country, they will need to put together safety guidance for their agents and staff. This should incorporate state and CDC guidelines, plans for handling customers and outside visitors, and protocols for maintaining cleaning standards and personal protective equipment, such as masks and hand sanitizer for the office. However, these are complicated decisions for businesses. Some real estate professionals may find advantages to working virtually. Just because a state may allow a real estate company to reopen its physical locations doesn't mean it has to.
Creating a Reopening Plan
“Health and safety must remain the priority for companies, and I think it will be gradual reopening rather than immediate,” says Nate Erickson, a senior associate with Transwestern in Minneapolis who specializes in advising owners and occupiers of industrial and office properties.
Just as in Missouri, California deemed real estate an essential service, and as a result, Jeff Campbell, broker-owner of San Diego Estates, never fully closed his two offices. Early on, he adopted a one-person-per-office policy, so that his 11 agents could access their desks and office resources. No clients or outside visitors were allowed in.
In early May, as the state’s reopening was underway, Campbell took his tape measure and rearranged the furniture in both of his offices so that desks are at least 9 feet apart—going above and beyond the CDC’s guidance of 6 feet. He’s increased the number of agents allowed in the office at any given from one to three.
“I started an operating plan from day one, which now outlines plans for safely opening up more in the weeks ahead but allows room to adjust if the virus surges again,” he says. Campbell’s intention is to keep some of these protocols operating over the long term. “We’ll be forever conscious of sanitation and health practices, and we’ll refine our methods to be more streamlined and efficient.”
Campbell has taken on cleaning his offices himself, especially focusing on frequently touched areas with high-alcohol sanitizing wipes. “I have never sanitized as much as I have in my life and will forever adopt super-sanitizing,” he says. In addition, Campbell created a new office policy manual addressing current conditions. It includes CDC recommendations; sanitizing rules in the office; client meet-up, drop-off, and delivery rules; showing instructions; and instructions for on-site visitors. He also stresses getting up-to-date on all newly revised real estate forms.
Butler has reopened her offices with a skeleton staff. Their marketing and finance personnel will continue to work remotely and there will be a split schedule for the staff members working in the office. “The good news from having to work remotely is that we’re now adept at working together from separate locations, and having the flexibility will serve us well,” she says.
But the pandemic experience has shown Butler how much she appreciates face-to-face interaction. “Bricks and mortar will continue to be an important part of our culture and company,” she says.
But for now, their priority is taking steps to stay safe. Butler is asking agents to only come in when they need to, and to wear masks in all common areas. Training and coaching will continue to be virtual for the time being. Butler has also limited entrances so that they can maintain a log of how many people are entering the building, as well as a list of names in the event someone contracts COVID-19 in the office. Her company will continue to provide hand sanitizer, wipes, masks, and gloves to agents.
While PPE is becoming a bit easier to find, Erickson says it’s important that brokers find a supply chain before opening. Referring to commercial clients and office tenants, he also says it might be wise for some businesses to handle visitors by appointment—no walk-ins. “By limiting visitors, you don’t have as much risk and you keep traffic manageable,” he says.
Campbell has devised a way to handle clients who walk in by setting up a kiosk greeting stand outside of the front door with instructions for visitors, such as mask requirements, rules for occupying communal spaces, and information to reach the person they’re looking for. The kiosk could be digital, such as a tablet, or as simple as instructions on a whiteboard.
Use Your Best Judgment
Certainly, some brokers remain hesitant to reopen physical offices. When Georgia became one of the first states to begin reopening at the end of April, DeAnn Golden, senior vice president and managing broker of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Georgia Properties, says her company decided to take a wait-and-see approach so they could more thoroughly plan.
“We made the decision to see how the opening of Georgia goes, and then we’ll look at a timeline,” she says. Real estate was also considered an essential service, so business never stopped for the company’s 1,600 agents. “It’s more of when we will start planning in person live group events and meetings, and what will that look like.”
In Dallas, broker-owner Rogers Healy could unlock the doors at Rogers Healy Residential, but he has no immediate plans to do so. "From the moment I became aware of the severity of this pandemic, I began taking every safety precaution necessary to keep my staff and our agents safe, including working from home,” Healy says. “We will continue to do that as we consider reopening our physical offices. We do not yet have plans to reopen, but we are beginning to strategize on the back end so that we can reopen as safely as possible."
Similar to Campbell and Butler, Golden expects to take a tiered approach to reopening their 24 offices, with an option for people who are not comfortable or who have health conditions to continue working from home.
“For us, coming back will include new protocols and best practices,” she says, recalling the permanent changes that occurred after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Golden added. “Before then, you walked through security with your shoes on. Now security is standard operating procedure.”
The power of video collaboration and virtual transactions has been widely embraced by both Golden and Healy’s agents and their clients. Talking with attorneys via Zoom rather than emailing makes a big difference, Golden says. Virtual tours, virtual showings, and virtual open houses will also likely continue because they give consumers more options in how they want to be served through this process, she adds.
“As we slowly return to the offices, we will walk through it knowing we can work from home in the future, if necessary, without sacrificing our customer service to our agents or to our clients,” Golden says.
Brokerages need to incorporate flexibility with clear communication in dealings with their team and their clients as they enter this next phase. Deb Boelkes, author of the book Heartfelt Leadership: How to Capture the Top Spot and Keep on Soaring (Business World Rising, 2020), reinforces the importance of company leaders making sure everyone understands the plan. “No matter what world environment we face, in good times and in bad, the leader's role is to define and communicate the organizational strategy and the objectives to be achieved,” she notes. When employees or agents don’t understand why things are being done, it can be demotivating.