- Technology tools are helping broker-owners and agents continue to do business amid the pandemic.
- Hybrid models, consisting of some in-office staff and agents, and others at home, may be part of the future of the real estate office.
- Many companies say a brick-and-mortar presence helps them maintain visibility in the community.
It seems like just yesterday that a typical office consisted of side-by-side cubicles or desks, where people sat only a few feet apart from one another. But now that the global pandemic has made the term “social distancing” a household phrase, and the face of business environments continue to change, office reconfigurations are needed. As such, broker-owners are reevaluating the future of their physical offices and the interactions among their team members.
The question many brokers are most curious about right now is, “What’s the purpose of the workplace?”
Tech Is Required to Meet Evolving Office Needs
There is no doubt that COVID-19 has had a far-reaching influence on how the real estate industry conducts business. The office has traditionally been a place to perform focused work, collaborate with colleagues, build a company culture through social engagement, and provide support through training, mentoring, and sharing of knowledge. But very quickly, technology and the tools that brokers use are informing how real estate companies support agents and staff in accomplishing work tasks. And, of course, technology is now also supporting the community and culture of an organization, too.
The biggest change for Elias Papadopoulos, broker-owner of RE/MAX Unlimited in the Boston area, has come in the form of social interactions within his office environment.
“We are a very social office with frequent gatherings and events. With COVID-19, we have had to create space and cut off our large gatherings,” Papadopoulos says. “There is less of, ‘Hey, let me show you something and get your take on it’ happening in the office, face-to-face. This activity has moved mainly online.”
Papadopoulos and his team are now using Google Groups as their main sharing and interaction platform, where any agent can post a question or scenario and anyone from their office can see it and respond. Other companies are relying on collaborative tools such as Slack and Microsoft Teams.
“We have great interactions with it as different agents offer their advice,” Papadopoulos says.
“So mainly, our office has turned into individual working stations.”
Robert Callan, sales associate at McGuire Real Estate in San Francisco, says that as a result of changes to the traditional brick-and-mortar office, brokers-owners need to focus on providing agents with essential real estate tools. This may include a robust CRM, a personalized mobile app that lets clients connect with their agent, 3D photography such as Matterport, email marketing and online ad campaigns that capture leads,and training to help agents become proficient.
“Real estate professionals—broker-owners and agents alike—need to become experts at online team and client engagement,” Callan says.
The recently launched WhoHub app, for instance, pulls together internal brokerage communications, listings, and vendors in a central location. “I’ve watched tools roll out year after year and it was all geared towards helping clients. Now with WhoHub, I am able to keep connected with my team and access our internal resources like trusted contractors and 'Coming Soon' listings to immediately help my clients,” says WhoHub founder Gordon Wood, MRP, a real estate pro in Northern Virginia with McEnearney Associates, REALTORS®.
Although many real estate companies had experience with agents working remotely before COVID-19, the pandemic has introduced a world in which previously optional tools, such as Zoom, are now a requirement for doing business, he says.
“Real estate teams and companies are behind this curve and need to dedicate their time and energy toward catching up so they can stay relevant,” Callan says.
Creating a Hybrid Workspace
At the beginning of March 2020, David McCarthy, broker-owner of Keller Williams Realty Boston-Metro and director at large of the Massachusetts Association of REALTORS®, experienced a lot less activity in the office. While real estate was always deemed “essential,” McCarthy did close his offices for several weeks. “Urban locations were very quiet and suburban locations, while still showing some activity, were noticeably less active than before,” McCarthy says.
However, because home buyers started coming out to purchase in droves in early April 2020, agents wanted and needed access to the office to serve these clients, McCarthy says. He has taken the necessary workplace precautions to assure the safety of agents and staff, including spreading out office furniture to follow social distancing guidelines, removing some chairs, and requiring masks.
Similarly, some agents with Papadopoulos’s company have also elected to return to the office setting, while others continue to work from home.
“More and more, they are telling me how less effective they are at home with all the ‘at home’ distractions, so they see the value of being able to dress up, come to the office, and put in a good day’s worth of work,” he says.
To bridge the home and office workplaces, Papadopoulos and McCarthy—like many brokers across the country—are now relying heavily on Zoom for conferencing to keep agents better connected, no matter where they are.
“I think this is crucial for making the best of the work-from-home model,” McCarthy says.
The pandemic has taught many U.S. companies that workers can accomplish their jobs from anywhere. And even after the pandemic ends, industry experts agree that the workplace will never be the same. Companies are planning for strategic innovations that will cater to both the physical office and work-from-home scenarios. That means key elements are going to change within the office environment.
Rethinking the Future Purpose of Office Space
Mike Pappas, CEO of Keyes Co. in South Florida, believes the industry will have office space for top producers and teams, and shared collaborative space for the rest, along with high-tech conference rooms for presentations.
“Depending on the personality of the associate, some thrive with the interaction and collaboration an office provides. Many are visual and people-oriented, and therefore the office supports their strengths,” Pappas says. “Without an office, communication is not as fluid, and therefore some have to be more diligent and disciplined to coordinate and manage the process and systems.”
Fiona Dogan, an agent with Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s International Realty in Rye, N.Y., says a significant benefit of a physical office is centralized marketing, both for agents’ properties and the firm’s services. A brokerage benefits from a visible office presence by showing clients it is a strong, vibrant company and part of the fabric of a community, Dogan says.
“If you don’t have an office presence, you probably don’t exist in the mind of the consumer,” she says. “Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s has a physical office in the heart of downtown Rye, N.Y. We’re well-known for our active role in the community, which also helps to engage our current and potential clients. … It would be a real negative to not have the physical office to help market our team’s properties and services.”
While real estate offices will continue to serve a purpose for agents, the office is not necessary for conducting efficient, cutting-edge real estate transactions, Dogan says, because technology helps with that. But agents still value having a physical place to connect with colleagues—a refuge to talk through the challenges of the business, share tips and advice, and help one another—even during the pandemic. “Without an office, I’d miss the collegiality and camaraderie among my fellow brokers,” she says.
To maintain a physical office environment, companies should have protocols and expectations clearly defined and communicated to everyone. Agents need to know they’re cared for, and that they’re entering a space that’s as safe as it can be.
Perhaps only certain groups occupy the office space on a given day and the spaces people occupy are more dispersed. Or perhaps face-to-face and social interactions are encouraged outdoors and the number of occupants in any given room is limited. It’s key that companies explore digital collaboration tools to support how teams can work together yet physically apart.
The “hoteling” concept can empower a company that is very focused on collaboration. This entails a broker dividing agents into two groups—50% face-to-face and 50% virtual—when there’s a conference, training, or meeting. Being focused on a cohesive workplace does not necessarily require agents to be with one another at all times.
Predictions for the Future of the Real Estate Office
Indeed, the office of the future will likely be smaller in size due to ROI, because large physical offices can be a risky and costly expense if they remain largely unused. Reducing the physical space to only what is essential will reduce monthly expenses and therefore positively affect ROI.
1. The Emergence of the Neighborhood Office
One of the trends Julie Taché, a broker in Charlotte, N.C., is seeing involves real estate companies embracing more of a “neighborhood office” versus a large office in a Class A commercial building space.
“These brokerages like the visibility and drive-by traffic offered by a more accessible space. Also, it lessens the monthly costs for the owners but still provides somewhere to go for REALTORS® and their clients if a coffee shop is no longer an option,” Taché says.
There is a possibility, as Dogan points out, that real estate firms’ offices will serve mostly a back-end function. “Even before COVID hit, individual agents weren’t using the office day to day,” Dogan says. “The thinking was: If you’re spending time in the office, you’re not out doing business.”
As many agents continue working from home, they may decide that going into a large office is no longer a need for them, Taché says. What’s more, for both agents and staff, traveling to a central office every day, especially in major cities, will be seen as an unnecessary expense and ineffective use of time when work can be easily and efficiently done remotely.
2. Broker-Owners Will Find New Ways to Build Office Culture
Because the pandemic has accelerated the work-from-home trend, creating a culture of care and support will take focus and discipline by the broker-owners, Pappas says. Events, personal coaching and training, and community philanthropy will be increasingly important for building that culture.
“Broker-owners will need to offer real value to their agents through multiple communication methods,” Pappas says. “We encourage our associates to treat the work-from-home environment as they would the office environment: Get up, get dressed, take breaks, and try to keep a consistent schedule.”
3. Future Office Space Will Serve Changing Needs
The consensus among broker-owners and agents is that remote work will become more mainstream—but that doesn’t mean the death of the office. It means the purpose of the office will have to be reassessed. Broker-owners looking to the future are planning to reallocate space for knowledge sharing and collaboration while also investing in technologies that build cohesiveness no matter where agents are physically working.