After the initial shock of the first lockdown, many agencies have seen only essential roles such as property management and viewings staff required to be branch-based.
Many others – including most grades of negotiator, mortgage advisors, listers and valuers – are all able to do all or much of their work from home or on the road.
London agent and former RICS residential chairman Jeremy Leaf says many of his staff who have been working from home ‘miss the office banter’ and that interaction and impromptu meetings remain a vital part of how a successful agency works.
“The Zoom calls have improved in terms of quality and people’s awareness of how they work, but they are not a real substitute for face-to-face contact,” he says.
“We have found that those who are working from home have been supportive and constructive, but output is not the same and they are not as productive as they would have been in the office.”
Jeremy claims that employees are less communicative when working on a remote basis, finding it harder to express themselves. Also, working as a team on the ground is harder without the ‘human factor’.
Very few people will have missed their commute during the pandemic, but not all homes make for ideal office substitutes.
This has been particularly true during the latest lockdown, when some parents have had to fight off bored children during Zoom calls and 20-somethings forced to perch their laptops on ironing boards.
James Law of Stacks Property Search says setting up your home office is essential.
“There’s a tendency to pick the worst room in the house for a dedicated workspace,” he says.
“But in our view, somebody who’s working regularly in the home should put in a strong bid for a room with plenty of space, lots of light, good windows and an attractive view.
“Hot-desking can work for some people, especially those who are used to it, but for most employees work involves ‘stuff’, and if that’s got to be packed up and moved on a daily basis, it can get tiresome.
“A permanent place is best for leaving work things in their place, closing the door and not being permanently reminded of what still needs to be done.”
Paul Clarke, co-founder of estate agency Mr & Mrs Clarke, says many agents haven’t realised that they’re being watched just as carefully during Zoom calls as they are in the flesh.
“You also need to scrub up for video calls – we all want to work in comfy clothes but having a call with a buyer in your home gym kit after a frenetic online workout is not a professional look,” he says.
“I had a call with a London agent recently and he was dishevelled and unrecognisable from the polished picture on his website – I instantly thought that work must be bad, and I thought twice about working with him. So, neaten up and prep your home office for video calls.”
A survey by a well-known insurance firm found that one in three of those it had polled who were working from home reported feeling lonely, missing colleagues to have lunch or a coffee with, or someone to chatter with next to the water cooler.
“Working from home can be lonely,” says Paul Clarke. “I have worked from home for years and I have forced myself to get outside, talk to people about non-work stuff during the day, exercise and eat well because when you work from home you tend to work longer hours and isolate yourself.”
Adam’s business has had an advantage over traditional high street agents because his team has always been field-based, a model the company has followed since it was set up in 2017.
Out of his 33-person headcount 12 staff are office based, and these transferred easily to home working because all of Hortons’ systems are web-based.
“One of the things we’ve been mindful of during the pandemic has been to ensure that communication between the team stayed on Zoom or on the phone and didn’t get moved onto text messages or emails, because otherwise you miss the nuances of conversations and bouncing ideas off each other becomes more difficult,” says Adam.
“We’ve also doubled the size of the team during lockdown because agents working in traditional agencies have seen how we were more easily able to adapt to the different lockdowns.”
The past ten months, and the next four or five to go before the COVID-19 vaccines are widespread enough to allow commuting and office working again, mean Britain’s home-working experiment will have had a year-and-a-quarter to bed in and become the new normal.
But a wholesale switch is unlikely once the pandemic withers away.
Research by investment bank Jefferies found that two-thirds of employees are ‘itching’ to get back to their desks, while estate agency Knight Frank says creating a company culture is very difficult unless everyone’s in the same room, face to face.
Check out the latest views on the effects of the pandemic on the agent community