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PropTech Today: How will estate agents win and lose talent?

The PropTech era is changing the way in which employees decide where they are going to work.

As CBRE has discovered in its Occupier Survey 2019, agencies which want to attract and retain vital new talent need to create a desirable work environment for Gen Z recruits.

This can, as the report suggests, start with the creation of an appropriately modern workplace, but attracting the best of the best requires us stretch this theory much further. 


If I reflect back on my career, I wonder, if I had my time again, would I consider agency an attractive proposition or would I look at this new tech-driven world as something more interesting? 

Speaking to recruiter, Marty Sim, co-founder of Hy-re, the PropTech-specific recruitment agency, I think I know what I would do. 

“Currently, we are seeing a large number of candidates from traditional property applying for positions in PropTech. From estate agencies across the residential and commercial sectors, the candidates are relaying their interest in getting into the ‘new’ property sector by joining a PropTech startup or scaleup that has the potential to support their knowledge and skills.”

Let me reflect on this with you for a minute. As I’m always going on about in these columns, I used to work as an agent for Foxtons. When I first started my career in real estate, the Foxtons offices were just like every other estate agency office - murky-white walls, grey desk partitions, bleak and somewhat uninspiring. This aesthetic was very ‘of the time’. 

Coinciding with my being promoted to a management position, Foxtons transformed its branches into the cafe-style environments we are now familiar with - the idea was subsequently mimicked by most other agencies. This was 2002 and signified the first stage of Foxtons’ brand transformation. 

It managed to create offices that people like me wanted to work in. It felt different, modern, and alive. As a 23-year-old agent in an ill-fitting suit, these new offices were exciting and a kickback against the stuffy nature of agency.

The stroke of genius was the desirability these new offices created for both agents and customers - whether Foxtons knew it was doing this, I’m not sure, but its high street branches were suddenly places where people wanted to spend time. 

Around this same time, Foxtons also introduced its now ‘iconic’ fleet of branded Mini Coopers. Just like the new office layout, these minis made you feel like you were part of a progressive and modern team.

They left us agents with a sense of pride, even if we did sometimes feel a little exposed when stuck in heavy traffic, sat behind the wheel of such a boldly branded vehicle. I was spat at more than once. Not a pleasant experience. 

The point is, the new offices and the branded cars suited the era we were in. Furthermore, the new branding reflected exactly what a young, motivated professional like me was looking for in an employer - professional, slick, modern.

I was proud to be part of Foxtons. If we give it the credit and assume that this was in fact its intention with the rebrand, it was a very astute move. I was happy in my workplace and therefore motivated to execute my role to my maximum potential. 

Fast forward to today: is it still important for agencies to create branches that their agents like working from? Even if so, are the agents themselves still motivated by such things? With all of these high street branches being closed, it’s easy to say that these branding tools are no longer necessary, no longer impressive to employees or customers. 

I am not sure, if I was a 23-year-old today, that an estate agency office today would appeal to me as I looked into my future career. 

We can look at the dominant rise of co-working spaces to support this notion further. Co-working providers, though not strictly PropTech companies (a disruptive business model does not instantly make something a tech offering), have created the new ‘cool’ aesthetic and environment and ultimately set the bar for what workspace should be.

The people, it would seem, agree. People now aspire to work from such spaces and employers also enjoy flexible, scalable office space, eliminating the need to lease relatively expensive shop fronts.

I would argue, too, that these co-working spaces also appeal to customers: they would certainly be aware that yours is no ordinary estate agency when they are greeted by a concierge, offered a range of drinks and shown towards a plush sofa, surrounded by the pleasant buzz of people working and striving for success.

What do modern agents want from their work life?

Yes, as the CBRE report suggests, the space from which we work can certainly contribute to job satisfaction but, I would argue, firms need to be doing much more than this to ensure they attract and retain the talent that the modern business world demands we have access to.

I would argue that the way in which agents are able to work is just as important as where they are able to do that work. 

Putting this question to Simms from Hy-re again he responded with: “the overly corporate, stuffy environments of traditional property makes the PropTech scene in general a breath of fresh air, a nice change of pace which is whole-heartedly better for staff retention and personal development.” 

“It’s not just office puppies and beer fridges, it goes beyond this to the point of competing with the benefits and perks of some of the most desirable work environments in the world, often found in big tech companies.”

This could be contributing to a trend I am seeing at the moment: while, yes, there are some agents still flowing towards traditional estate agency firms, there is a much heavier flow in the opposite direction.

Imagine yourself as a young, energetic agent, stood at the foot of a magnificent career, are you going to look for a firm that insists you complete hours of manual admin tasks each day, or would you rather go to a firm that uses cutting-edge technology and software systems which reflect the current freedoms that PropTech offers? 

In my humble opinion, if you want to attract the best people your way, you have to appeal to their innate desire to be at the forefront of an evolving industry, not bringing up the rear in a yesteryear vehicle. New, talented people want to be forward-thinking and thus chose employers who reflect this. 

Failing to offer what young talent wants doesn’t only leave you susceptible to losing them to modern forward-thinking agencies, you could also lose them to the PropTech industry. 

I am seeing and hearing about an increasing number of agents leaving the industry to take roles in PropTech companies; some are even creating their own startups.

This is partly because it is a booming sector but also because PropTech companies are increasingly proactive in their headhunting agents to have access to their unbeatable industry knowledge and insight.

This was confirmed by another recruiter, Louise Dickens of LMRE, who agreed, stating: “we are seeing a huge trend in this. The agency market is tightening, commissions are decreasing and a lot of business is being lost online.” 

“A lot of these agents are wondering what the rest of the year will look like and if they will have a job by the end of the year. Other than Dexters acquiring businesses, Foxtons and other large agencies are closing offices and looking at ways to cut costs and that is often through tech solution.”

So, we know there is an appeal in PropTech but is there demand and people actually paying money?

“Our data suggests that for every four applications we receive, two of those are from the traditional property sector,” states Simms from Hy-re. 

“Usually at a senior level such as sales manager, lettings director, or head of department. In terms of seniority, the average basic salary these individuals are seeking from the PropTech space is £45,000+.” 

“This data is par for the course as, usually, in a situation like this it is the senior individuals to first notice that the grass might be greener on the other side.”

Are you attractive to talent?

The takeaway (a phrase I despise but always seem to use) from all of this is to consider how attractive your agency currently is to new, emerging industry talent.

Consider how you might act to ensure your firm is forward-thinking and, just as importantly, demonstrates as much to the outside world. 

Look at the work environment you are offering new recruits, and look at the manner in which you insist they operate; is it in-line with the modern world? Is it in-line with current employee expectations? Do your systems give them the freedom to focus on being an agent rather than a member of the admin staff? Do you offer that little ego tickle that many agents, myself included back in the day, require? Are you supportive of people coming in and challenging the norm, thinking differently to try and drive the firm forwards? 

Once your answer to all of these questions is ‘yes’, you can be confident that your future workforce will be made up of the best of the best because you’ve created a great opportunity for them to fulfil their potential. 

If you are thinking for yourself here you should just consider, as Louise puts it, work out “what it actually is about Tech and Innovation that interests you, other than it being a buzz word at the moment”, because you all have traits that are needed as the PropTech market is looking validate business models. 

To some, PropTech could be a threat, to others, it should be seen as an opportunity - both for the individual as well as the business.

(Disclosure: James Dearsley has a minority shareholding in Hy-re recruitment)

*James Dearsley is a leading PropTech influencer and commentator, and is co-founder of PropTech platform Unissu. You can follow James on Twitter here.


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