Virtual viewings are booming. Virtual house parties, discos, pub quizzes and poker evenings are commonplace. We are learning new ways of communicating and working.
On the other hand, we are all becoming more traditional. I suspect many of you will be baking bread at home, some will be growing seeds.
Others might even be investigating how to make pasta and start drawing again. We have been going out for family walks (when we are not trying to work out how to balance home and work). Doing jigsaw puzzles together - and the occasional game on the Xbox or PlayStation.
What is changing is the middle ground, the status quo. We are upskilling our knowledge of the traditional and the technological. The normal has disappeared. The way we have always done things has changed. We are gaining a sense of control that has been missing for some time.
I wanted, therefore, to use this column to give you some home truths on what I see as happening today. Some you may like. Some you may not. Whichever way, this is a mish-mash of thoughts and feelings I have at the moment and not in any particular order.
1. Technology is forcing us to rethink what we actually ‘do’
There are positives to come out of this situation - I felt this was an excellent and practical example of some changes that are coming into effect right now. Property management is changing, viewings are changing and so are planning meetings and Merger & Acquisition discussions. A positive look at some possible changes.
2. Furloughing is only a short-term positive step
This is where it takes a turn. Furloughing for me is not a positive step. Understand what this really means. Yes, it is putting the role into hibernation. You will get paid for not doing a great deal. Great. But coming out of that hibernation doesn’t mean you spring out of bed. The business landscape will come out of hibernation at different times; it will be sleepy and sluggish for a considerable period.
I can’t help but think there is going to be a huge wake-up call (no pun intended) for a lot of back and front office staff in the next eight weeks. It will not be pretty.
3. What you do during your furlough will define the next steps in your career
If point two comes true, steps you take during your furlough will mean the difference between having a career and not. Some of you will quite rightly be celebrating your paid time off. A well deserved break, no doubt. But, don’t relax. Learn a language, learn a new skill but always have one eye on your career. What will you do to advance it (or change it completely!?).
People will ask you questions like ‘How did you spend your furlough?’ in future interviews. Investors will quiz PropTech people on how they changed their business plans in this period. Having an answer and showing what you did will show leadership and ownership and that you understand the opportunity presented.
4. A new portal is not the answer
Articles I have read this last week are delighting in new portals launching. 2,500 branches are interested in Homesearch, apparently (interested means nothing, by the way) and Openbrix, 18 months in the making, is nearly ready. These are not going to be able to compete for the foreseeable future with Rightmove, Zoopla or OnTheMarket, if ever.
They are missing the point. It isn’t just about pricing. It is about what that pricing gives access to. A £155 per branch subscription model till 2025 will still be expensive, especially with no audience for a considerable period of time. We all know that. Despite the challenges those existing portals all face, they are still going to be the leading marketing channel - whether you like it or not - for some time.
Having said that, these existing portals need also realise the pricing models in place now will not reflect the new normal coronavirus is creating. They need to adapt, and quickly, because of factors I will now discuss...
5. Offices will shut
Yes, home working is tough. Yes, we may want to shut our children in a room and lock the door. Yes, we may want to work in our pyjamas. Yes, we may miss our co-workers. But we are in control. We have flexibility. We have time. Most will realise the benefits of working with more flexibility.
High streets will never be the same again as agents finally realise there is a better way (and they have an excuse to work differently).
6. Brokers and self-employed agents will become the norm
With inevitable layoffs, these models will quickly become more normal and accepted. Consumers will want to work with individuals and won’t think twice because of what has just happened. Service will become the absolute essential aspect of any home transaction. Purchases will be a far more personal experience between the buyer, vendor and ‘agent’.
7. Online agents and iBuyers will struggle
I might suggest there will be a short-term blip of possible survival here for these models. People will panic and want to shift quickly or lockdown will mean they realise now that their home is not fit for purpose. They will realise (like baking bread and making pasta) they can self-serve and want to try. They will also be craving for the certainty that an iBuyer model gives them.
This will be shortlived as they will firstly want human-to-human interaction and feel reassured about decisions being made. iBuyers will not be operating at this time. The algorithms used to predict price viability will simply not be built with pandemics in mind. They might, however, be ready for the next one…End of story.
8. Management should be showing leadership
This is the time where you will see whether there is true leadership in your organisations. Firstly, they should have been decisive, transparent and guided you through the first process of what is a difficult situation. Now, they should be sitting back and thinking. If we started again, how would we build the best ‘estate agency’.
There has been no better time for people to take their brains out of their everyday business operations and reflect. How is this going to change the organisation? Are our fees reasonable or do we need to change how it all works? How are we going to look after this has all settled down?
Estate agents should no longer be carbon copies of each other. Like political parties, they need to be clear of what they offer and why. They need to share their values and why people should work with them.
9. What is the purpose of membership organisations now?
As a founding director of the UK PropTech Association, I know this is something we have taken seriously ourselves. What is the purpose of the association? What is our role now? Many of you pay membership fees to these organisations to help you. What are they doing for you now? It is going to impact them as much as it will be impacting you. Already some are starting to show their true colours, perhaps - read this about ARLA.
At the UKPA, we realised this is the time the property industry needs us most as digital transformation has been pushed from a 10-year process to a 10-week process! The question you need to ask your associations is what their relevance is now? How are they going to help you and what guidance can they give?
10. Conferences will simply not happen in 2020
ARLA has made decisions as referenced above - it will be a slow car crash of a PR disaster for many conferences if they continue this way. We have to realise that there will not be any conferences this year.
If they do go ahead, by a small miracle that we come out of this okay and are not 6ft under, I might suggest the value proposition is no longer the same. Meetings will be cautious, numbers will be down and so the opportunities for being an attendee or exhibitor is just not there this year.
11. There is no better time to be a friend to your customers
Aside from all the difficulties we are all going to face, there is no better time to prove that you care. Over the past number of years, you will have helped people to move - whether renting or buying - a process that is the most stressful period of their lives along with death and divorce.
This is no doubt going to be another stressful time for them again. Why don’t you simply see how they are getting on? They will be at home. They might appreciate now, more than ever, a simple call to see how they are. If you are helping out in the community, tell them about it, see if they want to help to.
Above all else, this is a time to come together. A time to reflect, realise things won’t be the same and to create a new normal that, while it might be tricky for a period, will benefit you in the long-term. Therefore, this isn’t about 2024 at all. Quite the opposite. Lets focus on June 24 first and make sure we all get there.
*James Dearsley is a leading PropTech influencer and commentator, and is co-founder of PropTech platform Unissu. You can follow James on Twitter here.