Lockdown measures are still in place for another two weeks, at least, with the possibility of them being extended beyond that. Which means the new normal is here to stay for a while yet.
There has been some debate over whether the old normal will ever return, or whether life will be radically different. In our case, I believe meetings with prospects/clients by Zoom should be the norm even once this is all over, as it allows for greater focus and clarity without the need for an unnecessary commute.
Promisingly, newspaper speculation suggests that estate agents might be one of the first high street premises to reopen, but for now the majority of agents across the country are adapting to a new world of working from home, with all the challenges and possible rewards that brings.
With the success of our recent WFH feature in mind, which saw agents send in their pictures, videos and tips of working remotely, I thought it’d be good to put a twist on the ‘Day in the life of…’ series we run every so often in the Natter. And focus on a week in the life of agents in lockdown…
A week in the life of a Lettings Account Manager
One of the most important roles at present is the ongoing payment of rent to keep landlords in business. Jacqueline Beard is the Accounts & IT Manager at CJ Hole Cheltenham, one of 24 CJ Hole branches across the country. She has worked there for the last 15 years, administering both sales and lettings accounts. Paying the landlords of a substantial portfolio (approaching 400 properties) is a significant part of her job and is fortunately well-suited to homeworking.
Here, she tells me about her new working routine in lockdown.
My new workspace is finally ready. While everyone else stockpiled loo roll and pasta, my panic-purchase was a desk and chair. Paying a large portfolio of landlords is not best attempted at the end of a dining table where the rest of the household can intrude at their leisure.
Besides, I write mystery novels in my spare time, and a room of my own is well overdue. At 09.00, the office is spotless, but by 09.03, contractors' invoices, bank statements and deposit forms litter my desk. Note to self – buy storage.
Day two and I’m on a roll. The landlord payment run went surprisingly well, and there were no problems with the IT (just as well, as that's my responsibility too). Everything balances and the only developing problem is the state of the contractor's invoice file.
My Cockapoo, Teddy, has chewed the edges and it’s soggy with saliva. Note to self – also buy shelves. Still, it's a good day, and there are no insurmountable problems.
Which is more than can be said for day three - home-working colleagues have reported IT glitches, which means a quick trip to the office to fix things. I get there in record time as there are no other cars on the roads and slink inside feeling like a criminal.
I take the opportunity to send a pre-prepared email to our landlord and tenant clients, carefully crafted by my lettings’ colleagues. It’s packed with advice and recommendations for living and working safely in this new Covid-19 landscape.
We’ve received a slew of replies from both landlords and tenants. We expected some rental deferment applications, but surprisingly, these are outnumbered by tenancy renewal requests.
The response from our landlords is humbling. They've thanked us for keeping in touch and have taken the time to ask after our health and well-being. One landlord has given his tenant a high-value gift card to buy treats during lockdown.
Another busy day. I pay landlords as usual and start dealing with the accounting end of year requirements. It's warm outside, and my office is south-facing. I love the heat but find myself unexpectedly missing the office air-conditioning.
Another Zoom meeting, another arrears update, some quick accounts reconciliation and I look at the clock. It’s 8pm. I down tools and reach for a gin & tonic!
Lessons I’ve learned about working from home: neither husband, son or dog have any respect for home office boundaries and continue to chat, ask questions & chew (in that order). Homeworking is not the easy ride it’s cracked up to be – there’s too much temptation to keep working long after close of play. Bouncing ideas off the dog is not as fruitful as consulting with colleagues, and I find myself missing human company (no insult to the family intended).
A week in the life of an Estate Agent
Next up, Daniel Bond of Henley-based Bonds Estate Agents. Take it away, Daniel.
Much like our days in the office, Monday mornings begin with a meeting. We are fortunate being a modern estate agent that this technology was already in place, so the transition was not a tricky one. Microsoft Teams is our preferred method of communication for calls, file sharing and instant messaging.
Here, we review the accomplishments and challenges of the previous week and plan for obstacles ahead. Work aside, it’s nice to have a chat with those outside the confines of our own homes.
Most days revolve around talking. Our business is extremely reactive, so client and customer contact is paramount and has proven to be a welcome outlet for others to voice their concerns. As people dedicate more time to online browsing, the value of being responsive is at an all-time high - be that email, customer enquiries or answering calls.
Securing these lines of communication allows us to deliver personalised time and advice. Whilst we may not be able to change circumstances, we can offer encouraging words and a listening ear.
Unsurprisingly, we’ve seen a 38% increase in our enquires and across our social media platforms. To utilise this, we’ve been ramping up our online presence: whether that’s industry statistics, business updates, news snippets - it really varies.
Our customers’ wellbeing is important, so we aim to select diverse and uplifting content. We’ve recently become partners with Henley Lockdown Fest - a virtual festival which aims to ‘bring happiness home’ and this covers all sorts, including DJ sets and cooking demos.
When balancing a 7-day week, it’s important to 'switch-off' when we 'clock-off'. One benefit of our extended opening hours means we have more time for tasks to be completed and can better separate work and play. Of course, incentives help: personally, I look forward to lunchtime strolls with Lola, the office dog, and the first sip of cold beer in the evening.
An agency already set up to work remotely
To get the perspective of an agent who was already working remotely before the coronavirus crisis hit, I got in touch with Rollo Miles, co-founder of Agent & Homes. The former John D Wood employee jointly set up the hybrid estate agency in 2018, with the claim that high street branches are ‘dead’ and that more flexible working patterns would need to be embraced.
“When we first set up two years ago, the idea was to be cloud-based so our agents could work from anywhere, for anyone, when they want and how they want,” Rollo tells me.
“We were trying to future-proof estate agency and imagine a new way of working, where you are not tied to a high street office and a geographical area around this physical location.”
“We did find, however, that agents liked the office banter and working closely with like-minded people, so we also decided to set up a central hub office, where agents could drop in, mingle and catch-up, have client meetings and get the team feeling.”
“Prior to lockdown, this is where you would find me mostly as CEO of Agent & Homes. At the beginning of March, we could see a UK-wide lockdown approaching so we made the call to shut the hub and go completely cloud-based.”
So, what does Rollo’s new working day look like?
“Well, first, I have zero commute which is a bonus. In our industry it was not just a matter of working from home, it was more about would we be able to work at all. How could we do viewings, how could we sell or let a property under the stay at home order? One of my jobs was to figure out how to do this and be creative about it.”
He says volume is clearly down as most people are staying at home and putting their planned moves on hold until we become free again. “But there is still property management, rent to collect and clients to look after.”
He says a company-wide email and a fun WhatsApp group ‘where we can all communicate and help each other out’ has been created, while a list of contractors who are still able to operate under lockdown has also been produced.
“We made video tours of most of our properties so people can still view them under lockdown. We also added to our website function and streamlined the process even further so buyers, sellers, tenants and landlords could still interact with us and receive great customer service despite lockdown.”
“I find myself even more productive and proactive than before Covid-19!” Rollo insists. “I tend to get up around 6 in the morning to log-on to the banks and check which rents have come in, then send out statements and rent to landlords. I answer all emails received the previous day and set up Zoom meeting with customers, contractors and other team members to plan the day, what problems we may encounter and how we are going to solve them.”
“We’ve found that most of our agents are really helping each other out on the WhatsApp group and sharing ideas and solutions. One thing about this lockdown is that it has brought out the best in everyone.”
He goes on: “The positive for us is that we are still able to work and communicate with our clients because all our systems are cloud-based, so not having a physical office has not changed anything. We planned well, signing up to companies like Moneypenny to help with our phone enquires, diverting lines and making sure that we covered all bases before the lockdown hit us. The challenge is motivating our agents and giving hope to our clients which I hope we are doing.”
Rollo believes working from home will become the norm once the crisis is over and says we’ve all changed our way of thinking about what is normal. “I do believe the public will want good independent agents to look after them and give them proper advice when the markets reopen.”
He concludes: “I am so proud of what some of our agents are doing in terms of volunteering work, whether it be driving keys workers about, delivering food to those who are shielding, or offering our empty flats to the NHS workers who need to isolate from their families.”
“Everything has been put into perspective and I do believe we will all think slightly differently in our lives going forward.”
Elsewhere, Chris Watkin – the well-respected industry analyst who regularly provides superb exclusive video content for EAT – recently posed a question on his Facebook page regarding whether remote working will become the norm. The post received 55 comments, with a roughly even split between those saying yes and those saying no. An interesting topic of conversation that will only get louder in the next few months.
Finally, I’ll leave you with two of the many excellent videos doing the rounds as people get creative during their downtime. First this take on ‘A Horse with No Name’ and second this excellent coronavirus parody of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
The team at Angels Media and the ValPal Network also put together a quick video offering some top property industry insights. Click here if you fancy a gander.
Until next time…and stay safe!
*Nat Daniels is CEO of Angels Media, publishers of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today. Follow him on Twitter @NatDaniels.