There has been much speculation about when agents will be allowed back to work, and what the new office working environment will look like.
EAT editor Graham Norwood recently offered up three persuasive reasons why estate agency should be the first out of lockdown, with the positive impact on the economy perhaps the biggest of these.
However, even if this is the case, we certainly won’t be returning immediately to how things were before. It seems pretty clear that social distancing measures will be in place, in one form or another, for at least the rest of this year, and as such agents will have to adapt and evolve to cope with the ‘new normal’.
The housing minister, Chris Pincher – who seems to have been hidden away since getting the job earlier this year – finally appeared earlier this week when drawing up guidelines which could allow agents to return to something like normal working in the near future.
According to the Mail on Sunday, Pincher has already discussed guidelines with some agents, conveyancers and removal firms.
The discussions focused on how viewings could be held under social distancing, with some recommendations echoing those outlined recently by the NAEA.
These include ‘contactless’ viewings, where all doors and cupboards would be left open to reduce buyers’ contact with surfaces. At the same time, owners would either leave their homes or wait in gardens or cars where appropriate.
The would-be buyers themselves would need to wear gloves and possibly face masks during viewings, and there would be limits on the number of viewings per day at any one property. Sellers would be expected to have thoroughly cleaned properties before viewings, while any communal areas may also need to be disinfected.
The paper said that the proposals are being assessed by Public Health England, with final guidelines potentially agreed upon within two weeks.
The measures being mooted by Pincher and MHCLG appear similar to those proposed by the NAEA, albeit the agents’ trade body also wants more help for buyers via a loan of £1,500 to purchasers upon completion, and a stamp duty holiday.
The signs for a quick recovery are positive, with Nationwide claiming that a strong bounce back post-lockdown is likely, while a study by Rightmove has suggested that 94% of buyers and sellers currently in the market are determined to go ahead with their plans after restrictions are eased. Meanwhile, HM Land Registry has relaxed its rules on ID verification to allow property deals to continue during the crisis.
Originally, the UK government was set to review lockdown measures on Thursday May 7, but this has now been pushed back to tomorrow when Boris Johnson will reveal his ‘roadmap out of lockdown’. Newspaper speculation initially suggested a five-point government plan for significantly easing lockdown restrictions from this Monday, but in the last few days the Cabinet has rowed back from that by saying changes will only be modest, minimal and very carefully monitored.
A draft government plan to ease coronavirus restrictions at work has suggested that reduced hot-desking, alternatives to social distancing where it is not possible, efforts to minimise numbers using equipment, staggered shift times and the maximisation of home-working are all being considered to allow workplaces to reopen.
The draft strategy, seen by the BBC, also says additional hygiene procedures, physical screens and the use of protective equipment should be considered where maintaining distancing of 2m (6ft) between workers is impossible.
It may be the case that, for agencies, certain staff come into the office on certain days, with those who can easily work from home continuing to do so. There may be limits, like in supermarkets, on the number of people in a building at any one time. Virtual valuations and viewings may continue to be used for some time if the physical alternatives can’t be carried out safely, while face coverings/masks may become standardised in agencies across the country.
Advice and restrictions may differ by region, too, with less affected areas such as the South West having less restrictive measures than somewhere like London, where population density is much higher and many people travel in by public transport to the office.
In-branch visits, much less frequent now anyway, may be discouraged for the time being, while staff will have to find ways of working that adhere to social distancing. It will be the job of agency owners to ensure their staff and clients feel safe and protected at all times, with government guidelines followed to the letter.
The Guild’s six-point plan on how agents can operate safely once lockdown is over may be useful here.
Some agencies, of course, may have so enjoyed the experience of remote working that they will change their working practices forever – perhaps switching to a central hub model of the like favoured by Keller Williams and Agent & Homes. Others will be desperate to get back into the office and more traditional ways of operating.
One agent, however, has courted controversy this week for seeming to flout government guidance by reopening his Gloucestershire agency – albeit with extensive social distancing measures in place. It caused a backlash among our readers, with two thirds saying they were against such a move at this present time.
Overall, there certainly appears to be a disconnect here between the bigger corporates – with Countrywide ‘pleading’ with the government to allow agents to get back to work, and high-profile suppliers and home-moving services urging for sales to resume – and smaller independents, which make up a big part of our readership, who have been urging more caution.
What is clear is that things will be completely different for some time yet, and may never return completely to the old ways. But agents, like everyone else, must find new ways of working as we continue to live alongside the coronavirus.
Kremer Signs has been one supplier that has been quick off the mark in helping agents get ready for the new normal, with various social distancing products including pavement signs, floor graphics, bollard covers and banners.
New feature alert!
Here at The ValPal Network, we’ve been doing all we can to help our members through the current crisis. Earlier this week we launched a new feature in response to the current lockdown, involving a huge team effort to get it live.
It means consumers can now upload photos of their property when they have been presented with their on-screen valuation. As a result, the agent is better informed ahead of the professional valuation, as well as it being an extra talking point between consumer and agent.
With the current pandemic in mind, many of our members requested that we add the ability for a prospective vendor or landlord to upload images of their property so that the agent can complete a virtual valuation. We listened, of course, and now have said feature live for our members to use.
If you have any other ideas on how we could improve our service during these difficult times, please don’t be shy in letting us know. We’ll do our best to help!
What do customers want in a crisis?
A Spanish colleague of mine, who works in our dynamic marketing department, recently pointed me in the direction of a report that has been doing the rounds in the Spanish press. The Covid-19 Impact report, published by IPG Media Lab a few weeks ago, appears to be based on European data, but seems just as relevant to a British audience and those wondering about how to market to customers at a time like this.
The report found that customers still want to hear from brands, but 67% of consumers now wish to receive messages related to the brand’s social responsibility, as well as messages to do with community and inspiring calm. Interestingly, only 22% of consumers still want to receive offers and deals.
Additionally, 64% of those surveyed thought it was appropriate for brands to send specific messages related to the Covid-19 situation, rather than keeping promotional communications (31%).
When the crisis is over, 59% of consumers think that their relationship with brands will be stronger and they’ll have grown their engagement/digital conversation with these brands. Promisingly, only 13% of consumers think this relationship will be worse.
In our marketing response to the crisis, we’ve found a tailored approach works best. What is good for one client – more Facebook ads, greater interaction on social media, blogs focused entirely on Covid, etc – might not be right for another.
We’ve found that tips and guidance – in particular on complex issues such as furloughing – have helped our clients be an authority on the rapidly changing situation.
The crisis has shown how marketing own goals can prove so costly – I’m thinking Rightmove here, which has overtaken even Purplebricks as the company that property people love to hate – but also how getting things right can bring long-lasting rewards. Many agents have done their reputations a world of good in recent times, whether through charity initiatives, good deeds or work in their community, and it has shown the vital importance of an honest, local approach.
The big, faceless organisations are currently receiving the backlash, in the main, while small and medium-sized firms have done a much better job when it comes to social responsibility and customer care.
The only story in town
Coronavirus has had such a profound and dramatic impact on all of our lives, it’s sometimes hard to remember what life was like before it. It will end up being, if it’s not already, the most covered story in history – and the first sign of the crisis abating will be when something other than coronavirus is top of the news agenda.
In recent times, the only topics that even come close would be Brexit and the global financial crisis, but those events weren’t all-consuming worldwide. Coronavirus very much is.
And this is shown on the Today sites, too, with our coverage giving an indication of just how quickly the crisis took hold in Britain and transformed the property industry overnight. On Estate Agent Today, since the first mention of coronavirus in late Feb, there have been (at the time of writing) 255 Covid-based articles in just over two months.
By comparison, Brexit – the major story of the last few years until the pandemic took hold – has accounted for 937 stories since January 2016, a timeframe of well over four years.
It’s similar on Letting Agent Today, with 161 coronavirus stories since mid-Feb, while on Landlord Today there have been 115 mentions, nearly all since March 12. Even on Property Investor Today, which goes out three times a week, there have been 62 coronavirus-led stories since early March.
None of this is surprising, of course, given the pandemic’s severity, scope and newsworthiness, but it’s still staggering to see just how much it is dominating all parts of life and impacting on every single sector. No industry has been free from the damage caused by Covid.
Until next time…and keep safe!
*Nat Daniels is CEO of Angels Media, publishers of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today. Follow him on Twitter @NatDaniels.