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Locked or open-door policy - has Covid changed the way offices operate forever?

In this piece, Tom Davis, press officer at Propertymark, explores the debate surrounding a locked or open-door policy, and whether the pandemic has caused a shift in thinking.

Estate agents are split on whether to operate offices with a locked or open-door policy, with staff anxiety over a return to face-to-face customer interaction remaining a talking point.

The issue has been a hot topic amongst NAEA Propertymark members where a straw poll found just over half – 57 per cent – operate with an open door.

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Fourty-three per cent said their offices remain locked, with staff confidence the deciding factor while some workers remain anxious about face-to-face contact with customers.

As offices strive to adopt safer working during the coronavirus pandemic, estate agents have kitted them out with everything from ‘cinema style’ walkways to guide guests and air filtering systems.

Others who have yet to return to an open door have adapted to new ways of working such as an emerging buyer/tenant preference for digital contracts and 3D tours.

‘Staff feel safer with a locked door’

Katie Griffin, owner of Sawdye & Harris in Devon, said they have been operating with a locked-door policy for appointments only since June 2020 as staff feel safer.

The office is equipped with masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and a temperature monitor while there is also a key box outside for safe delivery of keys.

She said: “We have continued with our locked-door policy to ensure staff have a safe space to operate in but are reviewing this weekly.

“I need to make sure that my team feel safe at work and can continue to operate without feeling anxious or challenged.

“They do feel safer with the locked-door policy and this has not affected or deterred prospective buyers and tenants.”

‘3D tours the new normal’

Ian Jepson, Branch Partner at Michael Graham in Northampton, said they also operate with a locked-door policy with the majority of staff now back in the office.

He added: “We have noticed even in the last few days how other businesses are changing and not requiring masks for entry, so in the coming weeks we might consider going to an open-door policy.

“We have staff with differing ages, so we have had to find processes that work flexibly for all parties. A couple of our staff still work from home but generally it has been back to business for those in the office.

“On the customer side we have noticed some of our operations changing as some prefer digital contracts to paper based ones as well as 3D tours to in-person visits and those are now the normal.”

‘Fully-open and back to normal’

Simon Wilkinson, Managing Director of The Wilkinson Partnership in Milton Keynes, said they are “fully open and back to normal” as staff requested to return to the office, with only occasional home working for flexibility.

He said: “Initially we made a number of changes to the office, including a classroom for single parents to enable them to come in with their children. Gradually those changes have now been removed and we are operating as before, although customers who want to wear masks continue to do so.

“Our staff actually asked if they could return to the office as they felt they were missing out on so much market information and knowledge.

“They wanted to engage with colleagues and be ahead of the competition and we have increased our market share as a result, meaning the staff have been paid record commissions.”

‘By appointment only’

For Mary-Lou Press, Partner at Alexander Reid & Frazer in Northern Ireland, staff have said they feel safe at work with an open-door policy by appointment only.

She said: “Customers have been eager to visit, and we have made things safe and easy for them to do so. Our office has an entrance sanitizer station, screens at each desk and posters for guidance and we are installing an air filter system for the winter months to ensure clean air within the office.

“Our systems were put in place in May 2020 before opening and I envisage keeping these permanently as we want a safe environment for our staff and customers.

“We had a closed-door policy until 2021 so staff felt safe in the workspace. Now we have an open-door policy most staff work from the office on a rota with staggered days and hours, but some work from home when required.”

‘Cinema style entrance’

Over in Norwich, Jan Hÿtch, partner at Arnolds Keys, said their branches have had an open-door policy since April with staff deciding where they work, although 95 per cent now work in the office.

Customers are encouraged to wear a mask before entering a contained entrance guided by ‘cinema style’ chrome posts and ribbons, and then sanitize if they meet staff – who are also masked up.

She said: “Within a month of opening the doors we were all in again and the majority of staff were looking forward to coming back. Understandably, a few were a bit nervous but were reassured by the measures put in place.

“Those customers who want to come to the office and feel happy with face-to-face are doing so, but there are so many other channels by which they can contact us, so if they don’t feel comfortable coming in we can go to them, meet outdoors, or virtually - whatever the customer wants.”

Since the end of 2020, Arnolds Keys has operated with a work ‘in’ and ‘out’ team, with those who need to visit a property working from home and desk-bound staff in the office.

The company also invested in IT, replacing PCs with laptops and switching desk phones to laptop-based VOIP phones so staff can easily work from home with a broadband connection.

Offices were also deep cleaned and equipped with PPE stations and Perspex screens, with twice-weekly lateral flow testing amongst staff continuing today.

And she said many of the changes are now here to stay.

Jan added: “The measures we are currently working with are likely to stay in place for the foreseeable. The switch to laptop/VOIP technology has been a game changer, and I would recommend it to anyone.

“It took the pandemic to push through five years of tech evolution in our sector into nine months, but it has made us change our way of working for the better.”

*Written by Tom Davis from Propertymark

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