Some big tech firms have already made it clear that there will be no mad rush to get back into the office. Some believe the new normal of flexible working is here to stay and has actually been a godsend in terms of greater productivity and better work/life balance. Others are keener to get staff back into the office, for the collaboration, training and morale boost it provides.
Amongst employees, opinion also appears split. Many have very much enjoyed working remotely and have no intention to be back in the office five days a week, like before. They believe they’ve been more productive at home, with fewer distractions and no need for a stressful commute.
Their work/life balance has improved, and so has their bank balance with no annual season ticket or regular lunches out. Others, though, crave the interaction with their workmates, the social side of things, the kitchen chats, the after-work drinks.
For our part, we haven’t had the whole team – or even half of our staff - back in the office for even one day since the start of the pandemic. The office has been open for odd days here and there, but there has been no obligation to come in. We’ve got very used to remote working and have made a success of it – in fact, business has thrived more than ever after those first few difficult months last year when the property industry shut and no-one really knew what the future held.
In all likelihood, we’ll never return to the old ways. It makes no financial or logistical sense. Our working patterns have changed completely, and in many ways for the better. I imagine many other companies will be thinking along the same lines.
That said, there are some aspects of office life that we all miss and which can’t be recreated by Zoom or Teams. Zoom fatigue is definitely a thing, too, although admittedly in-person meetings could be exhausting at times as well.
It’s this desire for interaction and recreating office life without actually having to be there that has inspired IDO Virtual, which launched in July 2020 after the first wave of the pandemic.
IDO Virtual is described as the ‘WFH (work from home) future of work’. With many businesses now reviewing their working practices in ‘a new-thinking world’, there is a need to provide more flexibly for those who want to be in a real-life office, those who want to work from home exclusively, and the majority who want a bit of both.
The platform, part of the eXp brand, offers business of all sizes and from all industries the chance to work virtually within a cloud working campus which has ‘private offices, team breakout areas, meeting rooms, an auditorium (holding up to 1,000 guests), conference rooms, classrooms, a theatre and an expo hall’.
It’s ‘ideal for companies redefining how they and their employees work’, whether ‘that be totally WFH or split between home and a real office environment’.
While it’s not being sold to fellow agents, it is on offer to property suppliers who can then invite agents into the platform.
Ian Dobrin, whose history in estate agency dates back to 1979, is IDO Virtual’s Chief Experience Officer. A man who started his career as a fresh-faced 16-year-old delivering the mail to 500 employees and directors at Edward Erdman, a surveyors’ firm in Mayfair, Ian is best known for his years as Group Recruitment Director for Connells Group, a position he held until April 2019.
After leaving, he held a number of non-exec positions until Covid hit. Then, through his connections with Adam Day (Day’s former online agency Hatched.co.uk was acquired by Connells), he got involved with eXp – where he works as an estate agent mentor – and IDO Virtual.
Ian, someone I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for some years now, was kind enough to treat me and Craig Vile, Director of The ValPal Network, to a tour of the platform – which is operated by Virbela, a startup purchased a number of years ago by eXp Realty.
The company was looking to redefine work, and improve remote working, social connectivity and distance learning, well before Covid struck – but the pandemic has supercharged things as WFH has become the norm for many in a way that wouldn’t have been imagined even at the beginning of March 2020.
The platform is a sight to behold – beautifully realised, artfully designed, highly user-friendly, and both futuristic and weirdly humdrum. It feels like you are in your own version of The Sims. You can create an avatar in your own image and then enter Virbela’s Open Campus, a world that is like something out of a video game.
You control yourself and have free rein to explore the campus, which includes private meeting rooms, a nightclub (one of the first places I visited!), co-working booths, a beach, a rooftop stage and a football pitch. You can shake hands, converse with other people, clap, samba, headbang, cheer and kick footballs and beachballs. You can sit down in board rooms or meeting rooms with fellow staff.
On the screens, you can play PowerPoints and YouTube videos, and even share your webcam. Companies can have their own office space for employees and visitors. Despite all the animation involved, it feels very real-to-life and tangible in a way that screen sharing on Zoom doesn’t manage.
While the WFH situation with agents is a bit more unique, with most still preferring a bricks and mortar office and a high street presence, there has been an increasing trend since Covid for more flexible working and self-employed models like eXp. I could definitely envision the likes of Keller Williams, Century 21, Agent & Homes and others replicating this kind of virtual experience.
Tech-led suppliers may also appreciate the ability to meet easily without having to commute. Many PropTech companies in the UK market operate outside of the country, or at least have their main headquarters elsewhere, which could make a space to hold meetings, conferences and talks all the more enticing.
In my recent interview with Propertymark, the team there were all continuing to work from home and it would appear to make more sense for the large teams at the various portals and big corporates to continue working remotely and meeting when required in a virtual space, rather than having huge, costly, expensive-to-manage headquarters in somewhere like London.
Of course, this won’t be for everyone. But I don’t see it as a like-for-like replacement of the office, more of an extension of Zoom/Teams and a chance for employees to meet in a virtual space to collaborate and socialise even if they all live miles apart.
Ian will do far more justice to the concept – you can get in contact with him on LinkedIn or at email@example.com. You can also get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 020 3773 4441.
Just a reminder the platform is not for agents, but property suppliers are eligible and agents can be invited in through those suppliers.
It’s certainly weird, when walking through the tour, how what once seemed highly futuristic seems much closer now as we’ve all become experts at navigating the virtual, contactless world.
The importance of brand and good PR
It struck me when watching the much-hyped Harry & Meghan Oprah interview on ITV the other day just how important brand and good PR management are in many aspects of life.
There is no doubt the royal family brand has been tarnished by the damaging revelations in the explosive (and in this case such an adjective was accurate) two-hour long interview. They will likely recover – alongside football teams and political parties, the royals have a remarkable ability to ride out scandals that would kill off most institutions – but the royal brand, and it is a brand these days, has not had a good few weeks.
The consequences have been more wide-ranging than that, with Piers Morgan – the high-profile and provocative co-host of ITV’s Good Morning Britain – and Ian Murray, the chief of the Society of Editors, both stepping down from their roles after controversial comments on the subject.
Fast food giant Burger King also landed itself in hot water on Monday when, on what was International Women’s Day, it sent a tweet saying: ‘Women belong in the kitchen’. The intention might have been good – Burger King was promoting its campaign to get more women into leading chef roles – but the wording was highly unfortunate, a social media backlash ensued and Burger King apologised and removed the tweet.
It shows just how easily a brand can attract bad press and tarnish its image if it’s not careful. The modern world is even more of a minefield, largely due to social media.
In the property world, recent examples abound. Last year, during the height of the pandemic, some of the portals scored own goals with their initial responses and their support (or lack of it) for agents. For a brief period, it seemed like it might be a terminal error of judgement, particularly from Rightmove, but the company eventually rode out the storm and went on something of a charm offensive.
Just this week, meanwhile, Rightmove has faced a furious backlash from agents unhappy at its sudden imposition of restrictions preventing access to parts of its listing back-end.
In recent weeks, Propertymark has lurched from one crisis to another and its policy of silence has only led to more rumours, intrigue, controversy and question marks for the troubled organisation.
Meanwhile, Boomin – which has finally announced its long-awaited launch date – has faced issues because of the reputation of the Bruce brothers, who spent years strongly criticising traditional agents. Despite their efforts to win agents over and their admirable work with Agents Together, many still view them as a tarnished brand and one they will never trust. This could prove to be insurmountable for Boomin, regardless of expensive advertising campaigns.
Brand and reputation are all-important in this industry, and a well-honed reputation can quickly go down the pan. Just ask Countrywide.
Until next time…
*Nat Daniels is CEO of Angels Media, publishers of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today. Follow him on Twitter @NatDaniels.