We have seen the best of agents, too – first off in our Conquering Corona series during the worst of the first wave, and then ever since in our regular Agents Do Charity column, where agents up and down the country have found innovative and clever new ways to keep raising money for fantastic causes despite the various challenges posed.
While life is slowly getting back to normal again thanks to the easing of lockdown and the successful rollout of the vaccine, it seems certain that there will be long-term legacies from the pandemic. Life will never be the same again – and in many ways this can be for the better.
As others have said, the tech revolution has probably been accelerated by five or ten years. What was coming anyway – greater use of tech, more home-working, more contactless solutions – has arrived much quicker out of necessity, and has largely been embraced by agents who had no other choice but to adapt and evolve.
Here, I take a look at five things that have changed in the last 12 months and whether these changes might just be permanent.
The rise of virtual viewings
Before the pandemic, virtual viewings – also sometimes known as video viewings and online property tours – were very much a niche nice-to-have which had never really caught on in a big way. Despite the demand for tech in daily life being high in general, this had never really extended to viewings. Plus, sometimes, the viewings themselves could be clunky and glitchy, with the technology not really adding enough to the experience to make it worthwhile.
However, when the Covid crisis struck and the first lockdown came into play, virtual viewings soon became a necessity because of the restrictions on travel, face-to-face contact and in-person viewings. The government was strongly recommending an online-first approach, with virtual viewings taking place in the first instance.
Even now, as we ease out of lockdown, the government advice is for virtual viewings to take place in the first instance to ensure buyers or renters are really serious about a home and to help cut out any timewasters.
Those providing virtual viewing technology have certainly thrived as video tours have become integral to agents, developers and housebuilders across the country.
Consolidation is the order of the day
Connells and Countrywide, The Property Franchise Group and Hunters, Foxtons and Douglas & Gordon – these are the major examples of an ever-increasing trend. Of course, consolidation usually occurs in times of economic crisis as firms batten down the hatches, take advantage of their rivals’ issues and become acquisitive. We’ve seen franchises like Martin & Co, for example, gobble up nearby independents and Belvoir doing the same.
While this level of consolidation is far from unexpected in uncertain times, it is important – as I mentioned in a recent Natter – that the agency world doesn’t become a closed shop dominated by a few massive monopolies.
To this end, we have been keen to promote the fantastic work of the local independents who make up the majority of our readership and help to keep the property market ticking over year in and year out.
Our Independents Day series at the back-end of last year highlighted the value of the whole agency eco-system, and how important diversity and local character is within that.
A change in working patterns
Many of us have been working from home – or a hybrid of home and office working – for the last year and it seems likely this will continue post-pandemic. It has become clear that flexible working doesn’t lead to a dip in productivity – in fact, quite the opposite.
The more that agents can cater towards flexible working and a better work/life balance, the better for everyone. We have seen mental health awareness in agency gain prominence this year, thanks to the backdrop of the pandemic, and it’s vital that we continue to talk about these issues, led by the likes of Sam Hunter, Sarah Edmundson and the team at Agents Together, and others who have been happy to share their struggles.
The archetypal 9-6, Monday to Friday, week in the office would appear to be long gone – and now is a chance to create a more dynamic, flexible, tech-led workforce. There will be challenges in that, of course, and some will still prefer the more traditional hours and ways of working, but for many employees not being tied to an office or a daily commute has been a breath of fresh air and they will be keen to keep that.
It’s perhaps not surprising, too, that the pandemic has changed people’s priorities and life goals, and given many more people the push to go it alone, either by establishing their own agency, becoming a franchisee or opting for the self-employed route.
Expect more of that over the coming months and years as we emerge from a once-in-a-lifetime health and economic crisis, but I don’t think we should expect (or want) a return to convention. High street agent offices will still dominate, but there will definitely be a rise in the number of hybrid operations and it’s likely that footfall – already on the decline pre-Covid – will continue to fall in agency offices and lead to a rethink about whether such space is necessary.
The orthodoxy of the 9-5 office day has only been that way for the last 100 or so years; things change, things adapt, things evolve, and in this case they can do those things for the better.
Virtual meetings and events
One of these things I hope stays the same while the other one I hope returns to normal. I have missed the networking, sense of community and camaraderie that comes from attending events, conferences and meet-ups in person. That can’t be fully replicated virtually.
We all hope that live events will eventually return and the signs look good for the ESTAS in October being the first large-scale live property event to take place since the pandemic started.
But in terms of meetings with clients and prospective clients, or other people and suppliers who help with the running of a business, I think there is something to be said for the Zoom and Teams approach, cutting down on unnecessary travel and making more effective use of everyone’s time.
Is there much point in me attending a one-hour meeting in Manchester or Cardiff when I could just as easily do this from the office or the comfort of my own home on my PC or laptop? I suppose something is lost in virtual translation, and it can be harder to pick up body language, signs and signals, but perhaps not enough to make a long round-trip on the Tube or National Rail worth it.
We will have to wait and see if these sorts of meetings return post-Covid, although I am much keener for a return to live events and interacting with people in person after so long spent doing so through a screen.
The importance of community
Without wanting to sound too twee or saccharine, the pandemic has really brought into focus the value of community and good community relations.
Agents play a massive part in that, and really should ingrain themselves in their local area as much as possible. I know many already did before Covid, and nothing has changed in that respect, but it may have reminded others of how important a good reputation and standing is when it comes to agency.
It could be supporting a local foodbank or school, raising money for a local charity, or sponsoring the local football team’s shirts – not only does this get your name and brand out there, it will also be a rewarding experience for you and your staff.
Before I go, just a quick note to say I recently did my first stint as a mentor with Agents Together. Must have been some mistake in me being asked, but I spoke to a lovely lady who is the MD of a conveyancing business, and I will be continuing with regular sessions over the next six months.
A very rewarding experience and a great way of giving back. Hopefully I provided her with at least a few pearls of wisdom!
Talking of pearls of wisdom, here’s another one from me. If you’re ever unfortunate enough to be made redundant, don’t splash all your redundancy pay on a talking point car.
Back in 1991, I was working in the City on the Stock Exchange when the crash hit and I was let go. I was 20 at the time and this is what me and my mate Mark decided to spend the money on. Those were the days!
Needless to say, it fell apart after that summer. But money definitely well spent. No, really.
Until next time…
*Nat Daniels is CEO of Angels Media, publishers of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today. Follow him on Twitter @NatDaniels.