It’s no easy task shuttering 11 real estate offices in a year and a half. But RE/MAX Dolphin Real Estate did it — and without shedding a single agent.

Instead, its brokers and agents grabbed their laptops, portable printers, BlackBerrys and even GPS devices and hit the road, often rendezvousing with clients in coffee shops, restaurants, homes and workplaces.

Editor’s note: This month, Inman News is focusing coverage on ways to rethink the traditional brick-and-mortar real estate office to streamline operations and to deploy more office functions to agents working in the field. Share your views: future@inman.com.

It’s no easy task shuttering 11 real estate offices in a year and a half, but RE/MAX Dolphin Real Estate did it — and kept its agent pool largely intact.

Its brokers and agents grabbed their laptops, portable printers, BlackBerrys and even GPS devices and hit the road, often rendezvousing with clients in coffee shops, restaurants, homes and workplaces.

Today, the downsizing of these traditional brick-and-mortar offices — stretching from urban streets of San Francisco to the rural roads of La Honda in San Mateo County, Calif. — is paying dividends for both the company and its agents.

RE/MAX Dolphin has shaved monthly expenses by about 40 percent, operating just one central office in San Mateo and three satellite locations that are not staffed by employees. Now, only a third or half of the 60 agents head into the office daily.

"This is not a geo-centric business anymore. The office has become less of a focus," said Allan Bernardi, broker and chief executive officer of RE/MAX Dolphin. "Technology has reduced the need to get the client into the office. You need to go where your clients are."

While no one predicts the traditional real estate shop will become an industry dinosaur, the concept of the virtual agent and office is spreading as companies grapple with today’s economic and technological realities.

These days, executives are poring over lean budgets, looking for ways to trim costs and stay afloat during the market downturn. Meanwhile, the Internet has empowered consumers, putting MLS listings at their fingertips, and enabling them to take online tours of houses on the market that are minutes or hours away.

Agents, too, are adapting — some faster than others.

"Your office goes wherever you are. You are able to stay connected and be more productive," said Gayle Pietras, a RE/MAX Dolphin broker-manager.

While consumers can collect more information from the Internet, Pietras said her clients depend on her more to help them digest and interpret the data. The mobile high-tech gadgets enable Pietras to broaden her reach as a broker and work with clients well beyond San Mateo and San Francisco counties.

Kay Burns, who worked out of the Half Moon Bay RE/MAX office for about 17 years before its closure, is still adjusting to being a virtual agent. "I’m a traditional person. Like most people I resist change," Burns said. "This is still relatively new to me. I have tried some new approaches. I meet (clients) in their home, a coffee shop, a restaurant."

In the past, Burns went in daily to the office, which was a few minutes from her Half Moon Bay home. Now, she travels two or three days a week from the coast over a small mountain range to the brokerage’s San Mateo headquarters some 20 minutes away. She spends the other days working out of her home office or in the field.

Burns also can stop in one of the satellite offices in Moss Beach, Pacifica and La Honda. Some agents opted to rent space for the satellite locations, feeling they still needed to have an office presence.

"It’s a security blanket for them," Bernardi said. While the offices have the typical RE/MAX signage, the space is smaller and there is no office staff. Moreover, the offices aren’t located in areas designed for heavy walk-in traffic.

That’s a far cry from when the brokerage had highly visible brick-and-mortar offices, including a Half Moon Bay branch, which was a downtown fixture for more than two decades. The branches were each equipped with the same type of desktop computers, fax machines, copiers and even file drawers. But the mobile high-tech age made redundant office set-ups less important for doing business.

"There is not that need to sit in the office and look at listings," Bernardi said. So starting in mid-2007, RE/MAX Dolphin began closing the first of its 11 branch offices, finally completing the closures by the end of 2008. In transitioning to a more virtual business model, "we didn’t lose agents by closing offices," Bernardi said.

To the east, across the San Francisco Bay, another brokerage has had success with virtual agents as well.

"We had a beautiful office space in Danville. It just wasn’t cost-effective," said Keith Miller, branch manager for the Contra Costa County operations of Pacific Union GMAC Real Estate. The brokerage closed its Danville office in October 2007, opting for a scaled-down location with conference room and some office equipment. The virtual office has about 20 virtual agents.

"Sitting here in a brick-and-mortar office really is a thing of the past," Miller said. "All the paperwork and all the contracts are accessible online. They (agents) can sit down at a Starbucks and do everything. It’s totally cost-effective."

Gilbert Mohtes-Chan is a freelance writer in California.

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