Unlike many American workers, Anna Demeyere doesn’t feel as if she’s chained to her office desk. For one thing, she doesn’t have a desk.

She never did.

Demeyere is a sales associate at Real Estate Partners in Chattanooga, Tenn. This young brokerage largely ditched the idea of providing assigned desks for agents in favor of "hot desks," available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Powerful communications technologies have led to some out-of-the-box redesigns of real estate brokerage offices, with some brokers eschewing the idea of "the office" as a one-size-fits-all workplace (see related articles).

In the sleek, downtown Chattanooga space that Real Estate Partners moved into last November, a few agents who tend to work traditional hours and wanted permanent desks got them.

But most of the 38 who are on staff here show up rarely or at various times of the day. They slide into any of 10 or so unadorned "hot desk" cubicles, whipping out their laptops and BlackBerrys to conduct business. And then they’re likely to head out the door.

"The reality of this business is, you don’t make your money sitting at the desk — you make your money in the field," said Real Estate Partners marketing director Adelia Mosley. "When we were looking at the fiscal side of our business model, we realized that desk space equals dollars in overhead."

Broker and co-owner Gina Sakich said she decided to adapt the hot-desking model when she visited a non-real estate business in London that used the concept.

"Different people were using a desk — it was constantly moving, with different people utilizing it," she said. "I was at my previous brokerage for 14 years, and I was never in the office. I thought, ‘We have to use this concept.’ "

Mosley said the 2-year-old company queried its agents about their preferences when planning the office space, and the dominant desire was for access to technology.

So the firm built in wireless Internet and printer access throughout. The phone system routes calls seamlessly to agents’ own mobile phones, wherever they are.

"I once closed a deal when I was sitting on the beach in the South of France," said Demeyere, who has been an agent for three years. "I had the documents e-mailed to my phone, and I forwarded documents to my office, where they were printed."

The office has conference rooms available for agent-client meetings, and there’s a room with fax, printer and copier services. Agents who want to store laptops or other belongings have their own lockers.

"The 10 desks are plenty," Sakich said. "Agents are never there at the same time. We’ve never had a point where somebody was waiting on a desk." …CONTINUED

Other brokerages are also adapting their practices to mobile workers. When Baird & Warner Real Estate in Chicago, for instance, unveiled a six-tiered compensation plan in February, it created a commission track called the Mobile Plan for agents who are home-based. The participants don’t have desks in Baird & Warner offices, but have full access to common work areas, conference rooms, administrative support, etc.

"We started realizing that when agents were in the offices, it was for training or sales meetings or to use the resource room with printers, fax machine, etc., or they were with their clients in conference rooms," explained Laura Ellis, general sales manager for Baird & Warner’s residential sales division, which has about 1,600 agents.

"So we started seeing where the future was going — we need more common space, more areas to converse with and counsel clients," she said.

Ellis said about 40 percent of the agents in the company so far have switched to one of the six new plans; of those, about 170 have chosen the Mobile Plan, which waives the $357 monthly desk fee that’s part of some of the other Baird & Warner compensation tracks.

"If these agents have a place where they can plug in their laptops and plug in a printer and meet with their clients, that’s all they want," she said.

She said it’s too soon to measure whether the compensation structure is turning out to financially benefit the agents who chose it.

Ellis said Baird & Warner, like Real Estate Partners, examined the overhead costs of maintaining a full complement of desks.

"As we were looking at our commission structure, we were asking, ‘What does it cost to have an agent?’ " she said.

"You might have $20,000 per year in expenses per desk," she said. "It’s not unusual for the cost to be $20,000 to $25,000, though I have seen some estimates as low as $15,000."

Though there were productivity concerns over sending agents out on their own, it hasn’t turned out that way, Ellis said.

"We weren’t looking to incentivize agents not to come into the office," Ellis said. "But the ones who are there six to eight hours a day are a minority."

And she expects the practice to expand in the industry.

"I wouldn’t be surprised if more real estate companies weren’t looking at this, too," Ellis said.

Mary Umberger is a Chicago-based freelance writer.


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