As the battle against COVID-19 rages on, companies across multiple industries are doing their part to slow the spread of the virus by enacting stricter cleaning procedures and practicing social distancing, which includes avoiding large gatherings and encouraging staff members to work from home.
Some of real estate’s largest companies, including Realogy, Keller Williams, RE/MAX, and Compass, told Inman they’re following the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance to protect their staff. This consists of postponing conferences, canceling non-essential travel plans, asking sick employees to stay at home, and enacting or doubling down on existing remote work options.
“At Keller Williams, our top priority remains our people,” spokesperson Daryl Frost wrote in an emailed statement. “We are continuing to closely monitor developments related to coronavirus and working with state and federal agencies to provide our associates with the best guidance and resources.”
“RE/MAX already has a very effective existing remote work policy that many members of our workforce take advantage of regularly with messaging, and conference or video calls,” added RE/MAX Chief Operating Officer Serene Smith in a separate statement before explaining all staff will work remotely until March 31.
Although companies can mandate remote work options for corporate employees, franchisees are placed in the unique position of individually determining per CDC and NAR guidelines if, when, and how they’ll switch to a totally remote work environment for their agents, who are independent contractors.
To help franchisees navigate this process, Inman talked to five real estate executives with remote teams to find the keys to smoothly transitioning to a 100 percent digital work environment. Here’s what they had to say:
Step 1: Leverage your technology
Over the past decade, real estate companies have been in what some call a “technology arms race” to build powerful proprietary tools or assemble the perfect line-up of third-party tools to make transactions quicker and more seamless for agents and consumers alike.
According to Knock Senior Talent Acquisition Recruiter Beth Marceau, this is the time for leaders to leverage the proprietary or third-party technology suites they already have.
“A lot of companies already have technology in place,” Marceau said. “This is the time to lean into them a little bit deeper.”
For some leaders, this means offering a refresher on how to use in-office communication platforms (e.g. Slack), and all tools needed to manage and complete deals digitally, such as their customer relationship and transaction management platforms.
While most brokerages have digital platforms in place to handle transactions, not all brokerages have set ways to communicate digitally beyond phone calls or email, especially if they have staff members and agents who choose to primarily work in-office.
Thankfully, Marceau and eXp World Holdings EVP of Growth and Finance RJ Jones say the solution to this issue is relatively simple since there are plenty of platforms, such as Slack, Facebook Workplace, Zoom and Uber Conference, that leaders can quickly set up to hold meetings and communicate on the go.
“Our circumstances are definitely different than other companies because we are so used to being in a virtual workplace environment which comes with it this ability to quickly socialize and check-in with a lot of people,” Jones said as a reference to eXp’s virtual world. “But, the other aspect of working remotely is having that communications platform beyond email.”
“We utilize Facebook’s product Workplace, so you see a lot of interaction with coworkers, colleagues, agents, and brokers,” he added. “You don’t see a lot of emails flying around. You see a lot of communication, group chats, file transfer, and any type of more timely communications happening over that platform.”
Although it may be tempting to use all the hottest communication tools, Luxian International Realty broker-owner Luciane Serifovic said it’s important to choose only one or two that will meet your office’s needs.
“Part of the problem in today’s world is that there’s a lot of options,” Serifovic said. “People communicate via What’s App, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, LinkedIn, and email, so it’s easy to get lost.”
“You have to provide something to your team that anything that has to do with real estate and anything that has to do with the company, there’s a single place they can go to understand what’s happening.”
Step 2: Communicate, communicate, communicate
According to Marceau, Jones and Serifovic, getting the right technology tools in place is only one part of the battle. The next, and arguably most important step, they said, is upping your level and frequency of communication with staff members and agents.
Serifovic conducts daily, 15-minute huddles with her team every morning to brief them on what’s coming up for the day and to share any important company and industry-wide updates.
“At first, I thought daily huddle calls would be too much, but surprisingly, everybody loves it,” she said.
While lengthy daily check-ins may not be tenable or necessary for every team, BoomTown Director of Talent Chris Taylor said leaders should do quick, daily check-ins using a communication platform, and schedule weekly video chats to keep everyone connected and on task.
“If you’re a leader who has multiple people working remotely, schedule some check-ins where people are getting into the [remote] system and know there are points throughout the day and the week where we’re going to be meeting up, just like we’d do in an office situation,” he said.
Even though messaging platforms are quick and convenient, Taylor warns leaders to not rely on them exclusively since some issues require a deeper level of conversation that’s hard to achieve through chats.
“Encourage people to do more than just instant message,” he said. “If there’s an issue that needs clarification, if there’s a misunderstanding, pick up the phone. And that could be using your cell phone or calling through Slack or calling through Google.”
Although consistent communication is key to making a remote team thrive, Real Broker founder Tamir Poleg said leaders need to resist the temptation to inundate their staff and agents with calls and messages.
“It’s a completely different management style when you’re sitting people in the same space versus when they’re scattered all over the place,” Poleg said. “As a manager, you probably develop some anxiety in asking yourself, ‘Is that person working now?’ and you start making phone calls to check on that person.”
“As a manager, you need to completely trust your team, and that’s going to take some training when you can’t always see what your people are doing,” he added. “You have to rely on them and trust them.”
Step 3: Reiterate core values and goals
For Marceau, focusing on company culture is key to thriving through difficult times and navigating emergency situations, such as the coronavirus.
“Our core values are at the center of everything that we do as an organization,” she said. “At Knock, we always go back to POPSICLE. P stands for passionate, O stands for open, P stands for people first, S stands for simplicity, I stands for impact, C stands for courage, L stands for learning, and E stands for enjoying life.”
Marceau said all of the Knock team’s communication, tasks, and decisions are filtered through the lens of their core values, and the leadership has made sure that every staff member and agent understands POPSICLE as a guiding principle.
Jones echoed Marceau’s sentiments and said having strong core values that everyone understands is key to building trust — a major factor when you’re working remotely.
“You have to have a sense of cohesiveness that everyone has bought into,” he said. “I feel this sense of, ‘There are people relying on me that are not in the same place, and they need me to get things done.’”
“So it’s this really nice psychological sense of, and I wouldn’t call it urgency, but interdependency,” he added. “Someone is depending on me for their jobs, and I’m depending on them to get stuff done, and just because I can’t see them, there must be a trust factor.”
In addition to reviewing core values, Taylor said leaders must be concise about the company’s goals and what’s expected daily, weekly and monthly.
“You need to outline what are you expecting from [your employees and agents] and not be afraid to communicate that,” Taylor said. “Do not be hesitant to set clear expectations of, ‘This is what I’m going to need you to do,’ and ‘We may need to work through obstacles because you are remote.’”
Step 4: Don’t forget the ‘little things’
“Don’t forget about the little things,” Serifovic said. “Make sure everyone is remembered.”
The broker-owner said she adds birthdays, work anniversaries, and other important dates in her calendar so she can develop and maintain a personal connection with her agents, who are as far away as Thailand.
Step 5: Use this situation to prepare for the future
“I had breakfast with my mother today, and she’s 69 and retired, and we started talking about the coronavirus, and she made the following remark, ‘I think this situation is going to impact the future of work,'” Poleg said. “It was kind of surprising that she looked at it from a macro level and she made that observation that this thing isn’t something small that will have a local impact.”
“This is something that may really change the way people work and the way organizations think and the way organizations are prepared for something like this,” he added. “Today it’s the coronavirus, but it may be very well that we see more occurrences like this.”
Poleg and Jones said leaders should use this situation to identify tools they may need to add to their technology suite and pinpoint improvements that need to be made in their office structure and communications.
“If you were going to make your physical workspace disappear overnight, what would it take?” Jones said. “This is something where you can’t just flip switches and make something happen. You have to be deliberate.”
Poleg said leaders, especially those of independent brokerages, need to be prepared to invest the time and the funds needed to quickly switch to a remote work environment, whether it’s for an emergency situation or to simply meet the needs of a workforce that’s more open to working from home.
“Everybody has to be prepared and at least have a plan, and it comes with a price,” he said. “Everyone needs to have a contingency plan so it doesn’t take them a week or two or three to figure out how they’ll cope with this situation.”
“Our headquarters are in New York and we have a few team members in the office. On Friday, I told everyone, ‘Guys, starting Monday, I think everyone needs to start completely working from home,’” he added. “Everybody knew exactly how to do it, what’s expected, and there were zero interruptions in how we operate.”