In this monthly column, Anthony Askowitz explores a hypothetical real estate situation from both sides of the broker/agent dynamic.
A top-producing agent is unhappy with her company’s move to a more open and modern floor-plan design at the expense of her longtime cubicle and close proximity to the office’s center of gravity. Should a brokerage’s longest-tenured agents expect to be consulted and considered when making business decisions about the office?
I have always been one of those agents who preferred to work out of her office, staying close to my broker, staff members and fellow Realtors. I like being near the action and keeping tabs on any interesting news or changes coming down the pike.
As a top producer and longtime associate, I was provided a nicely sized and strategically placed cubicle many years ago which gave me access to the people and information I wanted, and also made me accessible to anyone who wanted my attention. People always knew where to find me and I liked it that way.
When our office closed last year due to the pandemic, I totally understood the need to do so, while also missing my beloved cubicle and the interaction it afforded me. I found virtual work to be quite isolating, and I waited impatiently for the office’s reopening, the return to comfort and normalcy, and the stability of my little perch.
Unfortunately, the world shifted dramatically over the past 12 months, as virtual work became mainstream and the very idea of office space suddenly became outdated.
My broker just announced a major renovation and restructuring of our floor plan which completely removed cubicles and established “flex desks” for agents to use on the (now-rare) occasions they are physically in the office, which are available on a “first come, first served” basis to anyone. Of course, these open desks are located far from the center of the office, figuratively miles away from the buzz that keeps me vitalized.
My broker may justify this change with vision statements and platitudes about behavior shifts, but I worked long and hard to qualify for that private space, and it was simply taken away from me. Shouldn’t I have at least been consulted about this?
Life does move pretty fast, and it is fair to say the pandemic accelerated many important changes regarding our business in general, and our office specifically. Like many other companies, particularly in real estate, we quickly shifted to a virtual work model and found it to be enormously popular with the vast majority of our agents and staffers.
Based on this overwhelming feedback and the consistent level of production over the past 12 months (all while our cubicles lay vacant), our leadership team saw it fit to remodel the office in a way that is more customer-focused.
While we will provide flex desks and agent-paid private offices for the few who work in the building regularly, we are replacing the empty cubicles with a more welcoming entry area.
Buyers and sellers who visit our office will now experience dramatically upgraded levels of hospitality and comfort, while also enjoying a glimpse of our cutting-edge technology. We are confident that this was the right decision, especially in a competitive marketplace where other offices already give their in-person customers a white-glove, “salon-like” experience.
We felt so confident about this change, in fact, that we honestly did not consider the impact it would have on “embedded” agents like this longtime top producer. Her position is an outlier compared to the steady flow of positive feedback from other team members who love how we are modernizing the office and keeping pace with what other companies are doing.
(Truthfully, we almost scrapped the open “flex desks” entirely along with the cubicles, but realized it was necessary to give agents somewhere they could go if they lost electricity or internet in their homes, or needed to quickly access a contract while out with a customer.)
While private office space for agents has been a longtime perk with some traditional companies, it has become less common as space becomes costlier and more agents choose to work remotely.
The fact that it was provided in the past should not mean it will continue indefinitely as needs change. Just as printed contracts in bins have given way to paperless offices, and in-person meetings have quickly become Zoom sessions, we must learn to be flexible and change with the times.
Obviously, there may be a need to make exceptions and accommodations when absolutely necessary, but the duration of a given privilege does not inevitably convert it to an entitlement.
How to resolve
The agent’s position on virtual work and the lost cubicle may be out of step with her colleagues — but that does not mean she is wrong, particularly about her perceived loss of an earned symbol of status. The first step for her would be to find some documentation (perhaps an older email or text) that confirms the cubicle was included in a negotiated hiring package.
There is, however, a larger issue at play in this case. The broker-owner must sometimes make decisions for the benefit of the entire company which may not always appeal to every agent.
Change is often difficult, particularly when the whole world seems to be changing faster than ever. Agents need to feel there is something — anything — still within their control. Perhaps this control, or lack thereof, is the real issue for this agent, who only wished to be consulted about a matter that was important to her.
If so, we can resolve this situation by offering the agent a variety of choices — in a manner that gives her some degree of control. For instance, she is welcome to choose one of the private agent-paid offices, possibly at a reduced fee if the cubicle was part of a hiring agreement.
Many agents feel that the energy of being in the office is critical to their success. Deal are often put together in the office kitchen or at adjacent computer stations. As we follow the trend away from mega-offices, it is important that brokers recognize the value of the office experience.
There are activities that can fill some of the social gaps created with recent changes, including “mastermind sessions” on topics of interest, group social media platforms for communicating within the office, and occasional sporting events and parties.
At the end of the day, the agent must accept the notion of change as a constant in real estate and life, and create or find new channels to stay in close touch with her colleagues.
Writer’s note: Anthony is not an attorney and does not give legal advice. Please consult a licensed attorney regarding matters discussed in this column.
Anthony is the broker-owner of RE/MAX Advance Realty, with offices in North Miami, South Miami, Kendall, and the Florida Keys, and where he leads the activities of more than 170 agents. Connect with Anthony on Instagram.