There’s never been a better time to give your office a new look. That may sound like an odd thing to say in the current climate, but it’s precisely the nature of those Covid restrictions that make it an ideal opportunity for a revamp. With many staff still working from home and offices half-empty, what better moment to get the shopfitters in, with minimal disruption.
Of course, no-one knows what 2021 will bring, but the agents that stay on top will be those that stand apart from the crowd. Now is the time to be bold, not cautious.
And if you’re worried about parting with too much cash, you can now lease your office refurb, spreading the cost over three to five years and claiming the cost against tax. We talked to four companies specialising in office refurbishments to get their take on things – and also ask whether an office is still important in the digital age.
Jon Edwards, director of Excite Interiors, says the key role of the high street estate agency is to establish credibility. “If you like the appearance and you feel comfortable walking into it then you are much more likely to go on and instruct them,” he explains.
“A lot of people choose estate agents by reputation, and a lot of it is to do with fees, but it’s also to do with which one you like the look of best. The look of the agency is very important.”
He says it’s also vital to remember that the main function of an office is to provide a place where people can work together collectively. “If you want the best quality staff and you want to retain those staff, the better the environment you provide the more likely you are to retain them.” And, he stresses, even in the digital age, your office is “one of your windows to the world”. You will be judged by appearances – and it gives you the perfect opportunity to sell yourself and your properties.
Edwards will often throw in the design work free of charge, but crucially he needs to understand what the agent is looking for. “What we need to know is how many people do they have, do they want people to sit at desks like school teachers waiting to see parents, or are they going to put staff on modern bench workstations to hide them from a front office that looks more like a café. It all depends on their style.”
He says first impressions are critical. “In some offices you walk in, everyone looks at you and hurriedly picks up the phone, and you’re left standing there like a prune at the front of the office – it’s intimidating.”
Edwards believes the aftermath of Covid will be long-lived, and should be planned for in any redesign. “The need to socially distance is going to be here for a long time to come. Whatever we do at the moment in terms of design work has to cater for these particularly difficult times that we are in.” But he firmly believes better times lie ahead. “When we come out of this period we are going to want to feel that life is good and fresh and spring-like. If we feel better, we perform better. You’re making the money to do it; invest in your future.”
CDS Construction Services
Martin Quille, managing director of CDS Construction Services, says someone spending upwards of half a million upwards on a house – typical in the South-East – doesn’t want to walk into a shabby-looking office, they expect to walk into somewhere that looks smart and professional. “Equally, you don’t want to be intimidating because it looks over the top; it’s striking that balance – welcoming but professional,” he explains. “So being able to talk to a company like ours who can talk the agent through it, do a design, point them in the right direction, be on trend – is money well spent.”
CDS can also arrange leasing deals. “Why pay out £50,000 of your money in one go when you can spend it over three or five years?” he says. “With the cost of borrowing now you will never get a better opportunity than you have at the moment.”
Quille agrees with Edwards that getting the right look and feel is crucial. “There are some chains that look like a sandwich bar,” he says. “Anyone over 55 probably wouldn’t want to go in there. Equally you don’t want to walk into somewhere that looks like your nan’s front room or a retirement home. “It’s being able to pitch it right. Some agents are very clear how they see their brand, others are open for a bit of gentle persuasion. The average person may only go in there twice, but you will never get a second chance to make a good first impression.”
CDS also offers 3D visualisation, so agents can get the chance to see what the refit will look like, though it does increase the cost.
Again, with the current Covid restrictions Quille says the timing couldn’t be better. “If you employ six people in the office and four of them are working from home it makes sense – it makes the whole process a lot easier. “It’s a good time to invest in the future.”
Jon Herbert, Managing Director of Gosh Projects, observes that agents that still have a good physical presence seem to be very buoyant at the moment. “I don’t think you can beat looking through the window out of hours and see what’s on offer and then go in and have a proper face-to-face conversation, albeit socially distanced,” he says. “We’re quite busy at the moment fitting out people that are either refreshing their brand or opening new offices. They seem very confident for the future. There is definitely a place for a professional presence on the high street, or even in out-of-town locations – there’s one office we fitted out recently on a retail park next door to Wren Kitchens.
There is a place for virtual agencies, but with the purchase of a home you really want to be able to talk to somebody face to face – it’s such an important decision. John Herbert, Gosh Projects.
“Obviously there is a place for virtual agencies, but with the purchase of a home you really want to be able to talk to somebody face to face – it’s such an important decision and I think people generally feel more comfortable sitting down and having a chat with somebody.
“It’s a bit different to buying your groceries for the week. If you are talking to someone with good local knowledge they can show you on a map where the schools are, explain the reputation of an area, and hold your hand through the process.”
Herbert agrees that careful thought needs to go into that new look. “What we find is most agents want to be different to their neighbouring agents, so people who speak to us want a bit of a twist or a USP that is very obvious and very visible. It might be a very bright shopfront with LED display pockets, it might be a nice comfortable reception-cum-lounge area where you can sit and have a chat.”
He adds, “I’ve seen a young couple walk into an estate agents where the layout is eight negotiators all looking at the front door as you walk in, and it’s like rabbits in the headlights. It’s a huge decision for them to make and it’s intimidating. It’s about being welcoming. We will talk to the agent and say, ‘What do you want achieve?’.”
Gosh Projects also offers leasing, and Herbert says the process is usually quick – once client got an answer in just four hours – though he warns to make sure the property is yours at the end of the lease period.
“Now is a good time to invest,” he says. “We are talking to a customer currently – they are not planning on having their staff return to the office for a couple of months, and it’s the ideal time to be ripping up flooring, putting in new office partitions, having the decorators in, fitting new lighting, all those kind of very disruptive things being done while their business is being done virtually.”
It’s a theme echoed by Harry Simons, partner at MPL Interiors. “It’s a good time to commission an office refurbishment for a number of reasons,” he says. “Financially, we know agents are enjoying a honeymoon period with the stamp duty holiday, low mortgage rates and a change in priorities powering thousands of moves. The income generated is giving agents confidence that they can invest in their offices – whether they’re keeping faith with the High Street or planning regional hubs.”
Financially, we know agents are enjoying a honeymoon period… giving agents confidence that they can invest in their offices – whether in the High Street or regional hubs. Harry Simons, MPL Interiors.
Simons explains there are psychological aspects attached to a refurbishment, too. “Tempting staff back to the workplace and recruiting new talent will increasingly hinge on Covid-safe, yet inspiring, offices – a refurbishment gives agents the chance to address issues and elevate their proposition.”
Reputation is key, too. “There’s the element of trust. Seeing a name above the door now, and after the pandemic, is great reassurance for home movers – even better if the brand looks strong and fresh.”
Tempting staff back to the workplace and recruiting will increasingly hinge on Covid-safe, yet inspiring, offices.
He accepts that some agents will want to keep a tight grip on the purse strings with the economic uncertainty, and agrees leasing is the ideal solution. “By paying a set monthly fee instead of a one-off bill, agents can use their financial resources where they are most needed,” he points out.
MPL not only offers 3D visualisations to bring designs to life but has now embraced virtual reality presentations and even walkthrough videos of new office interiors. “Not only does this help agents avoid costly mistakes, it also keeps projects on track should an area move into a higher local lockdown tier,” says Simons.
As Martin Quille says, it’s a good time to invest in the future – and whatever Covid doom and gloom the news may throw at us today, it will get better, soon. Make a virtue of necessity and get ready for the good times ahead.