One of the most important factors that separates the best estate agency and letting agents from the rest is the quality of their staff. Until now employers have competed to recruit the best staff by offering higher salaries, better cars and better promotion prospects but COVID-19 has changed all this because a huge percentage of staff now want something entirely different. They want to spend more time at home.
This change is so sudden and so profound that companies who are not able to offer this option may find that they really struggle to attract the best people in future. But handled properly, offering staff more flexible working hours could have benefits all round.
Until COVID-19 came along, the phrase “I am working from home today” was seen by many people as a euphemism for skiving. Employers worried that little work would get done and felt powerless to check on what had actually been achieved. Employees felt that even a request to work from home occasionally would damage their credibility and harm their promotion prospects.
COVID-19 has changed all this forever. Employees have quickly found lots of different ways to measure productivity and to their astonishment have found that it has actually improved. One big insurance company quoted in The Sunday Times said productivity had improved by 15 per cent in their organisation. The benefits for the staff have been even more profound.
This change is so sudden and so profound that companies who are not able to offer this option may find that they really struggle to attract the best people in future.
One of our panel solicitors who lives in the Home Counties at works in Central London summed up the situation as follows. He said, “For the last ten years I have been out of my house five days per week from 7am to 7pm. I spend 45 hours per week at the office and 15 hours per week standing up on a crowded train commuting to and from work. This costs me almost £6,000 per annum from my after-tax salary for the privilege.
“The last four months when I have been working from home has been an absolute revelation to me. I am absolutely determined never to commute like this again. I would rather find a new job than go back to my old life.”
Many other people that I have spoken to feel the same way. The traditional 9 to 5 working day is a hangover from the Industrial Revolution. At a time when artificial light was unreliable and expensive, it made sense for factory workers to all start work together at dawn and leave at dusk. But today this pattern of working makes very little sense to many workers and continuing with these outdated working practices imposes significant costs on both employees and on society in general.
Consider the cost of providing an office that is big enough for all the staff to work in at the same time. Think of how much money could be saved if the office was half the size and the staff came in for just 50 per cent of the working week.
Think of the benefits to productivity if the sales staff were to work extra hours in the evenings when it is easier to get hold of clients in return for some time off in the daytime. And think of the savings to the public purse if government did not need to spend billions of pounds building new roads and railways that are only full to capacity for perhaps 15 hours per week.
Of course, not every job can be done from home. A property manager or an accounts clerk or a telesales person can work from anywhere, but sales staff will need to spend significant parts of each week in the office.
However, even the sales staff do not need to be in the office all of the time. A significant part of a negotiator’s time is spent in front of their computer or on the telephone arranging viewings, following up viewings that have already taken place or progressing sales and lettings that have already been agreed. All of this type of work can be done from home. And the number of physical viewings might be reduced if applicants were encouraged to carry out virtual viewings before they book a real one.
Lost team spirit?
There is also a concern that camaraderie and team spirit might be damaged if all the staff were to continue working remotely but many companies have already proven that this does not have to be the case. A morning team meeting held via video conferencing with a weekly meeting at the branch should be enough to keep morale up and to give the staff support and direction.
A property manager or an accounts clerk can work from anywhere, but sales staff will need to spend significant parts of each week in the office.
It has already been shown that the most ambitious and motivated staff will use a significant part of the time that they used to waste commuting to work extra hours. This is probably the main reason why so many companies have seen an increase in productivity during lockdown. At the other end of the scale, there are staff that are uncommitted to their work or downright lazy. However, if their productivity reduces, technology now provides many different ways to check on their work rate and ensure that it improves.
Wider net for recruitment
Another huge benefit of home working is that when staff do need to be replaced, employers will be able to look for new staff who live across a much wider geographic area. If staff are going to come into the office two or three days per week, not five, then they may be prepared to put up with a longer commute on the days that they do come in. If staff are allowed to work 10 to 6 rather than 9 to 5, their commute might be reduced significantly which means that they can travel further to work in the same time. And most importantly of all, staff who are working remotely for the whole of their working week can be replaced with staff who live absolutely anywhere. Salaries are much lower in the provinces than they are in London and the major cities. This could lead to a huge cost saving for employers.
Of course, not everyone will welcome these new ways of working. A survey by Morgan Stanley found that 75 per cent of accounting, banking and finance staff would like to work from home more but this applied to only 54 per cent of staff aged from 54 to 65 years of age.
However, if between 50 and 75 per cent of your staff want to spend more time working from home, then you as an employer in a competitive job market simply cannot afford to ignore this fact. And if the transition to working from home is done properly, then the benefits to your business could be enormous.
In short, the working from home genie cannot be put back into its bottle and you must start planning now for how you are going to adapt your business to incorporate the significant changes to working practice.
Adam Walker is a management consultant who specialises in the sale of letting and estate agency businesses.