By Kirsten Craze
Since open home inspections and auctions were restricted early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, the business of bricks and mortar has been rife with unique challenges. Low sales stock levels coupled with rising vacancy rates - along with newly implemented technology and ‘work from home’ scenarios - has pushed many businesses into the unknown.
To ride out the wave and keep their valued teams happy and healthy, savvy agencies have opened the lines of communication, identified the negatives and embraced the positives.
Managing great expectations
One thing that’s risen to the surface, has been the importance of a great team according to Nicole MacGee, Deputy Chairperson of REINSW’s Agency Services Chapter Committee and head of agent support at The Agency. She said while they didn't have any redundancies, they did cut hours.
“There were a lot of conversations around reminding people that this was uncharted territory for everybody. That we were all going through the same thing; the management team, the staff, everyone. It's not like anyone was asking them to do something they weren't doing themselves. It was very black and white, right from the beginning,” she said.
From that point on, the challenge was managing people’s expectations.
“That was difficult. It wasn't so much people saying, ‘This isn't my job. I shouldn't have to do this.’ It was more, ‘My hours have been reduced, so you can't expect me to work outside them.’”
Nicole explained that the atypical hours in real estate meant staff, especially those in sales teams, were used to working outside of 9 to 5.
“Normally people get paid X amount of dollars, and they're happy to get that for working the hours they work. But, when you start taking that away, it gets difficult,” she said, adding that one group has endured significant hurdles during the pandemic.
“I don't think any of the property managers quite anticipated the volume of work that would come along with these unprecedented times,” she said.
“There was a huge amount of pressure put on property management staff. Especially when you take into account reduced hours and then the volume of work that came in because of the rent relief requests. It was a really difficult and stressful time to navigate.”
Nevertheless, Ms MacGee said she could see a silver lining forming around the COVID-19 cloud.
“Our team, when push comes to shove, are all capable of so much more than they give themselves credit for. The way everybody handled it, and with a smile on their faces. That’s the resilience of a great team. Everyone banded together to help each other out,” she said.
Navigating life out of the office
Adaptability has been a key COVID-19 take away for Bree Higgins, general manager at Cunninghams Real Estate and committee member with the Chapter.
“There were obviously a lot of changes with work from home. It's allowed us to have more flexibility, but probably flexibility with boundaries. We do have some team members who used to do five days in the office, now they're doing three or four days, and one or two days at home. It's definitely broadened people's minds as to how the workplace can function,” she said.
“That's been one big change for us. We've now really identified three workplaces; the office, the home, and out in the field - whether that's from a cafe, or wherever.”
Ms Higgins said the choice of working from home long-term is a very personal one that can come down to family, personality type, commute times or simply the quality of an internet connection.
“We've gone through our workforce to see who fits where and where's productivity for them, rather than having a blanket decision across the business,” she added.
“Some of that workplace flexibility will continue. But I think some of that internal communication, like weekly meetings bringing our three offices together could be done monthly, so everybody still sees each other. We have realised when people work together, that collaboration and those ideas that come from brainstorming, there's really nothing like doing that in a room face to face with a flip chart,” she said.
Going with the workflow
Cameron Nicholls, director of Nicholls & Co and Chair of the Chapter said small business owners should embrace the positives.
“As the owner of the business, I'm just trying to approach this time as an opportunity to do things a bit differently. Rather than looking at problems, it's like “Okay, what are the benefits? One might be giving the team flexibility to work from home and that will pay off,” he said.
“My office manager wanted to return to her family in Perth in response to COVID. We decided to adjust and not let her leave the business, but to change her role. Instead of being an office manager, she’s now doing a marketing and communications role, which can be done remotely,” he said.
“When she requested indefinite leave, the response could have been “Okay, you no longer work for us’. Instead, we got creative and worked out what she could do digitally, and then plugged the holes elsewhere.”
Mr Nicholls said the pivoting of positions meant taking a look at roles across the business and reexamining the way things would look post-COVID.
“Now my property manager does one day a week from home and that suits her from a parenting perspective. It also allows her to be even more efficient without the distractions of the office.”
He said principals of small teams should also consider looking outside their own business for support and inspiration.
“Reach out to fellow business owners with either a similar sized team, or larger, and just lean on other people. Don't try and reinvent the wheel. If you're struggling with something, it's more than likely someone's been through it,” he said.
“Ask yourself ‘What's your plan for the next two or three months? What's your financial plan? What's your marketing plan? How's the morale within your team?’ Consider offering your team some sort of gesture like a team lunch, but you’ve got to work that into your budget as well.”
He said business owners should never underestimate the value of communication.
“Have a conversation and say, ‘Hey, look, I know you've been doing this and that, which you wouldn't normally do’ and either give them recognition, or adjust their remuneration. Let people know you appreciate them picking up the slack and don’t just get caught up in doing business.”