By Cath Dickinson
With the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, agency doors across the real estate industry are opening and sales agents, property managers and operational staff are back at their desks. But, as things go back to ‘normal’, will some expect working from home to automatically be an option going forward? After all, it’s been the norm for months. Why can’t it continue? Or perhaps a better question is: Should it continue?
“There will be some working from home arrangements that will continue and also those that will shift to a hybrid of working from the office and at home ,” Anna Egri, HR, Governance and Compliance Manager at Di Jones Real Estate and member of the REINSW Agency Services Chapter Commitee, said.
“But just because working from home has been the norm during COVID-19, it doesn’t mean such arrangements will automatically continue. It will always come down to a request being made and whether working from home is consistent with business needs.
“At Di Jones Real Estate, we’ve invested heavily in our systems and technology – so, in theory, even before COVID-19 hit, the majority of roles had the ability to work from home. What the shutdown proved was that certain roles are definitely more suited than others to flexible working arrangements and, going forward, requests need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.”
Sarah Bester, General Manager at Ray White Double Bay and REINSW Board member, agreed.
“It’s essential for agency leaders to assess the impact any working from home arrangements will have on the business,” she said.
“As an example, team member A may ask if they can work from home two days each week. But it’s not as simple as just saying ‘yes’ to A’s request. Why? Because team member B, who has the exact same role, may also want to work from home two days each week.
“Then you have the situation that A and B only cross over in the office one day each week. The result? A loss of a sense of ‘team’. Collaboration can suffer and the sharing of workloads becomes more difficult, as does identifying the varying work capacities each team member has.”
Sarah gave another example of someone wanting to work from home on a full-time basis.
“They might argue that there’s no need for them to be in the office at all,” she said. “Yes, they’ve been doing their job from home over recent months, but that doesn’t mean it’s best for the business for this to continue.
“And consider this: If there’s no need for them to be in the office at all, why not outsource the role altogether? This might be an extreme example, but it highlights the sort of considerations that need to be factored into any decision to allow working from home arrangements on an ongoing basis.”
When asked about the positive aspects of working from home, both Anna and Sarah pointed to productivity.
“Yes, productivity and efficiency can markedly improve when working from home,” Anna said. “Without the distractions that come with working in an office environment, there’s more time to focus and work output can increase.
“Putting the recent COVID-19 circumstances aside, there are some roles that lend themselves to working from home and others that don’t. For example, where a role includes project work or certain tasks that require concentration and focus, working from home can certainly enhance productivity and efficiency.
“However, there are other roles where working from home is not necessarily in the best interests of the business going forward. For example, assistant roles where the person is supporting multiple people or teams. Having these people in the office means there are resources on the ground to ensure internal stakeholders receive the service and support they need to continue to do their jobs effectively.”
Sarah agreed that working from home can certainly increase productivity, particularly for those in leadership roles. She added, however, that balance should always be considered.
“Working from home is a great way to make a big dent in your ‘to do’ list,” she said. “But it’s important for team leaders and managers to lead by example – and I believe this means having a presence in the office.”
While working from home arrangements can reap benefits for both the business and employees, Sarah warned of some pitfalls.
“Culture is a big one,” she said. “With people working from home, there’s the potential for agency culture to fragment. Why? Because the team don’t have that personal, face-to-face interaction with each other.
“The best agencies pride themselves on their positive office culture and having more people working from home on a regular basis has the potential to erode that culture.
“And let’s not forget that many people want the social interaction that they gain from being in the office. In fact, some crave it. We’ve found that many of our team have been really keen to get back into the office. They want the interaction. They want the impromptu chats. And they want the creativity and energy that comes with being around their colleagues.”
Sarah added that working from home can bring with it a sense of isolation.
“There’s the potential for people to start working in silos,” she said. “Because the face-to-face interaction isn’t there, things can get missed and wires can get crossed, which can potentially lead to negative outcomes for both the business and for clients.”
Work health and safety considerations
Work health and safety risks also need to be considered when team members are working from home.
“Agencies have a responsibility to ensure a safe work environment for their team members and this extends to those who are working from home,” Anna said.
“In the industry’s rush to send everyone home with the onset of COVID-19 restrictions, there were undoubtedly some agents working from less-than-ideal at-home arrangements – setting up computers on dining room tables, sitting on non-ergonomic chairs, working with inadequate lighting and more.
“COVID-19 has been an exceptional moment in time where we’ve all had to work in exceptional circumstances. Moving forward, however, agencies must ensure that at-home workstations are ergonomically arranged and meet the requirements of a safe work environment.
“At Di Jones Real Estate, we ask employees to fill in a formal request if they want to work from home. This includes a thorough work, health and safety statement, with a self-assessment of things like their desk, computer, cords, chairs, lighting and more. We then review the request to see if there are any WHS red flags and work out how to fill the gaps.”
Di Jones Real Estate also has guidelines in place to encourage people working from home to take regular breaks, and move and stretch.
“It’s all too easy to just keep powering on and never switch off,” Anna said. “But employers have a responsibility to ensure that their team members are looking after both their physical and mental health when working from home.”
Anna added that having a ‘work from home’ policy in place is a must.
“We’ve always had one,” Anna said. “But sending everyone home during COVID-19 made us critically analyse it and make essential updates. Moving forward, anyone working from home has to agree to this policy.”
A privilege, not a right
While some team members might have the expectation that working from home arrangements will continue as part of the ‘new normal’, Sarah emphasised that this is certainly not the case.
“Working from home should always be considered to be a privilege, rather than a right,” she said.
“There will always be those ad hoc instances where someone needs to work from home for a day or two. For example, they may have a sick child or have a plumber booked in to fix a leaky pipe and it just makes sense to work from home that day. But this is very different to having a regular working from home arrangement in place.
“Any request must always be carefully weighed on a case-by-case basis against the overall needs of the business.”