Weighing up: the office or work from home

Weighing up: the office or work from home

MAIN IMAGE: : Pierre Rousseau, general manager of PropertyTime; Richard Gray, CEO of Harcourts South Africa; Myles Wakefield, CEO of Wakefields Real Estate; Nondumiso Mthwa, CEO of Idwala Property Group.

One of the global workplace trends is to exchange the traditional office set-up for flexitime and remote working – a trend that is also infiltrating the real estate sector. What are the local sentiments about this?

Soeraya Williams, estate agent with PropertyTime, says she enjoys the freedom to focus on building her own success. “No more sales meetings every Monday and targets … you can get on with your business, because it is your business. You are going to get out as much as you put in,” she says.

Williams is part of a growing international business trend to give employees the freedom to work flexible hours from home while staying in contact with a remote office, which could be an actual office or a team of colleagues that operate from their respective homes.

Flexible or remote working is a growing global trend. According to the WEF, technological innovation is also the way forward for Africa rather than industrialization. This is because increased access to mobile broadband, installation of fibre-optic cable connections to households, and power-supply expansion has made easier for entrepreneurs to work from home. A move aided by the rapid spread of low-cost smartphones and tablets, which has enabled millions of Africans to connect for the first time.

Related reading: ‘Working remotely: it is no longer a trend, it’s a way of life’

This trend has been gaining some traction in the real estate industry, both overseas and locally. Last year US real estate company eXp Realty expanded to the UK and Australia. EXp Realty is a virtual, cloud-based brokerage where agents operate from their own homes and connect with one another by logging on to a virtual office campus called eXp World.

Local sentiments on desentralisation

Some estate agents embrace remote working completely. One of them is PropertyTime founder and general manager Pierre Rousseau who has no doubt that the real estate sector in South Africa is ready for a digitally enabled business model. He works from home and has WiFi in his car. His personal assistant also works from her home in another town. All his agents he says have their own virtual management platform to work/manage their business from.

“Technology has changed our world and reality tremendously and has not only given us the opportunity to work/operate differently but also to think/plan differently within every industry. Is SA’s real estate ready? I think we are, for those that allow change and not fight or ignore it. It is a mindset,” he says.

For others in the local real estate industry, while recognising the advantages that tech brought of being able to work from anywhere thanks to WiFi, smart phones, etc, there is also a reluctance to let go of the familiarity and sense of connectedness associated with having a physical office and being in close physical contact with clients as well as a team of colleagues.

This sentiment is found in established franchises, family-owned agencies as well as with independents.

Richard Gray, CEO of Harcourts South Africa, agrees that tech has enabled agents to work ‘virtually’ by not being tied to their desks at the office – their agency has apps and systems to empower their agents to operate wherever they are. However, most of their agents do not like to work in isolation and tend to prefer the social interaction with their teammates, he says.

“Many agents do not work alone, but need the support of admin staff, PA’s, buyers, agents etc. Also, many agents need and prefer interaction, often face-to-face with their business owners or principals when in need of leadership and someone to work with on problems or issues,” he says.

Gray believes agents should have the choice whether to work in a fully functioning office, or more independently. “Technology allows a degree of independence. We have seen one large brand in South Africa attempting this model with very limited success and believe that giving agents the choice of how much they interact with an office environment is good but will be a very personal one,” he ends.

Myles Wakefield, CEO of Wakefields Real Estate, is the fourth generation in his family to be involved in the business of selling homes in KwaZulu Natal (KZN). He says in their experience face-to-face interaction between colleagues, and between clients and sales consultants in the traditional model of an office-based business “is the most familiar, comfortable, trusted, and ultimately, satisfying one”.

“Having said that,” he continues, “our industry has been moving steadily towards the virtual office model for a while now, with property consultants working from their homes, their cars, on holiday locally and abroad. We, at Wakefields, focus on enabling and supporting this, as it’s clear that’s the way all business is moving.”

However, he adds, their sales consultants also still see great value – monetary and otherwise – in an office where an individual is part of a team and a group energy. “A collection of people who operate independently as entrepreneurs, who choose how much time they spend in the office, but who enjoy the enormous support, interaction, experience, sales leads, competitiveness, protection, and so much more, of the large umbrella of a well-known and respected brand,” he says.

Nondumiso Mthwa, founder and CEO of Idwala Property Group also in KZN, has been in real estate for 13 years. She says the ease of doing business online and in virtual spaces is much welcomed and appreciated in terms of efficiency, cost and time management.

“Enabling agents to be property entrepreneurs that work from home and run their own business with online support available is empowering on many levels. It conquers the limitations and confines of space and time. Such strides are to be very much celebrated,” she says, but then continues that she is one who approaches things such as virtual space and artificial intelligence with caution. “I am a strong believer in physical human touch and presence; therein is the literal transference of energies and synergy,” she ends.

Time only will tell whether we will still see estate agencies with physical office buildings in five to ten years from now. What can’t be denied, is that the needs of clients are also constantly changing because of continuing technological advances. Real estate professionals have to keep up with their changing demands so that they can meet their clients where ever they are most comfortable – whether that be a physical office, a coffee shop or at home or even in a virtual office.

Showing 12 comments
  • Nikki Strooh
    Reply

    An interesting article. Whilst I support the flexibility that comes with being an agent, the importance of being informed and keeping abreast with changes, training, technology and legislation remains critical to an agent’s success. Agents are having to continuously reinvent themselves. Having the backing and togetherness that comes from a structured, positive working environment where staff share successes, problems, obstacles, etc goes a long way to creating a positive mindset, which in turn helps a salesperson to do better than they would on their own.

  • Adriaan
    Reply

    The future of real estate is virtual with remote offices to reduce operational costs. Critical in a highly competitive environment where agents command top commission splits. We are helping an increasing number of virtual agencies to launch at Entegral, including franchises that convert to independent status, thus saving on brick and mortar plus royalty fees. It is a no-brainer if you are focusing on the next generation of agents who are comfortable to work like that.

  • Antonie Goosen
    Reply

    At Meridian Realty we have been doing this with great success since 2014. Our agents enjoy the flexibility and freedom that comes with our progressive model. For more information visit http://www.meridianiagent.co.za.

  • Denis
    Reply

    I agree with Mr Gray.
    Agents needs support, Accountability meetings etc.
    But also need to work independently

  • Roz Everitt
    Reply

    Whilst I can appreciate the benefits from working remotely ; I prefer to work in an office environment. The structure of going to work at a certain time each morning , the routine it offers – in our constantly changing day ; the contact with colleagues and feeding off their energy are all great benefits . I also prefer setting a boundary ; between work and home.
    We are all different and I am so fortunate to work in a real estate company which is flexible and embraces the needs of the agent. Whilst many more of my colleagues will be working from home – those who chose to remain office based; and there are also quite a few ; are all offered that option . It’s up to the agent to choose. Thank you Chas Everitt – for your flexible model which meets a variety of agents needs .

    • Paula Rowntree
      Reply

      Absolutely Roz,

      We have also embraced Chas Everitt’s “Nomad Agent” model in KZN.
      However, our Nomad Agents are required to be Full Status agents, to ensure they are capable of working on their own.
      Our Interns work in the office and benefit from all the points mentioned earlier, ongoing training and mentorship being the most important.

  • Jim Alexander
    Reply

    There are at least 4 trends that mitigate against the traditional office model.
    1. Rising rental costs
    2. Low cost, easy to use technology
    3. Younger agents who prefer technology over colleagues
    4. Virtual office space – rent by the hour.

    When I walk into most agency offices, they are empty as they should be, assuming the agents are in territory. Mostly the only people there are the manager/owner and the receptionist.

    Fixed offices are no longer a sustainable nor cost-effective option!

  • Benhard Wiese
    Reply

    The choice to be more dependent on an brick & mortar office with a national brand does at present cost estate agents between 52% (company share) to about 30% (company share) of the commission earnings. In some instances such office focussed brands charged fixed admin and desks fees of up to R6 500 per month – i.e. excluding any marketing costs.

    The CCH virtual office system has been operational since 2006. Experience has taught us that the freedom to operate without any restrictive business model rules (no allocation of farming areas or compulsory office duties) does attract a more independent minded business person – someone who would like to earn up to 90% of the commission. CCH has also included a real 100% CAP to our model – meaning that member agents can earn all commission for the rest of the year when they reach a set amount of commission to company.

    CCH strives to provide time consuming marketing services to our member agents for a fraction of the cost it would be should they be doing it on their own. This includes social media management, photographic including 3D model services, CRM system services, provision of marketing material through inhouse graphic designer etc…

    Biweekly training meetings are hosted and every area has a variety of active Whatsup groups through which agents communicate continuously with each other.

    Real estate (sales) offices will undoubtably become less and smaller. The fact that big office based national brands only handle 30% of all transactions in South Africa clearly testify that office dependence is already a minority preference.

    The fact that 50% of all estate agents in SA are intern estate agents (who are in need of a much more closely monitored management style) does however points to a continuance of our present dispensation – where at least a big proportion of newcomers will keep on joining the national brands for more structured training assistance and remain with them until they reach their “tipping point” and move on to business models which offer them much higher commission earning scales.

    For more info about CCH, contact benhard@cch.co.za.

    • Helene Meissenheimer
      Reply

      Hi Bernard, can you verify these percentages quoted in your comments? Ed.

  • Winston
    Reply

    I believe there should be the opportunity for an agent to work in isolation from home and also be able to “clock in” in an office and get BRAND exposure from time to time, but especially when it comes to the time to engage with the buyer to compose the OTP…
    I personally would still like to have a desk in an office as well but value the opportunity to operate alone in the digital mode…

  • Johan Meyer
    Reply

    Hi All I am very much in favour of agents working remotely and this is easily achieved in a sales environment. The question which is not answered here is when you have a very big rental portfolio and you need to store hard copy as well as having space where you can meet your lessors and lessees that is less easy to achieve. So let me hear some input form the experts! Thanks

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