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.