This is the second installment in “The New Normal,” a multistory Inman series exploring what’s returning to normal after the pandemic fades and what will never be the same. Don’t miss part 1, What if the brokerage of the future isn’t a brokerage at all?. And check back tomorrow for the third installment.
The office has more or less always served as a home base for real estate brokerages. But it’s never been a place that agents and brokers have been tied to all day.
Between showings, client meetings, inspections and more, agents and brokers have become accustomed to working flexibly in different places and from mobile devices. In the wake of the pandemic largely driving people away from the office altogether, a question on many people’s minds as the country returns to a new normal is, will real estate ever make a full return to the office?
The consensus among those in the industry seems to be, sort-of. The office is still useful and necessary, but how people use it moving forward might not be the same as before the pandemic.
The office won’t go away, but it will be different
Ken Rosen, chairman of Rosen Consulting Group and the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, said that real estate’s relationship to the office will remain hybrid as it has always been, but that hybrid relationship may be even more exaggerated than it has been in the past.
“It’s never been an office-centric business — it’s been a combination, a hybrid business and I think that won’t change,” Rosen told Inman. “It’s going to be more hybrid than it was before until we get schools back open [and] child care back open. It makes it difficult for people to balance spending time in the office when they have to take care of their children as well.”
Rosen added that he thought the office would likely be used for group meetings once or twice per week, but that people might choose to work from home otherwise for the next few years still.
When Inman spoke with Liz Braden, people operations and strategy lead of real estate technology company Cove, she noted that there’s been a palpable desire among the company’s clients for a physical space for employees to work in and collaborate with others. As a result, many of the company’s clients are currently reworking their offices spaces so that they’re better organized for collaboration.
“Anyone who has tried to actually have a workshop or a really collaborative discussion on Zoom has realized that there’s a limit there,” Braden said. “We think employees are still going to see the office as a place to meet up with others, brainstorm, and have that collaborative moment. There’s a lot of talk right now on how much space should we dedicate to that type of meeting.”
Braden added that, with most of the workforce having now gone through remote work situations, employers should be better at creating environments that are more welcoming and friendly to remote workers, who may have tended to be more isolated from their non-remote colleagues prior to the pandemic.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of trial and error on the employee engagement piece,” Braden said. “There’s going to be a lot of excitement around coming back to the office, but I think there will be more of an eye on how to create an engagement opportunity for those that are still remote.”
One of Cove’s current clients, Braden said, has created a more robust Zoom room for the office, so that remote employees who are Zooming into a meeting will actually feel like they’re seated at the conference table with their colleagues in the Zoom room.
“In the past, remote employees were maybe ignored or neglected in some way and I think that as a lot of people are picking up a hybrid policy, you’re going to see more of that hybrid engagement and finding ways to keep those that are remote connected, while still leaning into the direct engagement that happens in the office,” she said.
Lisa Ellis, managing partner/broker associate at Real Estate by Design in Durham, North Carolina, told Inman that her staff are still all working fully remotely because most have children at home that are either doing school remotely or on modified schedules, which has been a challenge for parents to juggle. But she’s hoping that a full return to the office will arrive by 2022.
“I would anticipate that we’ll be back to the office full-time [the] first of next year,” Ellis said. “We’ve all been vaccinated at this point, so there’s no need for us to not be there. It’s more of where everybody’s home lives are this minute.”
Ellis said she’s definitely noticed a dip in productivity over the last year as her staff have had to adjust their lifestyles and multitask at home. She’s looking forward to returning to the office and is confident that most members of her team will be excited about it, too, which may actually serve to improve their company culture a bit.
“People, I think, might appreciate coming into the office for luncheons and meetings a little bit more,” Ellis said.
At a December Inman Connect Now panel about the future of the office, Sabrina Brown, broker/owner of Brown & Brown Real Estate, stressed that her office was essential to her company culture — a factor that would not change post-pandemic.
“What it really breaks down to for us is culture,” Brown said. “We spend a lot of time in that open [office area]. I know that I need [a] big space for us to collaborate together, and that’s why [my agents are] here.”
There may be new regulations
Most real estate business functions are now allowed in-person in many places, but many major brokerages continue to encourage agents to conduct business remotely when an in-person meeting is not absolutely necessary.
The National Association of Realtors (NAR) recommends that brokers continue to monitor local and state executive orders regarding the reopening of businesses since COVID-19 case rates change constantly and the situation is ever-evolving.
“Brokers may also want to consider imposing a mandatory or maximum flexibility remote work policy for employees and in some instances, may be required to do so under their state or local orders,” the NAR guidelines read. “In addition, and based on CDC recommendations, brokers should continue to take measures to limit in-person activities as much as possible, and consider holding virtual meetings as an alternative to in-person meetings and events.”
As brokers continue to consider when and how much to reopen their offices, they’ll also want to reference NAR’s COVID-19 Workplace Re-Entry Checklist, which goes through steps for how to prepare the physical office space, as well as employees, for how to safely return to work in an office environment.
With vaccines now widely available throughout the country, employers are also now legally allowed to institute mandatory vaccination policies for employees returning to a physical workplace (including proof of vaccination), according to guidelines issued from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which puts an interesting twist on returning to the workplace.
Still, that guidance comes with the caveat that employers may be required to make exceptions to such vaccine policies if an employee refuses to become vaccinated due to disability or strong religious beliefs, practices or observances.
Offices may look starkly different from place to place
As The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines, local vaccination rates, local positivity rates, and other factors impacting the pandemic continue to evolve, real estate offices across the country stand to vary a lot from place to place.
For instance, even prior to the CDC’s most recent mask guidance update stating that vaccinated Americans could go most places without a mask safely, states like Texas and Kansas had already allowed their mask mandates to expire, which made walking into businesses in those states look a lot different from walking into businesses in states like New York or Massachusetts.
But despite where a particular brokerage is located, Rosen said it’s important for brokers and agents to be sensitive to clients who may stop by the office.
“It’s fully reopened in Texas and Florida and other places,” Rosen said. “But, the northeast [and] California, [are] staging reopening. But I think the most important thing to say is that when you have a market like this, you’ve got to stay close to your clients.”
In and around Durham, Ellis said that brokerages have varied widely in their approach to reopening their physical offices.
“I know other firms here that have been back to work the whole time, and others that haven’t,” she said. “Some big firms and some medium-sized. I really just think it depends on the owner and the manager and what their style is and where they want their people to work.”
Real estate investment company KPG Funds recently announced that it will allow vaccinated employees to make a “maskless return” to their office at 446 Broadway in New York City.
“At KPG Funds, we listen to science but are practical,” KPG Co-founder and CEO Greg Kraut said in a statement. “Per the CDC, we are allowing all vaccinated people to go maskless at 446 Broadway. This is what tenants want, this is what we will give in a post-COVID world.”
The company said it’s also installing several hands-free features throughout the building to help mitigate health risks, like door card readers and elevator controls accessed from a smartphone.
No matter the location, offices will likely be a testing ground of sorts for the next several months or years as individuals and businesses try to navigate reopening in a new normal.
“This year is going to be quite experimental,” Braden told Inman. “It’s really exciting to think about just how it’s going to play out.”