Will Proptech and the Pandemic Kill the Real Estate Office?

As many property professionals turn to proptech while working from home during COVID-19, what does this mean for the future of the shopfront real estate office?

With social distancing being implemented everywhere, we look at the potential long-lasting changes that may develop as real estate agents – usually more accustomed to face time with clients – must now work from home (WFH). 

Firstly, there are a number of unique aspects of office life that we inevitably forgo when we WFH: 

  • Some real estate agents extract significant value from a brick-and-mortar location as a place to initiate or prolong client dialogue; 
  • Casually reaffirms past wins, as perception is a big factor when it comes to establishing trust. For example, a hallway lined up with your and other agents’ licenses on the walls could tilt potential clients in your favour considerably. 
  • Though the industry is fast adopting new technologies, and many real estate documents are legally legitimate with digital signatures, some areas are yet to recognize and accept the tech, which means the agent’s official offices are often still a trusted and expected location to legalize transactions. 
Practically overnight, however, the requirement for professionals to work from home has already spurred on innovation, flexibility and further adoption of proptech. The reality is that consumers are far more digital-savvy than previous generations, and agents need to meet them there. 

So now, many tasks that were often done outside the office – paperwork, customer interactions, even home viewings – are all having digital equivalents as solutions.

The Guardian notes that large tech firms were some of the first amidst the pandemic to make the switch to remote working (or teleworking) for all staff, implementing pre-existing infrastructure (office chat, remote access to critical tools, and free flow of information). 

Savvy agents/companies pay attention to investing in digital sales and leasing processes, with some employing virtual open house, VR, omnichannel/targeted/personalized sales. This is all in efforts to equip and raise expectations of clients - because it will convince clients that they can trust the agent in a post-crisis experience, judging by the way they had been taken care of during the crisis itself. 

The professionals that wield digital-first solutions successfully at home can tap into not only multiple revenue streams, but also further their competitive edge. Certainly, those who had already been actively developing these digital strategies before the pandemic may have a head-start, but it’s not too late for other agents yet. 

The Future of Work 

Will this be enough to shift the industry out of the offices? It’s still hard to tell. Last year, only 3% of the US real estate industry even had access to telework at all (surely gone up by now). Will updated statistics reveal a huge spike post-Covid? Interestingly, telework is much more common elsewhere: a 2016 Swedish study revealed that over 20% of all employed persons marked telework as ‘routine’ - which seems promising. Momentum Intelligence, an Australian research and consulting firm, conducted a COVID-19 Business Confidence survey which found that, while one in four agents have been going in to the office as usual, the COVID-19 crisis actually saw 22% of agents working from home for the first time. When asked about their thoughts towards returning to the office, 1 in 5 said they would “never” return to an office-based setting, with a further quarter saying they were unsure when they would return to office-based activities.

The trajectory of business recovery is simply still too difficult to forecast, but office or WFH, it’s likely that less value will be placed on office space and more on how digitally agile an agent is - particularly when consumers are becoming more technologically-driven every day in their real-estate aspirations.  

So much of the consumer journey is now online and digital, it is unsurprising that real estate as an industry is quickly shifting focus on automating entire processes and solutions, from marketing to nurturing to transactions etc. It also explains why more agents are honing the skills required to anticipate consumers’ digital footprint when it comes to their home buying journey. 

If you’d like to read more on ways to embrace a digital-first approach to real estate in the midst of COVID-19, we recommend “Digital Transformation - the Legacy of Covid-19”, one of our more recent posts on the topic.