Office culture & connections in the time of COVID-19

by Jason Porterfield

Every company knows that agents in Chicagoland can virtually choose where they want to affiliate — but they choose to work with the people they like, at a company that provides a culture that works for them. And the person that undoubtedly shapes the culture is the managing broker. But how is culture maintained when an agent isn’t there in the office?

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A nurturing office culture doesn’t happen overnight. Supportive, sturdy leadership by the managing broker is crucial, as is providing the right level of support for agents and clients. Amy Corr, executive vice president of culture and agent development at @Properties, said agents are looking for personal connection and engagement. Managing brokers have to think creatively and strategically to find the best ways to support buyers and sellers.

“Agents still need to feel a connection with others on a professional and personal level,” Corr said. “We took for granted the ability to come into the office to connect with others. Now, in this new norm, we have had to become a bit more creative in how to get that connectedness and togetherness as a group.”

Joan LoCascio, designated managing broker and executive vice president at Fulton Grace Realty, has been impressed by the level of resilience her agents have shown in their willingness to adapt to the changing business environment and shift to remote working. LoCascio said Fulton Grace is committed to supporting brokers, whether they choose to return to the office or continue to work from home as the pandemic is brought under control.

“It’s challenging to maintain [an office culture] when your ‘professional home’ is closed,” LoCascio said. “So with these new challenges, effective leadership becomes crucial. It is up to leaders to stay engaged with agents and employees. The coming months will reveal if remote working becomes a standard.”

Succeeding with a strong culture

The brokerages that are succeeding during the pandemic are those that had a cohesive culture before shelter-in-place orders went into effect this spring, according to Jim Miller, executive vice president and designated managing broker at Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty.

“Office culture right now is difficult, because nobody’s really seeing each other,” Miller said. “But the culture that was created pre-COVID, those relationships that were created, are really keeping companies and offices together right now. It [office culture] is still very important, but if you didn’t have a good culture pre-COVID, it is probably causing you some problems right now.”

Pre-pandemic, the challenge that managing brokers faced was to create a culture in the office that made independent agents want to come in and make connections. The agents had to feel there was value in spending time with one another, whether in terms of the resources their managing broker provided or in the support they received from their colleagues.

Corr defines a nurturing office culture as one that emphasizes collaboration, connection and care for the agent as a person. “This can be a very lonely business,” Corr said. “While agents are out there running around, appearing busy, agents are dealing with our client needs essentially all on their own. If an agent has 10 clients they are working with, they are all relying on that agent to create success for them. That can bring on a lot of pressure for an agent, so if we can make them feel less alone from that aspect and they know there is support and care to help them through the day-to-day of their business, that goes a long way.”

LoCascio sees the managing broker as serving to help agents make the connections that are vital to real estate. The managing broker also acts as an anchor for agents, providing them with a place where they can re-connect with their colleagues.

“As independent contractors, agents want and deserve the best of both worlds,” LoCascio said. “They want the independence to operate wherever they choose to, and also to have a place where they can go and feel a part of something bigger than themselves. Fulton Grace accomplishes this by providing an abundance of the latest resources and technology, comfortable and modern spaces and a high level of amenities. Unfortunately, a lot of the amenities had to be put away, like the snacks and all that stuff.”

Pivoting toward technology

Managing brokers like LoCascio have pivoted to using technology tools to maintain the connections between agents and that feeling of belonging to something bigger. Virtual meetings and phone calls are helping her stay connected to her agents. In the early days of the pandemic, when business was starting to go virtual, her agents were quick to move to video and keep business flowing.

“I’ve made more phone calls than I had directly before the pandemic,” LoCascio said. “It’s a good way to connect when people are so used to texting and email. We have two of our four offices open and lots of guidelines to keep everybody safe. Up until this recent spike, we were almost back to normal levels, including social distancing. That was really heartwarming to see. Every day I would go out and walk around and get to see everybody, so that part has been good. We’ll see what the coming weeks bring. Other than that, it’s virtual through various company channels.”
Miller feels that leadership, an appropriate office size and a good staff-to-agent ratio are key ingredients. Since the pandemic hit, Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty has increased virtual communication as a way to stay in touch with agents and maintain programs that are designed to build culture.

“We have really ramped up our communication with our agents, virtually, through town halls and training programs and book clubs with our staff,” Miller said. “A lot of our agents have said that they feel our culture is stronger now than it was pre-COVID because of all those virtual attempts that we’ve made consistently over that period of time.”

According to Corr, the office culture at @properties went virtual the weekend of March 13, when Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker issued the state’s quarantine order. She and her counterpart, executive vice president of innovation and education Kevin Van Eck, established a daily video series called “Coffee With Amy & Kevin.” They covered topics such as how to run a business during a pandemic and how agents can put themselves in the best possible position in relation to Paycheck Protection Program and unemployment options.

“We recorded every morning at 7:30 a.m. with the intention to have a link to the video out by about 9 a.m. to all of the agents,” Corr said. “This daily coffee talk gave agents something to focus on and it made sure they did not feel alone while going through this unprecedented time. It was a way for us to have them feel like they were dialed-in and connected with the company, Mike [Golden, co-founder] and Thad [Wong, co-founder] and other brokers.”

Setting the tone

Corr believes the managing broker sets the tone and the energy level for the office. During her years as a managing broker, she emphasized coming in every day with a smile and great energy, regardless of how her day was going. To her, culture starts at the top and works its way down.

“I look at our company, for example,” she said. “If you were to ask me what our leadership looks like, I would say it is fun, authentic and relatable. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. I am not saying we don’t take real estate seriously. We are super committed to developing the best brokers in the industry, but we want our employees and brokers to feel comfortable being themselves.”

Miller is in a unique position because he serves as a coach to agents. He makes himself available to his agents at all times and is ready to dedicate his energy to helping them with whatever they need. He is open to hearing from them seven days a week, because that’s how he expects them to treat their clients.

“If they need something, I manage myself to a 97% response time within two hours,” Miller said. “So within two hours, I’m getting hold of 97% of my responses. When you have a manager that’s talented, that has skill, that has experience, but then also follows it up by operating at a level that the clients of my agents expect out of my agents, they [the agents] should expect that out of me. When I do get hold of them, I’m able to help them solve their issues. That’s what they’re looking for.”

LoCascio continues to adapt in her role by providing her agents with relevant content intended to help them maneuver through the challenges of 2020.

“Like a lot of other managers, we connect on Zoom,” she said. “I’m doing sales meetings, and I’ve pivoted my content to represent a changing environment. We’re taking a closer look at micromarkets within the city, because it really varies. The downtown market is much different than, let’s say, Buena Park or Albany Park when you head north. Adding value while connecting at the same time is a good objective.”

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