How will brokerage offices change upon reopening amid a pandemic, with no clear end in sight? One thing is certain: for the foreseeable future, the typical brokerage office won’t look the way it did pre-pandemic.
In most provinces and territories, real estate was considered an essential service from the start of the pandemic, though brokerage offices closed their doors to the public and real estate professionals stopped hosting in-person open houses due to physical distancing guidelines. But now that restrictions are starting to ease up across the country, brokerages are looking at how they can open their offices to the public while continuing to flatten the curve.
In New Brunswick, the move toward reopening began in May. Jason Stephen, Immediate Past Chair of the Canadian Real Estate Association and a salesperson with Royal LePage Atlantic in Saint John, New Brunswick, sits on a COVID-19 advisory task force for the province, which is establishing guidelines for reopening (though these are best practices rather than mandatory measures).
WorkSafeNB, the provincial agency overseeing workplace safety, requires every business to have an operational plan in place for reopening; brokerages, for example, must show how they will safely conduct real estate transactions.
New protocols in brokerage offices
“This is where every brokerage will be different,” says Stephen. At his office, for example, communal kitchens remain closed and staff are required to wear masks in public parts of the office. Buyers and sellers are also required to wear masks during any in-person interactions.
Similar to restaurants, brokerages won’t be able to open with the same capacity as pre-pandemic. So “the focus is still to try where possible to eliminate face-to-face [meetings] or replace it with technology,” says Stephen.
But that means “adopting to an age with new processes that are uncomfortable,” he adds. Meeting with clients while wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing can feel awkward, for both real estate professionals and their clients. “When you’re a public-facing business it’s difficult, but people [have been] very understanding.”
While each province has different guidelines and regulations, there are best practices that can and should be applied by brokerages across the board, such as using signage and tape to encourage physical distancing and requiring staff to wear masks in public areas.
Clients should also be asked pre-qualifying questions about their health (known as passive screening) before entering the office or meeting with a REALTOR®. “We’re doing passive screening,” says Stephen. But, “some brokerages are doing active screening like temperature checks.”
Adapting to the temporary normal
At RE/MAX Ultimate Realty Inc. in Toronto, the approach has been “that this is a temporary normal, it’s not a new normal,” says broker of record and owner Tim Syrianos.
“The human race is a very social species and if there’s one thing that we’ve learned it’s that we like to be around each other—and isolation is not something that bodes very well for us,” says Syrianos, who was also President of the Toronto Real Estate Board (now the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board) from 2017-2018.
But in the meantime, brokerages need to adapt to this temporary normal. Syrianos, who runs three brokerages that employ 260 agents, initially closed those offices to the public (though they were open to staff).
“We immediately ordered a lot of decals and signage and notices to make sure that if in the event an agent needed to come into the office, they would follow certain protocols the whole time and they would not approach any staff directly,” says Syrianos.
The offices now have plexiglass protective barriers in place as well as directional signage, “and we do have a policy in the office that anybody in open areas has to wear a mask, even to go to the bathroom,” says Syrianos.
Most meetings are taking place virtually via Zoom, Webex or other video conferencing technologies. But there are still instances where clients want to meet in person, especially when it’s for the first time. “I assisted one of our agents with a meeting at the property and had the entire listing presentation outside,” says Syrianos.
His brokerage will allow meetings with clients in the office, but those meetings are restricted to a large training room—which normally holds 20 to 30 people—so there’s room for physical distancing. Salespeople must pre-book the room (so no one else enters) and there are time limits they must adhere to.
But the plexiglass barriers are removable, with the idea that one day they can be put into storage (and, if they’re ever needed again, they can be taken back out).
RE/MAX offices in Ontario and Atlantic Canada are being provided with reusable, RE/MAX-branded face masks for agents (and can also be ordered for clients), according to Lydia McNutt in a recent blog post for RE/MAX Canada.
Many of its offices rolled out precautionary measures in the spring that McNutt says are likely to continue, like using alternative technologies to connect with clients such as digital presentations and virtual home tours. These processes would see a “fine-tuning” as transactions begin to pick up again.
While it’s not exactly business as usual, brokerages are taking the first steps toward reopening and serving the public in this ‘temporary’ normal.
While information related to the efforts to mitigate the outbreak of COVID-19 is constantly evolving, we recommend REALTORS® follow the guidelines and precautions set by Canada’s public health authorities and local public health officials. See Health Canada’s website for comprehensive coverage.