Tech has been talked about a lot over the past three months, as agents have grappled with the challenges of working from home and running their businesses from a kitchen table or back bedroom.
But how has this been made possible? Just 15 years ago most agents would have laughed if someone had suggested that their estate agency could be run from a basic laptop anywhere in the world. But this is now a reality. And agents have cloud-based software to thank.
“When you are a larger entity and you have databases that are being accessed by several – or dozens – of different agents or branches, that’s when cloud computing becomes necessary, because you can’t have just one server,” said James Peacock, Head of Brand at Winkworth.
If coronavirus had arrived ten or fifteen years before cloud-based solutions, then many of the agents we’ve talked to agree that the industry would have been wiped out. The flexibility that cloud-based platforms offer has enabled many agents to reimagine their offices virtually in a matter of hours.
This is because most agents used to have their own, expensive servers within their offices, which needed maintenance and, if they were big enough, a ‘cool room’. Being prevented from visiting these servers during the lockdown would have been difficult, at best.
“Cloud computing is something that most of the property CRM systems use now, enabling agents to tool up the client software on their laptop and then access their databases along with other users all at the same time,” said Peacock.
“The cloud has been invaluable during the coronavirus crisis and if an agent’s systems aren’t cloud-based then they seriously need to up their game and get moving.”
Before the pandemic, many agents survived by running their offices remotely via a VPN connection which enabled them to dial into the server in their branch and run their business online that way, rather than using the huge international servers that are ‘the cloud’.
“I guess some single-branch agents just took their server home with them when the lockdown was announced,” said Peacock.
But as anyone who has used a VPN will know, it can be a hair-tearing process to log on and keep connected.
Sami Mubarak, at Midlands-based MECS, said lockdown has persuaded him to look at cloud-based systems. He started MECS ten years ago, initially as a lettings specialist before moving into sales.
He said the experience of having three of his staff furloughed and two working from home made him realise that he really could run his business remotely. Although he’s been using several online services including a virtual viewings platform, he says it’s time to embrace the cloud.
“I made a major investment and bought all the staff laptops and as far as I’m concerned, apart from the negotiations, everyone’s free to work from home if they want,” he said.
Mubarak said the pandemic has accelerated the industry towards a more remote way of working and that he had thought “more agents would struggle, but they seem to have adapted quite well”.
Rollo Miles of hub-based London firm Agent and Homes, said: “I think that the people who really use proptech are the client services, marketing and other back-office operations and therefore it is they who have benefited most from the cloud based revolution during the coronavirus crisis.
“This is because it’s allowed their businesses to stay virtually open during the lockdown.
“But some didn’t. I’ve had some competitors’ customers phoning me up to ask why no one’s answering the phones at that or this agency, and I’ve had to explain that they just weren’t ready to close down their branches that fast and transfer to remote working. We were able to carry on because we’re cloud based.
“Not only can our network of agents work from home and carry on pretty much as usual, but the cloud has allowed us to continue listing and uploading properties and receiving leads. If the pandemic had occurred say fifteen years ago, it would have been a different story.”
“We are a hub-based agent with a full service, but with agents who work locally and from home. Life hasn’t changed much for them during the lockdown, thanks in part to the cloud.”
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