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Are brick-and-mortar brokerage offices going the way of the dodo?

As brokerages look to cut costs by shuttering offices, agents contemplate what this means for their business

With the housing market softening, broker-owners like Ohio-based Cutler Real Estate’s Andy Camp are looking for ways to lower overhead expenses. For Camp, this has led to the discussion of decreasing the brokerage’s physical office space footprint.

“Coming out of COVID, we consolidated offices and resources, and in 2023, one of our main focuses is right-sizing our footprint,” Camp said.

Camp is not alone in his considerations. Nationwide, brokerages, including Compass and Coldwell Banker, are making the decision to shutter offices.

“Our strategy is to focus and continue to invest in providing regional support offices — and so our needs on where we maintain physical office space has changed,” Ayoub Rabah, the president of Coldwell Banker Realty Greater Chicagoland, told The Real Deal in mid-January after the firm announced it would be closing some offices in the coming months.

“Agents are now more mobile than ever, taking advantage of our company’s technology offerings, and consumers are also demanding more electronic communications and services. A large number of brick-and-mortar offices are no longer required in today’s dynamic real estate environment. What is required are regionally located state-of-the-art facilities where agents can park and obtain white-glove marketing and administrative support.”

In 2021, 36% of National Association of Realtors’ (NAR) Profile of Real Estate Firms survey respondents reported that their firm did not provide them with a physical office space, and 26% of all respondents said they had a virtual office. However, just 5% of respondents said they worked at an all-virtual firm.

But with the increase in remote work capabilities, as well as the increased adoption of e-documents and other digital work capabilities over the course of the pandemic, many brokerages are seeing less of a need for a brick-and-mortar office. According to NAR’s Adopt to Adapt survey, 10% of the study’s 3,557 agent and broker-owner respondents no longer have a brick-and-mortar office, while 11% reported that they have moved to a smaller office.

“Our marketing department is still working virtually, and our design group is meeting agents at their offices or on the road instead of having agents meet them at our central hub, so we no longer needed all of that space,” Camp said.

Culture and community in office

While some brokers and firm executives are open to reducing office space, others — like Compass’ Robert Reffkin — fully support physical offices.

“I am all in on in-person. You will never see me on a virtual home office again,” Reffkin told attendees at last month’s Inman Connect New York conference. “I see home offices as the killer of culture and the reduction of potential in opportunity. We are a people business, and you can’t build culture virtually.”

Al Filippone, an industry veteran and William Raveis team leader based in Fairfield County, Connecticut, agrees.

“For the most part, not entirely but for the most part, the agents who seem to be thriving are the ones who have been coming to the office regularly…even during the onset of the pandemic. While our weekly meetings continue to be via zoom, that is more a function of practicality than anything else. Unless an agent is among the exceptions of those few who are meeting with success while working virtually, I encourage others to get back to the office. The information you glean just by being around other Realtors is immeasurable while the inspiration it provides, the customer call-ins that can lead to a sale or referrals from the office leader is worth its weight in gold.  It may just be the tonic one needs to turn their business around,” Filippone said.

Ryan O’Neil, a RE/MAX agent and the leader of The Minnesota Real Estate Team, understands why some firms are reducing office space, but like Reffkin and Filippone, he is seeing agents who want to work out of an office again for a stronger sense of culture and community.

“There has been a growing desire from my agents to actually have a set space to work,” O’Neil said. “I think after the height of the pandemic, the return to socialization, culture, being around others and sharing that positive energy is becoming more important and more needed — and agents are looking for that. I think they also like the additional professional level having an office brings. I know several agents on my team who have all their client meetings at an office.”

Due to the widespread nature of his team, O’Neil’s agents are spread out among 21 different RE/MAX offices in the Twin Cities area. While O’Neil feels most of his agents are currently looking for a physical office space, he noted that others find it more convenient to work from home and will pop into their local RE/MAX location only for large team-wide meetings or trainings.

A differing sentiment

Mandy Nichols, a former RE/MAX agent who currently hangs her license with Brixstone Real Estate, an independent brokerage serving the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area, does not share the sentiment of many of O’Neil’s agents.

“I don’t know that being in an office space is going to increase morale because to me, getting told to be in the office feels like they are trying to micromanage me,” Nichols said. “No one has ever said, ‘I want to meet you at your office.’ A lot of businesses in general are moving away from brick-and-mortar, and if you don’t need it, it is a waste of money.”

Stacy Pulliam, an Augusta, Georgia-based eXp Realty agent, feels similarly.

“A lot of real estate for me is networking, talking and community engagement. So, out doing that is where a lot of deals happen for me,” Pulliam said. “In the old movies, where do deals get done? On the golf course or over lunch. I’d never tell a client to meet me at an office, I’ve always met them over coffee or dinner, and we just have a conversation and get things going.”

Pulliam, who started her real estate career in 2019, has been with eXp her entire career and said their cloud-based model was one of the main things that attracted her to the firm.

“I liked that I could work from home, but still had the support of experienced agents nationwide,” Pulliam said. “I also liked that a lot of the training was online, but everything was still taught live in real-time. It just worked better for me and my situation.”

In addition to online classes, Pulliam also had access to an eXp mentor agent during her first few months in the business.

“My mentor was very active, very hands on, always checking in to see if I needed anything,” Pulliam said. “Now I have mentees, and we have a group chat where they can ask me anything, and they can all call me whenever if they need.”

Nichols uses a similar approach to the new agents she mentors.

“She will call me and ask what to do in situations, or she’ll email me contracts to go over and double check before she hands them over to someone,” Nichols said. “There are ways that you can help somebody and educate them without being right next to them physically.”

But while Pulliam feels the eXp model works well for her, she acknowledged that it might not be for every agent, a sentiment the firm’s CEO, Glenn Sanford, echoed in late January at the Inman Connect conference.

“If you believe fundamentally that you need office space to deliver the value proposition for your agents, then you better have office space,” Sanford told attendees. “If you fundamentally believe that you can deliver value to your agents and brokers and you don’t need physical office space, and in fact you can maybe even make that a benefit by giving them better caps and compensation, then you don’t need offices. It is kind of like religion, you can pick one and go for it — and for us the religious experience has been building a cloud-based brokerage.”

Looking ahead, brokerage executives who are mindful of their bottom line are working to consider what the office space needs and wants of tomorrow’s agents will be.

Serhant doesn’t have offices; we have clubhouses. You can come in and work all day if you want, but the work doesn’t happen in the office. We made that decision for a couple of reasons. I just looked at the overhead of a lot of these firms — and it is a lot — and there is desk hierarchy, which I don’t think is fair,” Ryan Serhant, who helms his eponymous brokerage, told Inman Connect attendees. “To think that generation Alpha is going to grow up and want to work in the real estate business to go work in an office for culture — go sit with any 12-year-old right now and where are their friends? Their friends are in a screen.”

While shuttering brick-and-mortar offices may be a way to cut costs during a slower housing market, fewer physical offices might just be the way of the future.