The recent Pie survey showed that 57% of people who work in the property sector think that it is too soon for agents to return to work. However, most estate agency business owners are delighted that they have been allowed to reopen their businesses. Nevertheless there will be many obstacles to overcome before business can return to normal and as a business owner, one of your biggest challenges will be keeping the staff on side. There are so many things to consider. Most businesses will not be able to bring all their staff back to work immediately so how will you decide who to bring back to work and who to leave on furlough?

How will you deal with staff who want to return to work but can’t do so because they have no-one to look after their children?

How will you deal with staff who say that they cannot get to work because the trains or buses are not running or that they are too frightened to use them in case they catch the virus in an overcrowded carriage?

How will you deal with older staff or staff who have medical conditions which mean that they are at greater risk of dying from COVID-19?

How will you deal with staff who want to continue to work from home for all or part of every week?

How will you deal with staff who want to work flexi-time in order to make their journey to and from work quicker or safer?

Are you prepared to top up the salaries for staff on furlough once the government reduces the percentage of earnings that it will pay and where will the money come from to do this?

How will you deal with staff who refuse to come off the furlough scheme because they prefer being at home on 80% of their salary to being at work on 100%?

Will you need to make any staff redundant? If so, when will you do it and how will you fund the statutory redundancy costs which continue to be payable despite COVID-19?

These are just some of the HR decisions that you will need to make over the next few weeks and it will be a legal and moral minefield. Already, there are examples of business owners get it right and others getting it horribly wrong. Who will ever forget how one of the UK’s largest pub chains told their staff that they would not be paid for six weeks until the government furlough money came through? (This was later retracted). At the other end of the scale, the owners of some companies have won the admiration and respect of their staff by communicating with them openly, honestly and fairly.

The tiniest things can make a difference. My neighbour’s daughter has been working at home for the last eight weeks and has been working four or five hours extra every day to do her own work plus the work of one of her colleagues who has been furloughed. She was happy to do this for the long-term good of the company. However, they then told her that her salary would be reduced by 10%. This will save them about £1,500. She was so incensed by this that she will now be looking for a new job as soon as the current crisis is over. It will cost them many thousands of pounds to replace her in agency fees and the time necessary to train her successor. It is also very likely that she will take many of the clients with her who bring in a quarter of a million pounds a year for the company. All this to save £1,500.

I would urge every business owner to make time over the next few days to write a summary business plan that can be shared with every member of their staff. It should include the following:

  • A summary of the turnover of the business in 2019 and a projection of the turnover for 2020
  • A brief analysis of how many houses will need to be sold and/or let to achieve this revenue
  • A summary of the strategies that the business will employ to achieve these targets
  • Some information about the role of every member of staff in achieving these things
  • An honest prediction of how many staff will be brought back from furlough, and when
  • Detailed information about how the company will do everything possible to safeguard the health of all its employees
  • Reassurance that you will treat staff fairly if they are unable to work due to a lack of childcare arrangements
  • Clarification of your policy on homeworking and flexi-time

The companies that treat their staff fairly over the next few months will win their respect and loyalty and will safeguard their most important asset for many years to come. Those that do not will find that just as the upturn gets underway, their best staff will hand in their notice at the very time that they need them most.

Adam Walker is a management consultant and business transfer agent who has specialised in the property sector for over thirty years. 

If you are thinking of selling, do give Adam J Walker and Associates a call on +44 (0) 845 226 9053 or email jd@adamjwalker.co.uk. They are business transfer agents and management consultants who have specialised in the property sector for over thirty-five years.

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