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Out of office: can employees progress their career remotely?

Written by: Samantha McClary
Published on: 7 Jul 2020

Lockdown has not been easy for many people, particularly for those who are young and relatively new to a career in real estate. For those individuals that house-share, those with little space to separate working from home with just being at home, the physical act of working has been a challenge. But being in an office offers more than just a place to work, it offers access to people, to training, learning and to progressing in your career.

A recent survey by Savills found that 54% of respondents believed that the office was best for career advancement, compared with just 1% who thought at home was better. This was particularly clear in younger workers who saw the office as a better place to learn and understand the processes required in their working life and as a place to be seen, to network and collaborate.

While lockdown may be easing with businesses slowly moving their people back into their offices up and down the country, some three months has passed where an individual’s ability to learn, to collaborate and progress has been entirely virtual.

So what has the industry done to make sure that its talent continues to develop so that when the world does return to some kind of normal businesses can still provide the very best service? And what has been learnt throughout the lockdown process?

For those doing their APCs, the RICS very quickly went virtual, switching its assessments to online and giving APC candidates free access to its isurv resources hub. The agents too made sure to keep their APC processes going, delivering virtual workshops. Most have managed to maintain their pass rates as a result.

But learning and development during lockdown has been about more than just understanding the business of real estate. It has been about connecting people within the business, keeping those that were furloughed motivated and engaged and developing a whole new set of skills to deal with the “new normal” thrust upon us by the coronavirus outbreak.

Kevin McLean, head of UK talent and learning at CBRE, says the agent very quickly adapted its learning and development programme to an online schedule that offered bite-sized learning opportunities focused on dealing with the new way of working.

The firm’s Central Academy programme produced a set of 15, 45-minute webinars, based around managing virtual teams, managing different personality types, how to present effectively virtually, how to build trust over platforms such as Zoom and Teams and, of course, how to manage your own mental health and wellbeing.

For McLean, the shift to online learning has been a real boost for his part of the business. “We trained more people in six weeks than we had trained face-to-face for the whole of 2019,” he said.

He found there was even greater engagement from employees during lockdown. The firm’s usual face-to-face “coffee roulette” scheme, in which signed-up staff members would be randomly paired up for coffee meetings to talk work, the market or just life in general, went virtual – and viral. More than 200 staff have signed up for the scheme, which now has the ability to bring people together not just in the same office, but across the UK, Europe and globally.

Savills’ UK human resources director Noel McGonigle has had a similar experience with its training programmes.

He says the business was already delivering a lot of online learning but ramped up its provision during lockdown and opened up its programme to deliver courses from outside providers such as Harvard Business Review and the Open University.

He says it has been an opportunity for people to learn new skills outside of the day-to-day business requirements.

It has also been a great leveller, says McGonigle. “People can have their say in a very different dynamic,” he says. “People are much more comfortable in explaining their view.”

What businesses have been notably better at during lockdown is communicating and engaging with staff. Even if training programmes were available before the Covid-19 pandemic changed the world, showcasing them to staff and adapting them to the needs of employees may not have always been delivered effectively.

That changed during lockdown and it is important it stays.

“Now it is about making sure that we don’t lose the engagement,” says McGonigle. “Communication has improved and maintaining regular dialogue will be important. We are being more proactive in engaging with staff and that will be one of the hardest things to keep going. You could easily see the focus shifting from wellness to recovery.

“During lockdown the priority was about looking after people, but as we come back it will be about survival and getting clients re-established.”

Lockdown created a moment for business to really showcase how they value their people and has brought human resources and talent teams to the fore. How businesses have treated their staff, how they have invested in them and enabled them to continue to develop will be vital in their future growth and survival.

“People will look to see how organisations behaved during this period and how people felt they looked after them during this period will impact what people say about us and how much people recommend us,” says McGonigle. “And it is that, that will allow us to attract the best people.”

Without an office, what happens to our future workforce?

The weeks, and now months, working from home have allowed us to take stock of our working environment, writes Cal Lee, founder and head of Savills’ flexible workspace platform, Workthere. In this giant home-working experiment many of us have learnt we can do our jobs from home, and we actually quite like it, or at least aspects of it. We have the technology to support this and employers have embraced the fact that we don’t have to be at our desks five days a week to be productive, perform tasks and, essentially, do business.

This of course has implications for the humble office space. Many have predicted its potential demise as it becomes surplus to requirement. Many have also sought ardently to defend it and point to innovation, purpose, energy, talent, wellbeing, empowerment and the reinforcement of culture, all of which struck a chord with me. I certainly don’t need to be persuaded of the value of an office.

These are all undoubtedly valid reasons for the future need of an office for a business. But for me there is one standout that has often been missed as we speak nostalgically about our old office, and that is the ability to train and develop our people and workforce of the future. Without an office, how do we do this?

You can point to training programmes and online learning courses and of course these work to a degree, but in my view very little can replace the simple ability of ‘learning as you go’ from those around you. I joined Savills in 2011 as we were coming out of the last recession, and I’ve never stopped learning since. Most of this occurs on the office floor or in meetings with my peers and clients. In the lockdown period this has been one of the hardest aspects: how do we continue to develop our people and teams when working remotely? It’s not so easy to have those off-the-cuff conversations or questions with a peer or manager, or to listen to them handle a difficult phone conversation – learning we often take for granted.

Personal growth and career development are a vital part of our growth and progression and we know it is of particular importance to the younger generation who want to absorb from those around them. Without spending some time in the office together, it makes it much harder to benefit from that absorption of information, tips and advice from our colleagues.

The way in which we work has changed, but the need to learn and interact with others is something that will always remain.

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