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The ups and downs of having an estate agency during the COVID lockdowns

Christopher Watkin is a renowned property journalist who guides, supports, mentors, consults, counsels, and partners with hundreds of UK Letting & Estate Agents in their quest to grow their lettings and estate agencies businesses. He invited our MD Rachel Ritson to his studio in Grantham for a series of video interviews all about the property industry. 

Getting Grisdales through 2 COVID lockdowns

Rachel and Chris talk pandemic troubles!

If you prefer to read than watch

Hi it’s Chris Watkin here and I’m joined by Rachel Ritson, who is an estate agent extraordinaire from the North West in the Lake District. Rachel runs her own estate agency Grisdales and (you’re not gonna like) but Peter Knight reckons she’s one of the best estate agents in the UK.  So thanks for joining me today Rachel. I want to talk to you about the ups and the downs of being an estate agent from first lockdown and then everything since then.  And then we can talk about what you’ve learned, what you now do differently, so we can share with the boys and girls in the estate agency and letting agency land. 

So can you remember when we went into lockdown?

I certainly can, because I can remember Boris’s announcement and then I’m getting all these WhatsApp messages coming through from the team asking what we are gonna do? I remember getting a whisky that night and not sleeping very well so I do remember that yeah!

A lot of people said they were basically scared because they didn’t know what the hell they were doing.

Yes, we had experienced crisis management previously, the office had flooded twice.  The first time we were under six feet of water.   It was like the whole office had gone around in the tumble dryer, teams were displaced, we were in a town that was flooded, the people wanted property, so we had this surge in demand and yet we weren’t up and running ourselves.  So we’d experienced a crisis in that way. 

Had those events helped you with the Covid crisis? 

I think so, but it was different, because with the flood the dramatic event had happened so every day from then things were only going to get better.  Whereas with the Covid lockdown we just didn’t know how long it would be, so it was very difficult to plan.   Were we looking at a month, two months, who’d have ever thought it was going to go on as long as it did.  So I think what I’d seen before, with the previous events, how well the team pulls together in a crisis.  But again, this was different because Covid generated different levels of anxiety in different people, some were okay with it, other people just wanted to hide away, so trying to get them to focus on work wasn’t their ultimate priority.  It was a very emotional thing to go through.  

Having staff you’ve almost got to become the parent for them as well. 

Yeah.   

Did you learn very quickly who was with you and who was against you? 

I think we really saw those extremes of the spectrum, the team players who became innovative, who worked way beyond anything that you would have expected to sort things out, versus the ones that, just needed hugging in a little bit more and almost there were people you thought well, let’s just put them on furlough.  

I don’t want you to mention names or jobs, but were there people who, when the time came, stood up to the mark and surprised you and were there people who you thought would be  in the trenches with you, but they weren’t?  

A little bit of that, but I felt quite blessed that pretty much all of the team showed signs of strength and support.  Most went above and beyond what was needed, in the main most people did that.  So I felt really proud of the team that things were being asked of them, out of the norm, and pretty much everybody stepped up to the mark. 

Was it easy to put people on furlough?  Most were on furlough during that initial lockdown, weren’t they?

We kept about a third of the team, we furloughed two-thirds of the team, because in sales the work wasn’t there, ongoing work was essentially around lettings and and property management.  It was a new thing, I was weighing up ‘if I furlough them’ ‘if I don’t furlough them’, ‘how’s that going to go down?’ I just ended up having to make the decision, and I accepted that maybe not everybody would be happy with it. 

So were you having any guidance or support or were you just on your own with regards to what the hell you should do in that first two weeks? They were manic weren’t they?  

The first two weeks yes they were manic.  I was making decisions, sometimes not with all the facts. I felt being a member of the Property Academy was great, I remember saying to Peter Knight, the sessions were like a guiding light for me, they just bombarded us with advice and support.  Certainly in those early days, with how to deal with what was going on so it was less about long-term strategy and more about short-term.  I found that of great value – you know we’re in West Cumbria, we’re quite isolated, there isn’t this big network of agents around us, so for me that group support was very very valuable.  

So did you have zoom calls with the other Property Academy guys?  

Yeah,  what’s great about the Property Academy is you have the network support that goes on away from the meetings, so there are people that I can call on and ask for advice and support and hopefully give back as well.  

During the recent COVID lockdown, you said that you felt a bit like a movie star each morning? 

Well I kind of laughed at myself because, we had 2 children at home at that time, both were working from home, Neil, my husband wasn’t working, so they were all at home, so in a way I’m kind of glad that I chose to work from the office and so I’d just head off in the morning. I’d leave them and I’d be off with my rucksack and my packed lunch in my bag like Katniss Everdeen from ‘The Hunger Games’ saying “I’m going out to work, I’m sorting this out”. It was kind of a little bit scary and a little bit empowering, but I’d have my three mile walk across the fields to work.  

Did you walk to work before? 

No 

What do you think that walk did for your mind?  

I 100% needed that as my de-stress time.  I would use it to catch up on podcasts, or listen to some of the webinars that had gone on,  so I was learning while I was walking.  It’s difficult to find the time when you’re in the office, because there’s so much going on, so that 3 mile walk took me just shy of an hour. Before Covid I’d literally be in my car 2-3 minutes then I’d be in the office, so this way around I was actually seeing the mountains and countryside where I live, there’s the cows, there’s the lambs, oh wow look at all this nature around me and I’d been missing it before!  So that side of it was good. I used the time to think as well and once we got over that initial shock of lockdown I really wanted to work hard early doors on ‘what do I want my business to look like when I come out of lockdown?’ 

Have you continued walking on most days or have you slipped back? 

I tried so hard, but it was weird as we were allowed to open back up again and normal life kicked in and I needed my car at work.  I found that there I was back in the car again. Then for lock-down 2 I went back walking again. I realised I would always be carrying my briefcase home with me, every night and then I asked myself why I needed it..! If I keep it at work I can actually walk home. So we’re getting a puppy next week, so I am aiming at walking in at least once once a week. That will be so good for my mental health if nothing else and it will become the office dog.  

What worked well for you in lockdown?  

We migrated to a cloud-based software system and we very much felt the difference of that change, between lockdown one and lockdown two.   We were using Vebra Live with a couple of browser logins which everybody was logging into as me.  So that transition, which we did last June/July, meant that when lockdown 2 came around it didn’t matter whether you were at the office or whether you were at home.  Everyone had access to the system, that was really great for us. Then we were doing video viewings and I was just taking more control of the diary. 

I’m led to believe that you actually had to make some awful decisions and close one of your three offices.  How did that make you feel?  

Yes I did have to close one of my offices, which was a very difficult thing to do.  But I realised during lockdown, when I was looking at what I wanted the business to look like after lockdown – and we didn’t know how long lockdown was going to carry on for – so as a 3 office business with 1 that wasn’t performing well, I just couldn’t take that risk.  

What do you think you could have done better during lockdown-one? 

I probably feel I’m not the best communicator,  so I could have hugged-in that wider team a little bit more.  For those that were in the office it was fine, but I should have picked up the phone more, spoken to people more, and probably the same with customers as well.  

How have you coped since lockdown-one finished, which was May/June time?  It’s been a bit crazy as it’s a stupid market out there.  We are filming this in May 2021 and it’s been stupidly busy in the property market for the last year. Has everyone been firing on all cylinders or has there been a degradation of motivation?  

I think in lockdown-one everybody pulled together, we were all in it together.  For lockdown-two and the start of this year, the dark nights we’re difficult, we were not out of, the figures were all spiralling, and I definitely felt a drop in morale and saw a general team weariness.  We were busy and I recognised that and there’s things we’re doing to build morale.  We’re having our own special Grisdales Bank Holiday on 25th June when I’m organising a barbecue at home to say thank you.  Moneypenny will be covering our phones that day.   I think it was just recognising that yes, we’re all a bit tired, but crikey we’re not the NHS, we’re not in hospitality, we’re not in the travel industry, all of those businesses have been decimated.  So let’s just remind ourselves of that!  

Have you had to have difficult conversations? When you’re dealing with staff and you know they’re working all out,  how are you motivating them? Don’t get me wrong, I’d love a barbecue at your house, but one BBQ doesn’t sort all the issues out!  

Yes,  I just think it’s about talking to the team and listening to their issues.  

Do you think you’ve got better at that because of the pandemic?  

Probably, yes, I like to think I listen to what my team have to say and I respond to that.  I don’t always get it right but I do care, I really do care,  and I hope that they would say I do as well.  

Do you have a high staff turnover?  

No, no we don’t. We have a relatively low staff turnover.  

If I had your staff here, what would they say your greatest strength and weakness are?  Let’s start with your weakness – if they could change one thing about you what would it be?  

Gosh, I don’t know!   Maybe they’d want me to listen a bit more, I don’t know.  

You seem to be doing a pretty good job!  I guess you just could always be better?

Yes, I mean we’re all looking to improve aren’t we?  And we’re all continually learning!  

So what one thing do they think they’d say was a great trait of yours, one that they probably haven’t had in any other bosses?  

I’d love to think I’m always approachable, I’m fairly steady with my mood, I don’t throw wobblers, I’ll always listen and I might not give them the answer that they want, but I will always listen and I will take into account their thoughts and feelings.  

You’d probably give that advice to any boss wouldn’t you?  

Oh 100% yes.  

If you had your time again, over the last 12 months what’s the one thing that you do differently and what’s the one thing that you’re most proud of and then we’ll leave it at that?  

I would just communicate more.  I don’t think you can ever communicate enough.  So for me, that is something that I would like to work on as I’m quite shy and I’m naturally a behind-the-scenes person.   I am most proud of seeing the team through and feeling like they are on board and that they’re with me and they do want to be part of the journey.   I mean, it’s been a difficult time and everybody’s experience has been different about lockdown, but I’d like to think that I’ve carried the business through that and we’ve done it!  

Rachel, thank you for your time today.   I hope the boys and girls of estate agency land have learned something from this chat and in the next few videos we’re going to be talking about Rachel’s story of going from an accounts clerk, all the way to running a fantastic estate agents and some other interesting topics which I think you’ll find interesting. Thank you for your time today.

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