A recent CNBC article pointed out that commercial real estate is in for a shock as corporations large and small plan to have agents return to the office. Turns out, after tasting remote work as a “new normal,” many work-from-home employees and self-employed professionals are resisting the call to revisit long and stressful work commutes. 

Mark Dixon, CEO of flexible office company IWG, adds that employees working from home offices are now working more productively “than they’ve ever done before.” 

On the flip side, we have billionaire CEO Elon Musk insisting that Tesla employees return to the office or “pretend to work” elsewhere. Harsh. 

So, to sort this all out, we’ll take a look at what remote vs. brick-and-mortar offices offer real estate agents. 

Why Elon Musk insists on going back to the office

Showing up at a physical office five days a week isn’t the most ideal (or productive) option for everyone. 

That said, here are the three Elon Musk quotes and how they relate to real estate office culture:

  • “The more senior you are, the more visible must be your presence” — Musk believes SpaceX would not have survived if he hadn’t spent so much time at the factory when it was struggling. Top real estate leaders, too, tend to lead by example, not requiring agents to be in the office unless they’re leading the charge and showing up themselves.
  • “The office must be where your actual colleagues are located, not some remote pseudo office.” — While many agents would agree that regular in-person contact with their colleagues helps reinforce company culture and keep them accountable, many also use a hybrid schedule that makes room for remote “pseudo offices,” using tools like Zoom and Slack to touch base with their fellow agents and team leaders. 
  • “There are of course companies that don’t require this, but when was the last time they shipped a great new product? It’s been a while.” — This blanket dismissal of companies that allow their employees or agents to work remotely (at all) probably won’t age well. That said, recent layoffs in the real estate industry have raised questions about whether remote work played a role. 

The assumption that great things don’t happen in companies that allow their employees to work remotely has met with plenty of resistance across multiple industries, including real estate, as evidenced in the CNBC article referenced above.

In fact, some of the largest companies are actually giving their office buildings back to the bank—not because they’ve lost all their employees but because those employees have discovered the benefits of working remotely. 

And they don’t want to give them up. 

Whether this gains traction among residential real estate companies remains to be seen. We already know Compass CEO Robert Reffkin is not a fan. Other real estate companies—aside from eXp and Real—may be less resistant. 

Are home offices the “killer of culture”?

So, how important is office culture to the success of a real estate team in 2023? And how important is working five days a week in a brick-and-mortar office to building that culture?

In a late January episode of the Walk Thru, Marley Presswood and Andrew Undem joined Dan Oneil and The Broke Agent to weigh in on Robert Reffkin’s assertion that home offices are the “killer of culture.” 

Every single one of them agreed that physical presence in an office was essential to a healthy team culture. 

Here are the four main reasons: 

#1—Because physical presence in an office contributes to team culture more effectively than a virtual presence (or virtual office) can. 

When interaction is limited to Zoom meetings where you’re only discussing important company-related concerns, goals, or problems, team members often (but not always) miss out on the chance to get to know each other. 

In a typical, brick-and-mortar office, employees talk about business-related priorities, too. But they also talk about random things going on in their lives—or random ideas that pop into their heads. 

Employees who work together are more likely to take an interest in each other’s lives beyond the office. They’re more likely to feel supported, understood, and valued. 

On the other hand, there are exceptions to this, where employees who collaborate remotely do take a genuine interest in each other’s lives and well-being—just as there are in-person work environments where employees (or agents) show little if any interest in their colleagues. 

Ultimately, it comes down to the people involved and what works best for them. Technology can either be your excuse to “phone it in,” as Musk puts it, or it can provide a platform for real conversations that foster real relationships. Some virtual meetings will focus on the business at hand, while others can provide time for a bit of casual catching up. 

In other words, home office tech doesn’t have to be the “killer of culture.” But it can make building that culture more of a challenge. As more businesses adapt to remote work, though, solutions to those challenges are being developed in real-time. 

#2—Because it helps less experienced agents learn the ropes more quickly. 

Being physically present makes it possible for less experienced agents to listen in and pick up strategies/clues from more experienced agents. 

New agents don’t automatically know what to say when they’re cold-calling expireds or FSBOs—or how to handle objections. They can learn that either by listening as more experienced agents make phone calls or by asking questions and having someone there to guide them. 

Admittedly, it’s hard, if not impossible, to duplicate this benefit over Zoom meetings. And you can’t legally wiretap your coworkers to listen in on their phone conversations. 

That way lies lawsuits (and most likely the end of your career).

#3—Because having senior leadership there communicates importance

When senior leadership shows up at the office, it sends the message that interacting with other team members on a regular basis is a priority for them. 

Less experienced team members are then better able to make a positive impression on the team leaders and feel at least somewhat reassured that they’re delivering enough value (i.e., that they aren’t expendable or easy to replace). 

On the other hand, having senior leadership connect with the team via regular Zoom meetings, if in-person meetings are impossible or impractical, can send the same message. The effort leaders make to touch base regularly with their agents and staff is what matters most.

#4—Because it takes more effort to show up physically.

That’s usually true. And, in making that effort, everyone—from the seasoned leaders to the newest members of the team—communicates that in-person interaction (when possible) is worth that extra effort. 

That said, spending 20+ hours a week in a physical office isn’t feasible for everyone. And effort aside, technology has provided other ways to interact with and communicate support for your fellow agents. And this same technology has made it possible for those in remote areas to join a team or a business without having to relocate. 

Ultimately, building relationships takes effort, whether you’re showing up in person or virtually. The best agents know how to make the most of what they’ve got. 

Top takeaways for real estate agents

While Elon Musk and Robert Reffkin share a general contempt for home offices and remote work, your experience may have taught you to appreciate remote collaboration tools like Zoom and Slack—and to question the need to commute to a physical office five days a week.

Mark Dixon isn’t the only one to notice that many people are actually more productive working remotely. Thanks to that “fundamental seismic shift” brought on by the pandemic, more people out there—agents included—know there’s more than one way to “show up.” 

Granted, in some situations, there’s no substitute for being physically present. 

But, while residential real estate companies may not be in as much of a hurry to give their office buildings back to the bank, there’s enough reason to doubt Musk’s assumption that remote work is the death of innovation—or Reffkin’s lament that home offices are killing office culture. 

Maybe it’s just a question of finding the right balance for each company.