Bay Area brokerage heads wax creative on back-to-work challenge

Assigned cubicles give way to flex seating and socializing to re-energize agents

Brokerages Wax Creative to Bring Agents Back to Office
From left: Coldwell Banker's Jennifer Lind, Red Oak Realty's Vanessa Bergmark, The Agency's Jeff Samuels, Compass' Kevin Patsel and Vanguard's David Chol at (Coldwell, Red Oak, The Agency, Compass, Chol by Portraits by Ryan)

Remote work has impacted Bay Area residential brokerages just as it has other white-collar industries, with brokerage heads trying everything from new office configurations to potluck dinners to get agents back into the office, which they say is key for creating their all-important company culture. 

“Agents no longer are dependent on the traditional office space to get work done,” said Jennifer Lind, Coldwell Banker’s regional president for the West. “It has transitioned to an incredible hub for collaboration, marketing support and business strategy.”

Agents will never use the office the way they once did before COVID-19, said Vanessa Bergmark, owner/CEO of Red Oak Realty, which has about 200 agents in the East Bay. That’s why she got rid of most desks in her offices, and put in coffee tables and couches to host parties and book clubs, which she said has resulted in an uptick in usage.

“Stop hanging on to the desk,” she said. “I might as well say, ‘I really wish you’d use your old typewriters.’ They’re not going to.” 

“Cafe style” seating

The Agency also has a “cafe style” open seating arrangement in its offices, according to Jeff Samuels, its regional manager for Northern California. When the Agency looked to open its first Inner East Bay location in Berkeley earlier this year, Samuels said finding a place with an outdoor patio conducive to socializing — not lots of indoor space for cubicles — was key. 

Though the new office for about 25 agents is less than 2,000 square feet, he said it could fit double that number given the outdoor space and that there are no assigned seats. Plus it is located in a prime spot in Berkeley’s buzzy North Shattuck commercial corridor that is designed to draw agents in. 

“I would rather have 300 square feet in the right location than 10,000 square feet and parking in the wrong location,” he said.

He said it “broke my heart a little bit” to see other brokerage’s offices nearby go underutilized and that when the new office opened he rallied the troops to make sure the same thing didn’t happen. 

“You all said you want this office, right? Let’s show up. Let’s collaborate. Let’s have fun,” he recalled telling his agents when they came to get their keys to the new space.  

Kevin Patsel, regional manager for Northern California at Compass, said that creating a vibrant culture with “appointment-based attendance” in each of his branch offices is the goal and that Compass reinforces that with a full calendar of sales meetings, happy hours and risk management sessions. 

“The way agents work and their relationship with their office has changed,” he said. “But we’re looking at it more like a hub where we create the energy they want to be a part of. So, they come in, get that energy and then go out and do their jobs.”

Compass consolidated some of the East Bay offices it picked up when it bought Pacific Union, Paragon and Alain Pinel in 2018 and 2019 into fewer, bigger spaces this year. Agents are typically concerned when they hear their smaller office is closing because “people in general don’t like change,” Patsel said. But at the end of the day, they end up appreciating the hustle and bustle of being in a more utilized office. 

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In Danville, for example, the agents in the closing offices thought their new space would be “a downgrade,” Pastel said. But once it was open and the full roster of events began “people love being there.” 

“We were concerned, too. You’re bringing three different cultures together and that’s not always an easy thing to do,” Patsel said. “But that has been a winning formula for us and we’re kind of mirroring it in other places in Northern California too.”

Office as art

Vanguard is moving into the more than 6,000-square-foot Montclair office Compass just vacated after a major refresh on the space, which had been dark and dated, said Vanguard COO David Chol. 

“We have to ‘Vanguardize’ it so that it fits our aesthetic,” said Chol, who said each of the independent’s 18 offices is “an art piece.” 

Vanguard works on an “earn your desk” system and these new Montclair agents, many of whom were part of the old leadership team from Pacific Union before it was bought by Compass, have definitely earned theirs, he said. 

“So many agents that have been together for so long were able to come over together and they’ll keep their same desks and their same memories,” he said. Many agents had been “missing the human connection” and came to Vanguard in part because its offices are full of agents talking and sharing ideas. 

“COVID killed that for so many brokerages,” he said of a vibrant office culture. “If you’ve been doing this long enough, you know that you have to show up to do well. People understand that and we provide a place where they want to show up.” 

Lind said Coldwell’s seating system varies from office to office, but each one now has some amount of flex space, which suits agents’ new pop-in, pop-out lifestyle. 

“We are seeing most of our agents access the office for small amounts of time but are rarely here all day,” she said. “We want to leverage our space for what they need and when they need it.”  

The most common in-office events that bring people in are panel discussions and educational sessions on industry news, but credit must also be paid to “culture-building events that bring the team together,” like Cinco de Mayo potlucks and food drives, she said. 

“Our culture drives who we are and connects the agents to the brand vision, their respected colleagues and the communities they serve,” she said. “Agents want leadership and to know they are part of something bigger.” 

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