3 July 2008

Designing the New Real Estate Office

I think it’s well past time for the layout of the “traditional” real estate office to change.  As a customer, I see woefully little that is designed around my needs.  As someone with a vested interest in the success of this industry, I see wasted costs galore that make my stomach churn.  As I’ve written before, I believe we can do much more with much less.  I can’t imagine a better time to move forward with revolutionary designs.

With that in mind, I recently challenged myself to draw up some floor plans.  A few ideas were floating in my head but I needed to get some real measurements to make them useful.  So I casually paced out floors of all kinds of different business I thought we could borrow designs from.  I sized up office furniture with my trusty tape measure.  I played with a snazzy interior design program.  I mumbled to myself a lot.  And, in the end, I opted for old-fashioned pencil and grid paper so I could free-form away when the mood struck.

A major goal of mine was to aim for 1,500 square feet, which I quickly found was easier said than done.  Three designs took shape.  I humbly submit for your review and critique:

(a)  The Coffee Shop


After walking in, the customer can either gather information on the left, take a seat at the couch on the right (across from a TV scrolling through listings, market information, etc.) or retreat behind the receptionist to the main area.  There, agents and customers work and browse comfortably either on couches, at a table, or on the five barstools with individual monitors (though this office, along with the others, is wireless).   The back wall is lined with a 16′ x 12′ conference/closing room and two 9′ x 12′ offices (used either as private meeting rooms or for the staff, as needed).

(b)  The Showroom

Designing the New Real Estate Office

The two front windows each have large-screen TV’s, luring customers to investigate within.  The design is open, with three sales desks lining the right wall, each separated by 6′ walls to allow for private conversation.  A customer who walks towards the back to the information booth is drawn in by either the screen on the left or just by the activity all around.  I picture glass walls for the two back closing/meeting rooms to create space, show action.  I can see this working especially well for brokers specializing in condos, apartments, or developments (e.g., replace the info booth with miniature models of the units).

(c)  The Lounge

Designing the New Real Estate Office

The smallest design is perhaps best suited for urban settings.  It’s funky and relaxed.  There are no offices, no desks even.  A 12′ x 16′ room is parked proudly at the center.  If it’s at ground level I picture it as either glass-walled or with oversized windows all around.  If it’s in a high-ceiling, loft-type setting, I can see it raised up a couple steps (eliminating the need for walls).  Maybe it’s a meeting room like the others.  Maybe it’s a high-tech media room.  Heck, maybe it’s a playroom for young and old alike.


These are just a few to consider.  The basic idea behind all three is to eliminate the clutter that is too prevalent in today’s offices.  Use the available space instead to entice people to gather and talk about real estate with friends and agents.  Surround them with sights and sounds that will tap into the excitement of finding that perfect place.  See what happens.

There are many brokers out there who have already broken the mold.  If you’re one of them, please share your story and, if you’re willing, your floorplan.  Even if you’re not and you have a design or sketch you’d like to share please email me and I’ll post it here.


Update: Marc Diaz was kind enough to share with all of us the layout design of his office.  Thank you, Marc!  The actual images can be viewed here.  Please see Marc’s comments below.


28 thoughts on “Designing the New Real Estate Office

  1. Environmental branding is a surging touch point that has been so overlooked by real estate. From boutique shops on Main Street to Apple Stores, the retail shop is fast becoming a statement and an art form.

    I’ve been to a few locations of late that blew my socks off. And the thing is, the agents working inside these facilities, all look that much more professional. Each taking on the persona, the vibe, the aura of the space.

    I like the fact that you are thinking about this.
    I love the fact that you are doing something about it.

    I think there should be merchandise in this space. BH&GRE branded products. In showcases or on open display. Things your walk in traffic can purchase. Or things they get after a closing. Things that say home. In that bright, sunny, fluffy, warm BH&GRE way.

  2. Love this post – we’re making our initiative to reinvent realty as transparent as can be. We went thru this exercise a few weeks ago but I’ve yet to post the fruit of our labors to our site (www.rebuildingrealty.com). A major point that I think is essential to the office of the future is affordability, which can be achieved through flexible and shared office arrangements with your closing partners. To that end, I think the office of the future will include spaces or at least be inviting to mortgage companies and title agents – and I’m not talking about “sham” desk arrangements – but something more holistic, like a transaction manager, employed by the title company, that actually provides a high level of service at an affordable price.

    @Kevin good reference with ING – to do what they do you must first clearly identify your niche – the brokerage can’t waste umpteen hours trying to convince agents this is the way they should operate. The office of the future won’t be for everybody, but those thinkers that understand it will self select into a system like a moth to light.

  3. Thanks everyone for the feedback.

    @Herman – if you think you’ve now witnessed my artisitc side, you should hear me sing.

    @Marc Davison – I love the idea of incorporating products and I think you’re right on. I remember you writing about welcome mats and shovels as an obvious step and I agree wholeheartedly. Sherry and our marketing group have even developed a BH&GRE candle! We’re thinking of all kinds of natural ways to work with BH&G’s “fluffy” and “warm” products for our franchisees. Keep the ideas coming!

    @Kevin – it’s funny, I walked through all kinds of different businesses to brainstorm but had immediately ruled out banks. I’ll have to check out an ING branch.

    @Marc Diaz – you’re absolultely right, this isn’t for everyone. But I think you are also in the camp that feels that these ideas do have a place. I look forward to your post on this and to learning about your other “rebuilding” ideas.

  4. Nicolai,
    Looks like you have another project on your plate! When you think about this, the sky is the limit – we can take environmental branding to a whole new place with the Better Homes and Gardens furniture line we have decorated our own offices with, and there are many branded products in the BH&G family. Good thing you have some extra time on your hands these days 🙂 he he.

  5. I think your ideas look great! I would encourage you to check out CORUS Home Realty office in Rockville MD. Mike Gorman and partner there have really tried to move in the right direction on this and I think they are succeeding. My personal preference is the coffeeshop style but don’t forget to learn the lessons of SOMA living. It’s imperative that you have reasons for consumers to ask questions and people who know how to engage customers without feeling like a auto showroom.

  6. I love this post and think it’s been a long time coming. With real estate business models changing, so should real estate offices.

    How’s this for a radical one…no brick and mortar real estate office whatsoever! No Tuesday morning “sales meetings” that are completely worthless. No desk fees, copying fees, communications fees, etc.

    That’s where I work now. When I need to meet a client, I do so at the property they want to see, their house or Starbuck’s or Caribou Coffee. Heck, there’s even Panera Bread if they’d like more than a coffee or snack. And all three have wifi available…with no fees.

    Clients have had nothing but positive feedback about the firm’s business model. But then again…80% of my clients come from my blog so maybe they’re more into technology and the new way of doing things than others.

  7. Thank you Sherry, Mark, and Danilo for your feedback.

    @Sherry – All over it! I’ll keep you updated through my next status log!

    @Mark – I appreciate hearing about CORUS and have looked at their site. I may have to make a trip to MD to see their office, too. I’m always interested in seeing this in action as everyone has a different twist.

    @Danilo – some brokers are moving this more radical (officeless) route and I believe it’s a model that can work but has some disadvantages. I think many brokers could both consolidate some offices and reduce their existing footprints to become far more efficient. What you get from still having a dedicated space is the ability to gather agents for collaboration and training. A question then, especially for buy-side business, is: how do we entice customers into visiting? I think one way is to leverage the agents’ local expertise through technology. Provide a space where the lsitings and local information can be presented much more dynamically than at home or at the local coffee shop. Here’s where an agent can take customer service to that next level by getting to know the clients’ wishes (a well-conducted virtual neighborhood/listing tour before the real drive-along would save time and aggravation for all and ultimately lead to a higher closing rate). Here’s where I couldn’t agree more with Mark’s comment that we need to train staff to engage customers in this “new” model.

  8. We have set up the “Lounge Concept” – part dot-com, part real estate. Our agents have seem to really thrive in this open, loud and active place. TV, Radio, & Basketball hoop go pretty much all day.

    Motion creates Emotion, right?

  9. You are onto something huge with respect to offices. I can’t stress enough the cost of real estate to the operation as I am sure you know. There is just too much brick and mortar. Virtual offices are here to stay. What has to happen too is for the broker to realize that the model is broken and to quit thinking he has to provide 100 s.f. per agent.

    I like the Starbucks approach. It works for them and could for real estate as well.

    Are you familiar with the company in Denver called Real Office Solutions? All they do are real estate office plans. Kara Copeland is the owner.

    What also has to happen is that today’s broker needs to recruit younger people who don’t care about having space for their plaques. These people can operate from anywhere and do and will do so multi-tasking the entire way. You have a huge job on your hands to change the culture…you can do it!

  10. @Anthony – here, here. That energy must be infectious. Given your downtown location, I presume you get walk-in traffic. Are you on the ground floor? What has been the response from customers to your set-up?

    If the “basketball hoop” you describe is a Pop-A-Shot, I’m booking the next flight to Boston and throwing down the gauntlet.

    @Dave – It’s funny you mention 100 SF per agent. I used to model exactly that in my early M&A analyses. It’s time we all erase that from our memory and together (brokers and agents) agree that this does not best serve everyone’s needs.

    Thank you for the Real Office Solutions lead. I have reached out to her and am eager to hear what her take is.

  11. I never thought I would be the one cautioning real estate folks to take a few paces back toward the box… but I do feel the need to chime in. And as a sign of Nicolai’s blogger “cred”, though he knew my post may not be an enthusiastic seconding of his motion, he encouraged me to write it anyway… So here goes:

    Have you ever seen a clay-model concept car? Or even one of the concept models that you can fawn over at the Annual Auto Show, spinning around on the raised platform with a spokesmodel highlighting the vehicle’s bold, fresh design and elucidating the car’s staggering array of features (including a few that likely defy known laws of physics)?

    For those of you in New York, maybe you are more familiar with Fashion Week? Most lines on runway display could never be worn in public, but they, like the concept car sitting on stage with no engine, are not intended to be showroom ready. Rather, they are intended to challenge convention, to force a new way of thinking… “Do cars need four wheels, or could they corner well and travel with less friction if they only had three?” “Do shirts need both sleeves, or could one sleeve be replaced with… a ball gown and leather belt???”

    Commercial designers then take interesting ideas, tone them down a little for a wider audience, and incorporate them into their next collection or vehicle. Maybe next season’s waistline is not quite up to the chin, but it is higher than last year. Maybe next year’s windshield is not quite 10 feet long and stretching from hood ornament to rear seat, but it is larger and at a subtler incline than last year.

    Once in a great while, a concept will be so brilliant, so perfect for the moment, and so embraced by those precious Early Adopters, that it remains largely in-tact when it hits the streets or malls (Chevy’s new Camaro may fall into this category). I think this new office concept – or rather this nearly office-less concept, with an office-as-presentation-theater approach – could be more like a Camaro than a chin-high waistline… but it may be wise to check in with some other “stakeholders” on that thought…

    I have never been a real estate agent, nor have I ever been a broker. In this building, I am likely among the least knowledgeable folks when it comes to this topic. However, I have had the pleasure of seeing a few forward-thinking ideas play-out in various industries – some too far ahead of their time to create a viable market prior to their demise – and it is my hypothesis that the much-maligned notion of a focus group could have been the difference between success and failure for some among these concepts.

    My humble suggestion for brokers considering this type of radical shift: email links to this blog post, these responses, and some of the other sources referenced above to a broad cross-section of your managers and agents (both today’s top producers and tomorrow’s) – if you have a key producer who still lacks email… I think you can count them out of the Office of the Future… Then gather everyone together at the office (something that may not be as easy in the future, you may note to them), throw some big pieces of paper up on the walls (oddly, people seem to more readily participate in group conversations when their words become graffiti), and hold an old fashioned brainstorming session on the topic, with your company’s office(s) as fodder.

    You may experience complete organ rejection – which does not mean you should not proceed… but it may mean you should allocate greater funding toward post-implementation recruiting… Or, more likely, you may find that your group is not quite ready for the radical shift (other than those annoyingly promising thirty-somethings who look up from their Blackberrys only long enough to say, “We should do it. Totally.”), but they may be ready for gradual moves in the direction you seek. Also, do not discount the prospect of getting some suggestions that you had not contemplated but that make even more sense than any of the above. [If you are feeling really bold, have your top agents bring a few clients to your next brainstorming session.]

    Worst case, you scare some people and need to do a little crisis management later in the week. Best case, you get buy-in like you could not imagine and the agents or managers you most feared would resist become the wind at your back as you blaze a new trail into the future of real estate. (Cue French horns.)

    I reiterate: I am a real estate neophyte, so take the above for what it is worth.

    Keep the ideas coming, BH&G Gang!

  12. As I mentioned above, the notion of reinventing the traditional office space, esp. as it relates to real estate, is an area I think holds tremendous promise. It goes without saying that the right mix of people and culture are equally important to making the space come alive. I (along with my partners) have made our first attempt to create an open, free form workspace for entrepreneurs, brainstorming developers and other startup junkies within a technology incubator. The space is atypical in that we have shared bathrooms and kitchen facilities. The size is 1200 sq ft. You can see pictures here: http://launchpad.mercurytechlabs.com/inside-the-launchpad/ (I emailed a sketch to Nicolai also).

    Our first attempt has been successful on several fronts: 1) we anticipated a market for the “flex”/hoteling office concept and it does in fact exist. 2) most of the furniture is on wheels and can be moved easily, and often is to accommodate ad hoc groups, presentations, etc. and 3) by not having paper around, you will in fact use less of it.

    Lessons learned: 1) greater need for visual and acoustic privacy, 2) more storage (we have alleviated this problem by installing a group of lockers (that lock).

    I’d like to re-create this environment for real estate and I’m leaning more towards Nicolai’s coffee with a few changes – I’d like a few pods near the front where clients or people just dropping in could be welcome to browse or surf by themselves maybe with some help from the receptionist (but not an agent), definitely have to have 2 bathrooms (women will demand it), and I’d like the conference room closer to the front – maybe next to the couch as a staging area. And I’d add a large rectangular workspace for spreading out and assembling paperwork, etc. next to the printers.

  13. @ GOrman – I’m certainly not one to ever discount the spirit of looking before leaping. Clearly, this “new” office approach is not for everyone. For most brokers, the question of whether to completely rethink one’s office space is a subset of a broader question: how will you capture the customers of tomorrow?

    On the surface, this discussion is about generational selling (“How can I reach potential customers who are X years-old or younger?”). I think those who choose to limit this to an issue of age are missing the point. In my mind, it’s a lot deeper than creating a chic boutique location. I believe it’s a matter of survival.

    The accessibility of information (that was once considered the broker’s) is forcing a reassessment of the basic value proposition. Brokers and agents can either stand idly by while fees continue to whittle away or revisit what services are being provided to maintain revenues (and this doesn’t even take into consideration any further deterioration in market conditions). Increasing what you offer will increase your costs. Given that very few brokers right now have the ability to bear any more costs, something has to give to cover this. There are relatively few places a broker can effectively target for cuts. The office strikes me as a very clear place to go and one that is inherently tied to making a definitive statement about the direction a brokerage is ready to go.

    Yes, this approach has risks, no doubt. I would encourage a company-wide brainstorming session as you suggest (I’ll even give a shameless plug for our approach to brainstorming, https://bhgrealestateblog.com/long-fuse-big-bang-part-i-of-ii.html ). But I would make sure, in the spirit of keeping an open mind, that the broker clearly presents the risks to the alternative option of staying the course. In my humble opinion, that is a course that is ultimately unsustainable for all but a few. Immediately doomed? Unlikely. Exactly when is anyone’s guess. However, unless the broker can find other places to cut costs aren’t they just ride a wave that they know must come to an end?

    @ Marc Diaz – thank you for submitting your floorplan. It is posted along with my original three. Your real-life lessons are an invaluable contribution.

  14. @ Nicolai — You are changing the world already: my post was my first-ever blog response (from which I learned that brevity is a virtue I have yet to master – one day someone will refer to me as “succinct” and I will have you to thank).

    Perhaps I am better at asking questions than answering them. Let’s give it a shot:

    You all speak with passion and prescience regarding the “qualities” of the real estate brokerage office of tomorrow… but what of the “quantities”?

    Will this new, small-footprint model allow ambitious brokers to more effectively saturate a given geography with cozier locations? Or will the deskless revolution that seems part-and-parcel of this new format permit a greater coverage radius for each individual office, thereby permitting savings in both number of addresses and average square footage per office? (Oh man… even my questions are longwinded!)

    Nicolai, perhaps you have a future post addressing this topic?

  15. @GOrman – I believe the direction we should be going is one in which both the quantity and size of offices must shrink, however an effective size reduction/reconfiguration may be more pressing than reducing sheer numbers. But I don't see that as a universal rule.

    I think Marc Davison brings up an excellent point (comment #2) with respect to treating the office as a branding statement.

    I'm eager to hear others respond to your question.

  16. It’s time to raise the bar level of our profession! Top Agents need private offices just as other professions; agent offices around three sides of the perimeter exterior wall with support staff & tools in the middle works well. Reception area and beverage center in front on fourth wall w/conference room with big flat screen TV along with BIC office. There could be a combo virtual office / sales room on back wall… I am a “Centurion,” have a CRS designation with special interest in the Ninja concept; I current practice at a C-21 office in Charleston, SC; interested in seeing your business format. Good Luck!

  17. @Bobette – Thanks for your comments. My concern is that once we start adding back private offices, etc. we’re basically right back where we started. Assuming you agree that most brokers are currently working under an imperfect model, where would you propose affecting change to create a profitable long-term model that works for both brokers and agents?

  18. We have looked at executive suites for a branch as a solution for private office space as opposed to a virtual office. Phone system, reception and office space as required by each agent are rented a la carte as needed and can expand and contract as needed. Top producers could have a private office as required.

    The problem? Realogy ain’t buying it. Seems they want a brick and mortar location.

    To keep office costs down, a broker could warehouse his top producers in an off site exec suite as needed for agents who need a wall for their plaques. This would free up capital to obtain a much higher traffic boutique store front location.

  19. Pretty exciting changes. Hmm, the tv for one doesn’t belong b/c I see people coming and going so quickly there’s no wait time for tv. Scrap the lounge.

    The playroom is ideal for my clients b/c they are my nitche- the first time buyers or those of my generation. That’s what I would include b/c my business model would be one geared toward families and buyers, however, the only time I see clients in my office here are for closings (on occassion when they are not in the title company’s office) or during initial visit. So what’s the point of an office?

    Walk in traffic is good if you have the right location, then the lounge idea is good but without the tv. I’d showcase some video testimonials or how to’s types of videos, like HGTV stuff. That would be cool, but again, there’s never a wait time so it’d have to be just for background or something.

    I’d thought of the coffeeshop idea myself in the past. Definitely need a coffeeshop option but without the charge for the coffee. Sitting together in a space that doesn’t resemble the traditional office setting is nice. Couches are cozy with media at your fingertips. Again, children run wild and parents get stressed so this needs to be confined. If I were a parent buying a home with a Realtor I’d be going to an office that is convenient for me and my family b/c we all know making decisions is impossible when children are around, esp if they’re running amuck.

    I hope one day to have the opportunity to work at such an office. Once my own children are in school full time, I’ll likely put this on the forefront of my plans.

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