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How Homes.com Is Delivering for Employees and Clients in a Remote Environment 

Like most companies across the country, when lock-down orders were put into place to help mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 crisis, Norfolk, Va.-based Homes.com was confronted with an unprecedented and monumental task: to transition their 400-plus employees to a remote work environment while not missing a beat in servicing clients. “Our goal was for our teams to feel supported, engaged, connected, and able to thrive in whatever environment we found ourselves in,” explains President David Mele. To his surprise, however, not only did Homes.com excel in the transition, business has actually flourished since. Here, Mele explains why the #WorkFromHomes movement has been a boon, not a burden, to employees and customers alike. 

Maria Patterson: What were your priorities when you first made the decision to switch to a remote work environment in light of the escalation of COVID-19?
David Mele: Our first action item was equipping our teams to work remotely. At the onset of the pandemic shutdowns, about 40 percent of our workforce needed equipment like laptops and headsets to transition to remote operations. Within a week, almost everyone who needed equipment received it through no-contact, drive-through style office parking-lot pickups.

Secondly, we knew that we needed to develop a robust communication plan to keep employees informed, but also help them navigate such a sharp pivot. Our senior leaders and key managers worked together to develop a plan that balanced corporate updates with positive news, helpful information, and fun activities to keep everyone engaged. We developed an internal webpage to host all of this content, and we also created a schedule of daily emails dedicated to a range of topics that employees might find useful or entertaining.

MP: What were some of the challenges employees had and how did you address them?
DM: Many of our employees have families with young children whose schools had closed, forcing them to balance working and parenting without much reprieve. To help everyone cope and adjust, we directly asked our employees what they needed; for example, did parents need tips on working from home with small children? Did anyone feel that their sleep was suffering? We took their feedback and created informative webinars to help navigate these new challenges. We even offered virtual yoga sessions! We created an internal website to act as a centralized hub of this information that employees could access 24/7 at times most convenient to them. Our goal was for our teams to feel supported, engaged, connected and able to thrive in whatever environment we found ourselves in.

MP: How have you adjusted your approach to leadership to ensure connectivity and continuity, as well as reassure and motivate employees during such an unsettling time?
DM: We tooled management with proper accountability measures and guidelines for performance expectations that emphasized grace and empathy. Part of this effort was a daily, company-wide email we called “The Daily Dose,” which included everything from corporate video updates and employee home tours to fun activities and tips for staying healthy in mind and body.

Additionally, we have always believed that there’s something special about recognizing someone’s hard work in front of their peers and supervisors. Working at home made this much harder to do, so we decided to include “Orange Alerts” in those daily emails. Those alerts were sections dedicated to praising specific employees or departments for their accomplishments.

Most recently, we instituted a live Q&A session with our employees to ask questions of their senior leaders for instant feedback. The response to these tactics has been overwhelmingly positive, which will continue long after we return to a “normal” environment.

MP: How are you striking the balance between being sensitive and supportive to the challenges presented by the pandemic (both to employees and clients), and continuing to generate business?
DM: We emphasized our existing open-door policy between employees and their managers, and highly encouraged everyone to be transparent if they were struggling with balancing the “new normal.” Our managers were quick to ask questions like, “What do you need?” or “How can I help?” so that employees felt supported. Sometimes this meant a shift in working hours, or taking a day off without much notice. But we knew that without healthy and happy employees, we wouldn’t be able to operate at our best. And the results have been astonishing; as an organization, we are just as, if not more, effective remotely than in traditional in-office spaces. This, again, proves that investing in your employees is the smartest business decision.

MP: Despite these unprecedented challenges, your business is actually up over last year; what were the key strategies that led to this success?
DM: Meeting consumers where they were meant we had to make it as simple as possible to continue their home searches in a safe and convenient way. We spent countless hours making sure virtual tour content was as robust as we could get it, and as accessible to consumers as possible.

On the industry side, we knew we needed to approach them as a partner more than ever. So, we pivoted many of our product and development efforts to ensure agents felt more supported to continue their business during this unprecedented time. We also dramatically increased the frequency and type of online learning opportunities that allowed agents to gain knowledge in areas that helped them move their business forward.

Finally, we knew our marketing also had to shift; we conducted surveys related to the changing needs and behaviors of both consumers and real estate professionals and used the insights to craft educational resources that would best serve them.

MP: How are the strong culture and core values you have in place at Homes.com helping your efforts with both employees and with clients?
DM: One of our core values is “humanity,” the idea that we should care for those around us—both in and out of the office. It’s a value that’s demonstrated top down, so even prior to the pandemic, our employees knew that they mattered and trusted that we had their best interests at the forefront of our decisions.

When we had to abruptly shift our operations, that established relationship helped everyone feel more confident and supported, and motivated our teams to work even harder to take care of our customers and each other. In fact, they proposed the idea that we send our clients a special video message simply to let them know that we are in their corner during this unprecedented time.

MP: Which changes that were made because of the pandemic may become a lasting part of your operations and why?
DM: Prior to the pandemic, we didn’t have an official “work from home” policy across the entire organization. After seeing how well our teams were able to keep momentum after transitioning to remote working, it’s highly likely that it will become incorporated into our operations at some level even after the outbreak subsides. Our employees have told us they have enjoyed not having to deal with the stress of commuting, and they’ve appreciated having more time with their families. To us, it’s a no-brainer that this is a policy we should offer moving forward.

Virtual meetings and events have also been crucial to both the personal and professional aspects of our work, so we see them maintaining a strong presence in operations moving forward. You would think that being physically distant from each other would have a negative effect on how teams operate, but it’s actually been the opposite for us. From hour-long virtual happy hours with colleagues to educational webinars for customers, we’ve utilized virtual meetings and events as much as possible to keep the human element and educational opportunities as robust as possible, while allowing everyone to remain safe.

MP: How will this experience and the lessons learned position Homes.com for an even stronger 2021?
DM: In 2020, we had to abruptly adjust to working remotely and meet the changing concerns of our client base. We did this very well, but it was largely reactive to the rapidly changing world we were in. It taught us how to be more flexible and how to “think on our feet” more than we’ve had to before. Now that we’ve had some time to adjust and thrive in this new environment, we’ll be entering 2021 in a much stronger position with renewed energy and focus.

For more information about Homes.com and their suite of lead generation products, please visit marketing.homes.com.

Maria Patterson is RISMedia’s executive editor. Email her your real estate news ideas to maria@rismedia.com.

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