In merely a few months, COVID-19, more widely known as "coronavirus", has already affected many industries. The viral pandemic has put many forms of consumer and business activities to a halt. Major sporting and corporate events have been cancelled or postponed around the world in a bid to control the spread of the disease. So what will happen to lettings and property management, both being highly personal services?
Mitigate Infection Risks with a Proactive Assessment Strategy
Government guidance on the issue advises the public to self-isolate when they have been or might have been exposed to the pathogen. And there are several situations to look out for. When handling viewings, letting agents should take precautions and carry out an assessment first. Consider asking prospective tenants and any person(s) living in the property these questions:
- Do you or anyone in your household have any symptoms of coronavirus infection (COVID-19) however mild? (the symptoms being a new continuous cough and/or high temperature)
- Are you or anyone in your household in the process of being tested for coronavirus infection (COVID-19)?
- Are you or anyone in your household self-isolating due to suspected coronavirus infection (COVID-19)?
- Have you or anyone in your household been in contact with anyone who has tested positive for coronavirus infection (COVID-19)?
If your customer answers 'yes' to any of the questions above, they should self-isolate for 14 days or until 14 days have elapsed since the situation, whichever is sooner. If new symptoms develop or existing symptoms worsen within the 14-day isolation period they are advised to access NHS111's coronavirus online assessment and follow their advice. Tell your customers and landlords that you will be back in touch at the end of the isolation period to check in and arrange another viewing where suitable. According to Public Health England, keeping a two-metre distance from others is generally sufficient prevention. Needless to say, avoid handshaking at the viewing. Where possible, bring along soap or hand sanitiser for yourself and the customer.
Similar precautions should be employed when handling property repairs and management. Before sending the contractor to a property, run the same set of questions past both contractor and occupier(s). If a contractor should self-isolate based on the assessment, you will need to arrange another call-out after the period has elapsed. If the repair work is urgent, such as a faulty boiler in cold weather, you should consider engaging another contractor. If the occupier should self-isolate then you cannot send contractors until the isolation period expires. Nobody should be put at risk.
In this situation, you must keep a record of all discussions with the contractor and occupier. Many regulations are in effect and set the standards for reactive and proactive maintenance in rental properties, and failure to comply can bring about severe penalties and consequences for landlords and agents. So while you are delaying works due to public health risks, maintaining an auditable paper trail showing that you have taken the steps to re-arrange works as soon as possible while not putting anybody at risk of infection is important.
Be Remote-Working Ready
Around the world, millions have been told to work from home in an attempt to slow the spread of the disease. However, not all companies are remote-ready. In fact, according to a whitepaper, A Smart Workplace for the Workforce of the Future, almost half (48%) of companies are not ready for employees to self-isolate. With an isolation period advised to be as long as 14 days, losing those hours in the workforce, with little time to prepare, can impact big and small businesses alike.
Using cloud-based software is one of the most important ways to become remote-working ready. For general property management and repairs and maintenance, a cloud-based solution allows employees to access the same database of information anywhere, in real-time. The key is to only have one source of truth at any given point. Cloud-based software keeps all data online, such as comments from contractors, invoices, changes to works statuses, making sure everyone can access the same information in real-time, anywhere.
If you do not use internet phone technology, you should have a process in place to redirect incoming calls to the office phone lines when required.
Some enterprise software restricts access to pre-approved IP address(es) to heighten security and minimise remote cyber attacks. If not dealt with, your staff may not be able to access the system easily from their homes. It is worth checking this as part of your remote-working strategy. Software providers will be able to assist you either by advising on the use of VPN software or simply whitelisting the IP addresses of your colleagues' residences.
Systems and emails are loaded with sensitive, personal occupier and landlord information. GDPR requires businesses to keep such data secure. So making sure everyone uses secure passwords and turns on two-factor authentication where available is highly important. Put simply, two-factor authentication means that when you're logging into your system on your computer, you need to allow the access via another means to prove your identity, such as an SMS with a verification code sent to your mobile.
Apart from getting the system remote-working ready, making sure your entire team has the equipment is paramount to the success of a remote-working strategy. If you do not currently have laptops for everyone on your team, it is important that you check that they have access to one. Apart from computers, good broadband access is also important. For those living in areas without sufficient internet access, you may need to procure some internet dongles. (It is a small USB device that allows you to access the internet without WiFi) Run an audit survey in your team to ensure that they have everything they need if remote-working becomes mandatory. Plan, not panic.
Maintain an Internal Communication Habit
Apart from getting your team remote-working ready, internal communications should also be considered. Set a regular time and day for team-wide meetings. These can easily be hosted via video conferencing tools such as Zoom. Arrange routine one-to-ones with your direct reports so you can stay on top of how things are. Apart from business impact, another key part of dealing with an epidemic is looking after our mental health. As the pandemic progresses, anxiety and negative thoughts can take hold and cause even more distress than the virus.
You should keep an up-to-date record of staff contact details so that as the pandemic develops and new government guidelines are released, you can easily notify the entire team.
Another point of consideration is key management - how will you effectively manage keys when the office is shut?
Keep Your Customers Up-to-date
The impact of this pandemic is far-reaching and your occupiers may be unable to make the usual rent payments. Be ready for rent arrears. You may need to consult your landlords and have a pre-agreed approach.
You should also consider updating your external communication where an SLA is promised. For example, your property management inbox might automatically tell senders that you always respond within 24 hours. With a reduced staff capacity, you must consider whether that would still be achievable.
Fixflo client Liberty Blue Estate Agents in Waterford, Ireland has acted promptly on the issue and director Regina Mangan kindly shared letters sent to contractors, staff and clients.
Key points from those letters are:
- Personal hygiene - staff are advised in accordance with public health guidelines. They were also advised to clean keys and telephones in the office frequently.
- Visitor management - clients and visitors should wait in a designated waiting area so as to limit their contact with the rest of the office.
- Key management - Regina's team ensures contractors can conduct repairs as usual by putting keys and address details in labelled envelopes in a box at the office to limit unnecessary contact.
During this testing time, it is important to remain level-headed while taking steps to protect your clients, contractors, staff and their loved ones. Providing staff with remote-working capabilities can be an effective way to help them deal with an already stressful situation.
* These templates are provided by Fixflo on a good faith but no liability basis. They do not constitute legal advice.
DISCLAIMER: This article is intended for information only. It does not constitute legal advice and Fixflo does not accept liability based on this article. Please note that the situation is evolving rapidly and readers are advised to follow the latest government guidelines in their regions.