Copyright David Lawson - Property Week 2004
Could you survive without technology? Some people think it would be a blessed relief. A study by research group TNS found 18% of workers admitted to being more stressed by the technology than five years ago. Email, for instance, can swamp everyday work, as every memo is circulated around the staff as a matter of course. Some have taken to ignoring the torrent in same way they hide from the phone.
David Pollock, managing director of London estate agent Greene & Co was one of the doubters. ‘When I started in the industry 20 years ago we survived without all this technology. There’s no doubt we now have more freedom and can spread our sales net much further and improve customer relationships, but I wonder whether we get caught up with the technology.’
So he decided to try a little test. Sales manager Richard Blanks was stripped of his beloved computers and mobile phone. He lasted a little over an hour. ‘ I couldn’t access the details of prospective buyers and sellers and was uncontactable when I was out of the office. It made me realise how dependent I was. If I had to do this for even a week I would go out of my mind,’ he said.
‘When a sale fell through I needed to find a new buyer. Even though I had printed out all my records, there was no way I could find the information for this particular property among all the papers. Short of going out and knocking on people’s doors, there was nothing I could do. It would have been a wasted day at the office.’
To balance things up another manager, David Okin, who admits to less of a passion for electronics, walked in one day to find a desk piled with gadgets donated by giant supplier HP as part of its own experiment among smaller UK companies. It has been an eye-opening six months since then, which has changed the way Okin works. But one other insight is that not all gadgetry is useful. ‘It showed that the right technology used in the right way can provide a genuine business advantage,’ said Pollock.
So what turned Okin’s life around? Not surprisingly, the hand-held iPAQ rates most plaudits. This neat mobile PC has become almost a standard fixture in the property world, with everyone from building surveyors to City types disappearing into corners, tapping dementedly into the screen as they add new contacts, update diaries, check email and surf the Net.
Okin found most benefit from sketching floor plans with Mobile Agent – the only software he added to the HP package. Previously this was outsourced or just skipped. Another big plus was the way the iPAQ could be linked with his notebook computer or desktop PC to transfer messages and other work when in he office.
Unlike many users who prefer smartphones, he does not deal with email on the run. But he found a huge timesaver picking up messages from the PC and dealing with them outside the hurly-burley of the office. The notebook was another new gadget he would no longer be without. ‘It is great when I try and get home in time to put my daughter to bed but still have work to do.'
The digital camera was an immediate success. Many agents link these to a mobile phone, mailing back pictures to appear in brochures rather than return to the office But what was left in the drawer? Okin found no use for the tablet PC, as it provided him with little more than the notebook and iPAQ. The all-in-one printer and scanner also made the standard printer redundant. It is an office favourite as the combined functions are being used to produce brochures in-house.
The experiment showed there is no ‘right’ way to use technology, says David Smith, UK small firm manger for HP. A balance lies between businesses with their head in the sand and those obsessed with buying all the hot gadgets.
Pollock is a convert. ‘The right technology used in the right way can provide a genuine business advantage,’ he says. And his years of experience also prevent spiralling into techno-mania. ‘At the end of the day this is a people business and technology can never replace a good person,’ he says. ‘It can only give them the power to be more effective.’
HP Small Office Package provided to Greene & Co
iPAQ 4150 - Windows Mobile-based, with wireless and Bluetooth for connecting to other technology and docking station for direct links with PC. The newer HP h6340 includes a mobile phone and the rx3715 also has an integrated camera.
Notebook PC - nx5000
In-car satellite navigation pack for iPAQ
Tablet PC & docking station
Photosmart digital camera 945
All-in-one printer - Officejet 9100
Laserjet printer 1015
Other handhelds besides the iPAQ have fans in the property sector, including the Blackberry, Palm and new Orange SPV M1000. Trevor Silver, chief executive of Akeler, emailed praise for his Blackberry from holiday in the Mediterranean. ‘It works virtually everywhere, it is small, simple, great for e-mail, diary and contacts.‘I can keep in contact all the time,’ he says, referring to the fact that the Blackberry shows email as it arrives rather than having to dial. ‘I tried a few similar products but found they are less easy to use and have a poor battery life.’