Copyright: David Lawson - Property Week 2002
Every morning Andrew Smith steels himself to wade through a tide of email before he can get down to work. Every evening Malcolm Naish uses the train journey home to log into the office with his palmtop and catch up with messages he had no time to handle during the day. Taking a few days off can be a problem, as the unending stream builds up. Naish spends several hours over the weekend plugged into his office handling messages.
Yet neither could imagine doing their job any other way. In fact they are hungry for more information. After five years in which new technology has swung wildly between frenetic hype and deep cynicism, it has settled into the everyday fabric of the property industry. Ask any footsoldier the most important tool in their life and they will reel off a list of programs depending on whether they are agents, analysts, building surveyors or valuers. But this is just like choosing which make of tyre to put on a car. At the top of every list is the engine and transmission – email and access to data.
A few years ago putting an email address on your business card would have raised a smirk. ‘It shows how much things have changed,’ says Chris Powell at Churston Heard. ‘Today, unless you use email, you are not in the property industry.’
Flashing a notebook or palmtop was equally likely to amuse but plugging into the office while on the road or searching for information on a client or property via the internet is also becoming a vital tool.
There is a hefty downside to this shift online. If Smith, a director in the valuation department at DTZ Tie Leung, grimaces as he switches on his PC each morning, IT director Nigel Andrews might be expected to have a nervous breakdown. Something like 60,000 to 100,000 messages pour into the Curzon Street headquarters every day and around 2 million swill around the UK offices every month.
At least he can bump up hardware to handle this load. How does the poor user cope? A lot of the junk mail swamping the Internet can be filtered by IT departments. The mass of smaller firms without this luxury should investigate filters built into leading mail programs.
But that would hardly scratch the surface, says Naish, managing director of LaSalle Investment Management in the UK. Most of the problem comes from legitimate messages from colleagues and clients. He pursues the car analogy by pointing out that people should be persuaded to adopted good driving manners on the cyber-highway. ‘If people stopped automatically sending copies of messages to everyone, it would cut the burden considerably,’ he says.
The other problem is that email is too easy. ‘You knock off a message which results in lots of replies asking for clarification. It would be better to think it through and send everything at once.’
Information overload is not the only downside. Powell points out that most email disappears into the ether rather than being filed, so a great deal of information on deals can go missing. This can obviously present a legal threat in any dispute over who said what. M’learned friends can also have a field day if abusive or inaccurate mail is circulated by a sloppy or rogue employee, adds Keith Noble, a former leading industrial agent who now heads software property specialist BoE.
Too many professionals are also blind to the threat of viruses, which can bring a company to its knees. Sending these to clients can also destroy trust. Yet many users do not use virus checkers or fail to keep them up to date.
Powell sees a move away from this anarchic system of email to use of web doorways like Propex and Primesite for all communications. This would not just filter out the rubbish but ensure everything is filed in the right place.
Noble says it is dangerous to see adoption of new technology as an end in itself. ‘Ability to use email or the Internet is not the critical factor in driving forward the property industry. Breeding the right attitude and culture on how it is used is paramount,’ he says.
Filter your messages: leading mail programs can be set up to reject ‘spam’, the nickname for unsolicited messages. They can also direct types of mail into differnet mailboxes according to importance.
Prioritise: postpone dealing with low priority messages until quiet periods.
Don’t Cross-post: resist the urge to send a copy of everything to everyone. It clogs up their system and will rarely be read.
Go mobile: get a palmtop or laptop to handle postponed messages and clear out old files on the train or from home.
Be secure: some of the most common viruses hijack your address book to spew out hundreds of false messages. Install a barrier and make sure it is updated daily.
The flip side of message overload is an insatiable hunger for more information from databases. Internet searching comes a close second to email as the critical advantage of new technology picked by most professionals.
This works on two levels. Most of the big names now pool the collective knowledge of their staff, so an insider can call up market data, contacts and other research in a couple of clicks while on the phone to a client. Beyond that, they can scour millions of other sources around the world for background material through a search engine like Google.
Internal pooling is probably the biggest change brought about by IT. ‘It is a change of culture,’ says Andrews. Property professionals once locked away their contact books and jealously guarded market information. Now they throw it into a pot. They have no choice – at least at DTZ. ‘No-one can start a job without opening a work docket,’ says Smith. ‘I can also tell when anyone has opened my files.’
Andrews admits this may not be the way other firms work, but DTZ has centralised operations rather than devolve to more local autonomy. It also matches a cultural shift towards team working. ‘People have to move away from thinking of success as individuals to thinking of the success of the company,’ he says.
Putting all this information at users’ fingertips is becoming vital when a dozen or more people spread across Europe are dealing with a single client . But removing ‘ownership’ means someone else has to take responsibility for the information. Mistakes can be costly. DTZ has a team constantly sifting through databases to ensure they are both consistent and accurate.
The next advance will see even better ways of analysing information and better accessibility from outside the office. DTZ group quality manager Stuart Thomson is excited about document recognition software being trialled in Scotland. This will trawl through every file in the system rather than just the contact databases, looking for connections which would have gone unnoticed.
External access is already proving critical. Naish sees the biggest change in his job as the ability to plug into a hotel phone point and appear to be back in his office. US technology guru James Young says this will consign the desktop to the dustbin because professionals will come to rely on portables.
‘People say they can still do the job but I can do it better,’ he told an online conference by the Real Estate CyberSpace Society which attracted more than 20,000 visitors from around the world. ‘I received one call about a potential deal on the other side of the country and was able to immediately pull up recent local transactions for the client.’
Web pages will play a bigger role in communicating this information. More than 30 clients already have their own ‘portals’ into DTZ giving access to their own assets. But Andrews is now working on making all the firm’s software more usable, particularly on the tiny screens used by palmtops. The barrier has not only been readability, however. Communication is notoriously slow even for laptops. Dial-up connections were so poor that information could take hours to appear.
The rollout of broadband, enabling links as much as 30 times as fast as a dial-up modem, will burst that barrier, says Noble. BT says more than 200,000 users are now linked into ADSL [asymmetric digital subscriber line] and is upgrading exchanges to cover around two-thirds of the country by the summer. Cable suppliers fill some of the gaps and satellite trials are now starting to bring high-speed connections to the rest.
DTZ is cool about forecasting disintegration of the office as professionals become more mobile. Smith points out that most of his files are still on paper and scanning these in would take years and cost a fortune. Andrews adds that laptops get dropped or lost and pose security problems. But Naish says he was back online with no loss of data within hours of losing his laptop, while Powell predicts it won’t be long before most property transactions are made online via web portals and paper files will dwindle.
Wireless is also set to burst on the scene after years of fiddling with the technology. Palmtops will become usable when linked with 3G mobile phones. A gaggle of specialists are also competing to offer ‘wi-fi’ in restaurants, coffee bars and drop-in offices. This involves a wireless terminal hidden away in the back room so customers can log into the office or internet by fitting their portables with special cards alongside existing dial-up modems.
While most people will still commute into the office, growing traffic congestion and increasing concern about occupation costs could make many think twice about whether they need to do that every day, says Noble. Slow communications and lack of security have ruled this out in the past. He predicts the growth of ‘half-way’ houses – communal drop-in offices around the fringes of cities, fitted out for mobile computers.
It is not a black and white choice of inside or outside the office. ‘It is merely a case of being given the choice,’ he says.
Would you swap a wastepaper basket for a French villa? It’s not a riddle but an insight into the way new technology is finally starting to work the magic promised before a stultifying cloud of cynicism was released by the dot.com crash. A family crisis led Keith Noble to spend much of his time working from home last year running his property software company, BoE Information Systems ‘I realised then that I did not need a full time office,’ he says.
So he is swapping the West End for a home in France. Most of the work supporting dozens of clients using the firm’s terrier, valuation and Property Desktop programs can be done online because of the introduction of high-speed telephone services and secure, encrypted databases.
He is well aware that customers will still demand face-to-face meetings, as he spent many years wheeling and dealing in a previous life as a senior member of Grant & Partners. ‘You can’t run a people business completely remotely,’ he says. ‘But a return flight costs only £75. I can be into London and back in a day, or stay overnight in the flat I am keeping there.’
That is almost exactly the rent per square foot for a West End office – or in more tangible terms the amount of space needed for a wastepaper basket. It may not suite professionals who thrive on the daily buzz of daily people contact, nor managers who fear loss of control unless staff are under their nose. But for many who work mainly from computer screens or spend much of their life on the road, the temptation to switch from a stuffy office to a French poolside could be irresistible.