How This Brokerage Handled the COVID 19 Shut Down and Came Out Stronger

08 September 2020
RLP Meadowtowne

Guest Blog Post by Gigget Whitmarsh

I find myself very fortunate, as for almost 2 decades I have had the privilege of working with professionals in the real estate industry. It is from this vantage point that I was able to witness what happened to a multitude of brokerages as a direct result of the pandemic.

In the wake of this global crisis, our Government declared a state of emergency, banning real estate brokerages and salespeople from hosting Open Houses and requiring that leaders in all but a few essential industries, send employees home to shelter in place.

I am eternally grateful for the lessons in resilience, adaptation, and the courage many exhibited during these uncertain times, but one brokerage in particular really stood out. 

Royal LePage Meadowtowne Realty, owned by Alex Ocsai, Broker, and Gloria Riddall, Broker of Record, provided an exemplary model of how to lead during a crisis. They acted quickly, and responsibly, paving the way for their employees, brokers and sales representatives to follow protocol to practice safe social distancing, even through real estate showings, inspections, and closing procedures, allowing everyone to continue to operate their businesses from home.

Meadowtowne Locked down their offices before the state of emergency

It all started a week before the lockdown; Gloria sent out an email instructing that anyone who was returning from travel outside of the country was to work from home and to follow procedures to self-isolate as outlined by the Government of Canada’s Public Health officials. “It is important to reduce the risk within our workplace and be aware of public advisories and observe 'social distancing’.” 

She shared with the office an announcement made by Phil Soper, CEO of Royal LePage Canada. In it Phil offered a sincere acknowledgement of the unsettling times we were to face in the coming months, as well as support for planning and policies to protect clients, as well as communities.

While no one could predict what was about to transpire, as worldwide infection numbers soared, Phil’s address went on to say, “While COVID-19 is a global phenomenon, the disease is impacting every city and town in the country differently. It is important that our Royal LePage offices tailor their precautions and actions to the local situation and recommendations of regional public health officials.” Which is exactly what Royal LePage Meadowtowne did.

With cases steadily increasing, Alex and Gloria decided it was time to take further action. Alex made the announcement that a Brokerage-wide closure would be in effect as of 5:00pm on March 16th, 2020. This was before the state of emergency was announced by the Ontario Government.

“In order to do our part helping to control the spread of COVID-19, each of our offices will be closed to our agents, team members, cooperating agents and the public,” the email said. He further went on to ban Open Houses and stopped their appointment booking system from allowing concurrent showings. “We understand how everything happening around the world and in our own backyards is difficult to get our heads around. The message is clear that each of us as individuals and collectively need to do our part to stop this thing from continuing its spread throughout the country.”

It was a whirlwind of activity as the Royal LePage Meadowtowne offices in Mississauga, Milton, Georgetown, Acton, Erin, and Caledon, Ontario were shut down. The physical office spaces were professionally disinfected, and staff and salespeople were barred from entering.

The Brokerage quickly adapts to cloud and connects over Zoom

Management made the prompt decision to set their support staff up to be able to work remotely so they could continue to provide services necessary to their salespeople. A virtual call centre was set up, all paperwork was encouraged to be submitted electronically, and deposits were to be made by wire transfer.

Where other offices I work for (which I will not name), remained silent, not willing to acknowledge the troubles ahead or too afraid to create controversy over any of it, Meadowtowne came together in a collaborative and supportive effort to address the issues surrounding COVID-19.

It was awe-inspiring and something incredible to witness, to be honest. Alex collaborated with industry experts in an effort to explore options to connect his staff and salespeople other than just by phone and email, and by the beginning of April, he had hosted the first ‘Thirsty Thursday’ online video conferencing event. He invited experts to share their experience and strength with members of Meadowtowne over Zoom. He said, “We used to have these gatherings on Thursday afternoons, and we were reminded that this was a great way to check in with everyone.”

Chris Leader, founder and President of one of North America's top real estate training companies, Leader's Edge Training, was the first to take the speaker seat at a ‘Thirsty Thursday’ with Meadowtowne. He was invited to share some of his insights on what other brokerages and salespeople were doing across North America in coping with the pandemic.

He explained that the pandemic was being handled differently state by state in the USA, but in his observations Canada was taking a more unified and serious approach. He said, “We are in much better shape as a result of it.” Chris also went on to further express that, “Necessity is the model of invention,” and as a result of this pandemic our business models were going to change quickly. 

What Chris Leader offered to the Meadowtowne crowd on that day was well beyond a pep-talk. What he did was set the tone for the months that followed as Alex Ocsai, and Gloria Riddall, rallied the troops and guided their people through unknown territory.

Meadowtowne continued to offer these ‘Thirsty Thursday’ sessions week after week, inviting leaders from all  industries to speak to their team. Thoughtful guests included  Phil Soper, Storm Fletcher, Chris Pitman, Bruce Browser, Alicia Omand, David Greenspan, Wade Webb (and many more) spoke about business resilience, marketing ideas, and offered inspiring messages of hope and an insistence that they were going to make it through these troubling times together. 

The supportive efforts didn’t stop at the ‘Thirsty Thursday’ meetings though. As Meadowtowne got the hang of using the new tools available to them, they moved their weekly office meetings to Zoom as well. Even their support staff would go on to host their own team meetings, going so far as having their first ever Meadowtowne online Pajama Day!

The efforts of the collective boomed across the Brokerage. Contests were being held in their private Facebook Group, ‘WAM’ (We Are Meadowtowne). Staff took to social media to post encouraging, feel good, messages of hope to one another and then extended the gesture to their salespeople by offering customized  social media posts so they too could share their messages of hope to their own clients.

The brokerages’ staff and sales people have their say!

Then, just like that, as the Brokerage settled into their “new normal,” the Region of Peel moved into Stage 2 of the Provincial plan to re-open. This meant that the Meadowtone offices were clear to open again. Just as they developed policies in closing down, the Brokerage quickly developed policies to carefully  re-open their branch locations. Masks and PPE were made mandatory, and salespeople and brokers were asked to advise whether they had intended to visit the office.

This was an opportune time, I thought, to send out a pulse survey to the Meadowtowne salespeople, to gauge their feelings about re-opening. We surveyed all employees, sales representatives, and brokers at the brokerage. The results were as expected! 

84% of all those who responded were in strong agreement with the Brokerage to close the offices before the provincial state of emergency was declared. 95% scored their Brokerage’s overall handling of the pandemic response an 8/10 or higher with almost everyone who responded feeling that they were supported throughout the lockdown.

What about the tools that were provided to them? Did Royal LePage Meadowtowne salespeople and staff feel as though they had the tools they needed to continue doing their job while sheltering in place? The answer is yes! 95% of those who were surveyed responded saying they had most, if not all, of the tools that they needed to continue to service their clients even though the offices were closed.

There were a myriad of tools that the Brokerage offered to support their efforts. Some I had discussed earlier, but when asked specifically which tools they used the responses were varied.

Mark Latam, Sales Representative, shared, "I did not necessarily participate in any one specific area but I did use their leadership as an example on how to run our business. Our team had zoom meetings three times a week and purchased face masks and hand sanitizer for our listings. We also made it a priority to limit interaction for our clients. Attending all showings to insure proper care and protocols were being followed."

The effect of strong leadership during uncertain times can ripple throughout an organization; it sounds to me like Mark’s team fared well throughout this process as a direct result of the example set for him by his Broker/Owners..

As Phase 3 of the reopening plan began, for Peel Region there were positive as well as mixed, feelings on returning. Phase 3 allows for more people to be in the office at the same time, encouraging people from Royal LePage Meadowtowne to return to a more ‘regular’ work day.  Though 25% of those who were polled in the survey said they felt OK about returning to the office, many felt  they would be able to continue to work from home for the time being. 70% felt as though the Brokerage had good policies in place, making them feel safe enough to return.

I think what speaks the most to the feelings Meadowtowne shared about how their Brokerage fared throughout the lockdown comes from the free form comments when asked, “What did your Brokerage do particularly well?”

"They kept us involved, they met with us regularly, and they kept us motivated at a time where virtually no real estate was being traded. I have heard from agents from other Brokerages that there were no weekly meetings, no Zoom conferences, and no reduction in monthly fees. " Derric Salowski, Sales Representative

"In dark times it’s always important to become the light. I became the light my clients needed. Meadowtowne did the same for those close to the business who needed it the most." Alexander Gessen, Sales Representative

"We were treated like one big family. Nobody felt alone. We even received random phone calls checking up on us. Kept us on a positive note the entire time!!!" Sandra Diab, Sales Representative

"Literally the world shut down and RLP Meadowtowne did not miss a beat at protecting its staff, agents and setting everyone up and making sure all needs were met. I don't think I was ever so relieved that RLP Meadowtowne was the brokerage I was a part of." Darlene Karolidis, Sales Representative

What’s next for Royal LePage Meadowtowne?

As I said earlier, I am grateful for the lessons I learned about resilience while working with Meadowtowne and observing their Brokerage create policies to care for, and support their company during these unprecedented times. As I watched in horror as the world around us was falling apart, I saw Meadowtowne come to life! They embraced change willingly and collectively sheltering in place, learning and growing together. That is why I approached Alex Ocsai to ask permission to write this article. It’s a story of resilience and strength in a community that just needs to be told.

What’s next for the Brokerage? I called Alex & Gloria to find out if they had any closing remarks about the experience of the pandemic that they wanted to make.

Gloria gushed about the strength of her Meadowtowne Team. She raved about her dedicated staff who were willing to be led into the unknown. “They gave us their support and were the steadfast backbone to keep services and transactions flowing throughout the brokerage - They didn’t miss a beat! Our proven professionals carried on and quickly adapted to our COVID-19 protocols. They ran with them! Setting new records! I am so very proud of our entire team. We worked as a smooth machine, with some in the line of vision and some behind the scenes making sure the daily routines were accomplished.”

Alex, reflecting on what took place over the past months, looks forward to continuing the momentum by adapting the structure and services of his brokerage to further enhance Meadowtowne’s ability to operate remotely - either by choice or by necessity. “Many of the adaptations we moved forward with happened purely because we had no choice. Our agents, administrative, marketing, deal fulfillment and management teams all pulled together and made things happen by putting our heads together and figuring it out like one big family unit.” He also commented, “although working remotely for many has been the norm in real estate for years,  we all learned how to up the game in the areas of service to our agents and clients. COVID-19 has caused us to rethink how many things are done and find opportunities in change. We’re looking forward to implementing the many great ideas that were born since March 16th.”

It sounds to me that concern for their ‘Meadowtowne family’ drove Alex and Gloria to set in motion what can only be seen as something that should be set as industry standard for quick and forward thinking, adaptive processes for confronting unforeseen circumstances like the pandemic.

In closing…

The fight’s not over. As we enter into another phase of recovery here in Ontario, we risk the potential for a resurgence of the virus. One thing I know for certain is that Royal LePage Meadowtowne Realty has already proven that this industry can adapt, and pivot with care when push comes to shove.

Many thanks Alex, Gloria, and the Meadowtowne team for agreeing to let me write this article. As I said in the beginning, it was a story that just had to be told. 

By the way…
If there are any real estate professionals in the area looking to work with a team of innovative and collaborative brokers, I hear Royal LePage Meadowtowne is hiring!