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How urbanbubble has been navigating the pandemic to #ComeBackStronger

The impact of the pandemic has been a rollercoaster to say the least for the UK’s property sector. The entire industry came to a halt overnight, however with initiatives like the government’s stamp duty holiday, the sector quickly bounced back with prices booming, sales at record levels and construction continuing to thrive.

For our #ComeBackStronger series, we spoke to with Michael Howard, managing director of urbanbubble, the award-winning residential property management agent operating across the North West, Leeds and Sheffield, about what he’s been up to in recent months.

During the early days of the pandemic, the business had its challenges with many renters facing hardship and property viewings just not feasible, but urbanbubble managed to turn things around. This is what Michael had to say…

How are you accelerating company growth in the current climate?

The business was in a period of growth pre-pandemic, with much of this happening organically. However, overnight the entire industry came to a complete standstill with everything put on pause as the country went into lockdown.

We couldn’t coordinate any new lettings at all for six-eight weeks and many renters really were impacted across the board, facing times of hardship, with many going home to either their parents’ homes or country of origin.

The construction industry quickly had to become COVID-compliant, as the government didn’t leave too much time before stepping in to support the sector – and once the market was able to re-open, we had a tidal wave of pent up demand from people wanting to move. The demand for build-to-rent has increased in popularity exponentially too as, the events of recent months have really highlighted the importance of having access to good amenities as people spend increasingly more time at home.

Lots of the buildings we manage, such as Manchester’s West Tower, which is owned by Legal & General and recently featured on BBC’s Manctopia: Billion Pound Property Boom, include an array of amenities like sports halls, tennis courts, swimming pools, saunas, cinemas and roof-top gardens/bars, which have become much more desirable amongst the renter market, with demand consistently growing. There is also a huge amount of interest in the running of a development, with strong customer service and factors like concierge huge draws for renters and movers alike. We’re finding those moving to apartments are no longer seeing them as a stepping stone to a house and more for the long-term, due to the benefits of having such amenities on your doorstep, sometimes even closer.

Where do you see your future opportunities lying?

The continued growth of the build-to-rent space presents a great opportunity for us. We’ve been in the property industry for 12 years now, working on build-to-rent for the last four, and the continued need, plus demand, for new homes across the country offers huge opportunities for us to grow further.

The UK is a small island with limited space for large homes with large gardens. Cities are changing dramatically, with high-rises growing in visibility across the skylines of major parts of the UK – particularly Manchester. COVID-19 is just a bump in the road and while it has of course been challenging to navigate, there are positive stories out there and the property market is one of them.

The UK’s buy-to-let market has also proven to be desirable for many overseas investors and international buyers, who have been building huge portfolios which really will have a great impact on our post-COVID economic recovery.

What are you most optimistic about?

Peoples’ resilience! We have over 250 employees working for the business right now and really have been bowled over by their incredible resilience and commitment.  Every member of our team has been flexible and has done a fantastic job of dealing with the changing landscape. Who would have thought nine months ago, that we’d have to deal with this and come up with a contingency plan – but we did it.

It’s so important to have faith in the people you employ, as you have no idea of their capabilities until they’re faced with unprecedented times like this – when many prove they can handle just about anything that’s thrown at them.

We also have a really good growth pipeline and we’ve been able to change our approach to things to become more agile. We’ve seen lots of businesses failing, but there is strength in this country and we can reinvent ourselves. In 2021, towns and cities will be thriving again – and while it’s hard to see that right now, it will happen again, we just have to have that faith and confidence.  

What are you looking forward to implementing/changing?

We have really showcased that we can collaborate in other ways and adopt more effective ways of working, between home life and the office – which I’m excited to continue. We have a team of over 200 employees, who typically spend their time out on-site serving people, as well as over 50 in our head office, but we’ve been able to really redefine our way of working.

We’ve cut down commuting times and, in turn, have become much more productive. For this very reason, when things do return to ‘normal’ again, we have implemented a policy to encourage our office-based employees to work wherever they feel they’re most effective – whether that’s at home, in the office, with a client or somewhere abroad. This has also enabled one of our research analysts to work in tandem with travelling across Europe, and one of our HR managers to cut down on expensive childcare fees by returning home to Portugal, where her family is able to support her with this. Once travel is permitted again, she will just fly in and out for relevant meetings as needed.  

Businesses have really adapted in recent months; offering a better work-life balance and quality of life for our employees, by enabling them to live wherever they wish, has enabled us to retain top talent - despite their location.

What opportunities have you seen arise?

From an operations standpoint, now everyone is more connected digitally, we have been able to make major efficiencies in our processes. We have utilised video tours and fly-throughs so, when people come to see us, they are actually coming to sign up as they’ve already seen the property.  

We have also been able to centralise a lot of work into head office, so those on site only have to deal with on-site customer issues, which has saved a considerable amount of budget.

COVID hasn’t given more opportunities as such but, as an SME, the government has provided support with the VAT delay. Also, as we’ve been able to make some substantial savings in recent months and scrutinise unnecessary spending, plus we’ve really widened our cash flow, giving much more security during these trying times.

How are you remaining positive?

It has of course been incredibly difficult. With things constantly evolving, it’s very much up and down. The hardest thing for positivity has been being out of the office so much and not being able to have face-to-face meetings. Happiness is contagious and it’s much easier to bounce off people in the office, go out for a quick beer after work or go out for lunch with a client or colleague.

However, hard work, engaging with both employees and clients regularly, and knowing everyone is in the same boat has enabled me to remain positive. We have also really been focusing on team building both with new and existing colleagues, and have introduced a ‘Fresh Walks’ initiative. Before the second lockdown and much of the north going into tier three, a group of six colleagues would go for a walk together, chat and just generally enjoy the great outdoors. It’s also a great way to support positive employee wellbeing and an optimistic mindset, which is a huge priority for us. For this very reason, we have various wellbeing policies, including a confidential consultancy line for our team, if they’re ever feeling down, ensuring we have the right channels in place to support everybody, and offering our team financial hardship support via hardship loans for anybody struggling financially. By ensuring my colleagues have the support they need in place, results in me feeling positive about things too – as we really do have better days ahead, we just need to remember that.

How are you maintaining a work/life balance and ensuring family time?

Once I cut out all of the travel and commuting, it was actually quite easy to maintain a good work/life balance. Before, I did a lot of overseas trips which was around 50% of my diary. I also had weekly trips to London for meetings which have now been moved online. Without the commute to the office, I can now take my son to school a few times a week, which has been great.

It’s of course harder to take dedicated breaks throughout the day, but work/life balance generally has been better thanks to the flexibility of remote working. Having that balance has also really helped me to get regular exercise, get out on the golf course (prior to the second lockdown), spend time with the family, go out to walk the dog and just get some fresh air – which is enjoyable in itself.

On the business front, we have instilled an etiquette policy too, encouraging people to manage their days better by utilising the tools we have available and not booking colleagues in back-to-back meetings.

What have been your key learnings from the last few months?

That we really can adapt to any situation and we could have done it earlier too. My team really is resilient and we’ve learnt to be precise yet effective, doing things in less time. I saw an interesting study in Norway around implementing six hour working days and four day working weeks, which found shorter hours actually raised productivity. This really is food for thought as, pre-COVID, we spent so much time doing unnecessary things.  

Finally, if you put your mind to it, you can do anything. No business continuity plan could have prepared for this but, we did it. We’ve survived some of the most challenging months of our lives and, while it’s not over yet, we’re all in the same boat and we’re doing okay.

What else are you doing to prepare for the future?

We’re planning more shorter term now – at least until the end of next year and for the quarter ahead. Things are changing so rapidly and we already have a strong pipeline for the next few years at least. Currently however, we’re just talking about what’s happening now and how we navigate this climate – particularly as government guidelines are constantly evolving.

One of the big things for us for the next few months is our focus on digital and investing in platforms. We want to be very much mobile-first and, while this has always been a strategic goal, it’s now a bigger priority.

Our continued support for all of our employees and their wellbeing will remain a huge focus too.

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