The Work-Life Conundrum – Inman


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This is the first article in a four-part series analyzing Inman’s recent Agent Appreciation survey that will run each Friday in January.

Ben Olsen, a team leader at Vanguard Properties in California’s Bay Area, works about 65 hours a week.

Diana Morgan, a Keller Williams agent in New Jersey, typically wraps up her day between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. — though when things get busy work can stretch until 11 p.m.

Bernard Teichman

And Bernard Teichman, a broker associate in New Jersey, said that his wife sometimes comments that he works 24/7, though he estimated that his actual hours typically range between 40 and 60 per week.

“It’s not a nine to five job,” he recently told Inman. “Anybody who thinks that real estate is a nine to five job does not know real estate.”

The comment highlights the weirdness of working in a business that’s all about buying and selling property. The hours can be long and inconsistent — more akin to working in retail or food service — even as the pay can rise significantly higher than other contract jobs. And of nearly a dozen agents who recently spoke to Inman about their schedules, no two gave precisely the same description.

If there was any common thread from these conversations, however, it was that everyone is working a lot and that real estate can be a uniquely challenging industry when it comes to balancing work with family, friends and everything else that goes on in life.

To get a better sense of how much time members of the real estate industry spend on their jobs — and how they feel about that — Inman recently conducted a survey on agent happiness. Nearly 700 people from every U.S. state and a handful of foreign countries ultimately answered Inman’s questions. Collectively, these responses offer valuable insights into agent contentedness and suggest that, while most people are generally happy with their professions, they are also devoting a significant portion of their lives to work.

Work-life balance, in other words, may be a struggle for members of the real estate industry.

Workloads for real estate professionals

Among the people who responded to Inman’s survey, 56 percent said that they work between 40 and 60 hours per week. That was far and away the most common response to a question about hours worked, suggesting that the practice of toiling beyond the conventional 40 hour work week is widespread in real estate.

Another 33 percent of respondents said that they work between 20 and 40 hours per week, while only a total of 11 percent said that they worked less than 20 hours.

Fifty-six percent of real estate professionals who took Inman’s recent survey said they work between 40 and 60 hours per week. Credit: Jim Dalrymple II

Perhaps even more tellingly, a plurality of the people who took the survey — or 35 percent — said they work six days a week. Nearly as many, or 34 percent, also said they work seven days a week.

That means a total of 69 percent of the real estate professionals who took the survey are working more than the typical five-day work week.

Only 22 percent of respondents said they work five days a week. And just 8 percent total reported that they worked four days or fewer.

The vast majority of the people who took Inman’s survey said they work either six or seven days per week. Credit: Jim Dalrymple II

These findings perhaps aren’t terribly surprising given that agents regularly hold open houses on weekends. And it’s common knowledge that because buyers are typically free from their own jobs on weekends, Saturday and Sunday are sometimes the most productive time for agents.

But that doesn’t change the fact that, whatever the reasons, a huge number of agents are apparently doing work on days that members of other professions might use for recreational purposes or to spend time with their families.

Workloads and agent happiness

The survey also asked how many days per week agents are happy to be at work, and the responses are illuminating: To that question, 55 percent said that they are happy to be at work five days per week.

The take away, then, is that a majority of the agents who took the survey would like to be working five days a week even as they are actually working six or seven.

To be fair, 13 percent of respondents to the survey did write in answers, and many of those answers came from agents who said they’re fine with working six or seven days per week. A handful of respondents even wrote that they are happy to work “each and every day” or “most every day.” The comments reveal that there are some agents who are happy to keep nearly continuous work schedules.

However, the percent of people who provided such answers is far smaller than the percentages that indicated they are actually working six or seven days a week. That suggests that a significant number of people would be happier working fewer days than they currently do.

Most people who took the survey we’re happy about being at work five days each week. Credit: Jim Dalrymple II

That isn’t to suggest, of course, that agents are an unhappy lot. If they were, the number of Realtors in the U.S. wouldn’t have been steadily increasing in recent years. The survey results further bear this idea out; when asked about work-life balance, a full 63 percent of the people who took the survey responded that they are in fact happy. Only 30 percent said they were not satisfied with their work-life balance.

Among the work tasks that made agents happiest, closing a deal was the most popular. Meeting with clients, showing homes and marketing properties were also among the activities agents indicated made them most happy.

Outside of work, spending time with family was the thing that agents reported feeling the most happy about, followed by friends and recreation.

These findings are more or less in line with the comments of the agents who spoke with Inman after taking the survey. The gist was that most work a lot and wouldn’t mind making more money in fewer hours, even if they were still relatively contented because they enjoy the job.

“I like working,” Morgan, the agent from New Jersey, said. “I like what I do so it doesn’t seem like it’s always work.”

“I happen to sell mostly in the town where I live, I sell to and from my friends,” Olsen, in the Bay Area, explained. “So it doesn’t feel like work most of the time.”

Work-life balance is rare in the U.S.

The survey responses (which despite answers from a handful of other countries mostly came from Americans) align with broader research indicating Americans are kind of uniquely bad at work-life balance.

The World Economic Forum, for example, reported last year that U.S. citizens work an average of 1,780 hours per year. That’s less than workers in Portugal, Iceland, Russia, Mexico and a handful of other countries, but more than workers in the majority of countries in the developed world. People in Germany, for instance, work an average of just 1,360 hours per year. People in Japan, the U.K., Canada and even the Slovak Republic also all work on average less than Americans.

Average yearly hours worked by country. Credit: The World Economic Forum

Perhaps even more disheartening for Americans, the intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has described work-life balance as an “area of comparative weakness” for the U.S. The OECD also found that “life satisfaction has fallen gradually during the past 10 years” among Americans.

“Over 11% of employees work very long hours, and full-time employees report having less time off than in most other OECD countries,” the organization said in a 2017 report.

The OECD ultimately ranked work-life balance in the U.S. below most countries in western Europe, as well as Slovenia, Russia, Latvia, Brazil and other nations.

An OECD graphic shows that while the U.S. excels when it comes to things like net worth, it earns comparatively poor marks for work life balance (represented on the bottom right). Credit: OECD

These findings aren’t unique to real estate, but they do indicate that workers generally in the U.S. struggle with work-life balance more than their counterparts overseas. And the results of Inman’s recent survey suggests that this issue is impacting members of the real estate industry specifically. In fact, many agents have little choice but to work extra long hours.

“I’ve actually heard agents put on their voicemail that they’re only working between nine and five,” Teichman, in New Jersey, said. “But if a client hears that, they’re not going to be a client for long. Between nine and five the clients are working on their own jobs.”

Moving toward a better balance

While the news that Americans, and particularly those in real estate, struggle with work-life balance is discouraging, many members of the industry who spoke with Inman have proactively tried to improve this aspect of their lives. There are, in other words, solutions.

Jim Clifford

Jim Clifford, a broker and owner of the Washington Realty Group in the Seattle area, argued that agents who want to improve their work-life balance ultimately have to figure out how to delegate — a lesson he learned himself by trial and error over his 40 years in the industry. Today, Clifford said he usually works between 30 and 50 hours per week.

Unfortunately, however, Clifford also said that most agents he sees haven’t figured this out, and they suffer as a result.

“When an agent starts to become successful,” he told Inman, “they don’t delegate and they burn out. They just can’t take the step back.”

Ben Olsen

Olsen is actually doing just that, and said that he is “in the pretty active process of figuring out how to work less.” Though he works long hours, he explained that he is typically done by 6 p.m. each night because he gets up early and takes advantage of the morning. The result is that he gets to have dinner with his kids, though it also means forcing himself to walk away from work when “there typically 5 more things that I could do.”

“For me the whole process of having other people to work with relieves me of having to work too much,” he added.

Morgan said that in her case, she is currently working on “time blocking.” That means that while her overall hours may be long, she is still able to deal with non-work tasks throughout the day. She also sets aside time each year to completely disconnect.

Diana Morgan

“I try to take one or two vacations a year where I can get a way and have someone cover my work,” Morgan explained. “For the most part I like to go places where there’s no internet.”

Morgan’s vacations also highlight one of the reasons she enjoys working in real estate, even with the long and irregular hours: She never has to ask anyone for time off.

That idea was a recurring theme among agents who spoke to Inman for this story, and the point was that while finding a good balance between work and life may be tough, real estate professionals are still unique among workers in the degree of autonomy they have. Agents are, in other words, their own masters, and that freedom will likely keep drawing people into the industry for the foreseeable future.

“I think,” Morgan said, “people like the freedom of the job.”

Next Friday: Compensation and money.

Email Jim Dalrymple II

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