More American workers will be returning to work in the next few weeks. A sizable number of states have announced plans to reopen their economies within the first two weeks of May. Most of these states are taking a phased approach to partially reopen certain businesses with minimum standards in place. As more workers return to their places of work, title & escrow businesses are also beginning to consider their own approaches to returning to the office.
During the most recent remote Qualia LIVE event, Perla Aparicio and April Gentry of Qualia’s Industry Relations team joined Tim Hooper, VP Mid-Atlantic Business Development at Williston Financial Group (WFG); Mo Choumil, Founder & CEO at ATG Title; and Hope Ottoviani, Director of Operations at ATG Title to discuss best practices for returning to work.
Remote work flexibility: the new normal after coronavirus?
While remote work was technically available to title & escrow professionals prior to COVID-19 (through the use of secure cloud-based title workflow software like Qualia), most title & escrow professionals primarily worked in the office. Much like other industries, this adherence to in-office work was primarily driven by:
- Work-from-home policies that did not allow for much flexibility
- A lack of paperless process
- A lack of universal remote work collaboration tools
COVID-19 changed this virtually overnight. In light of the need for social distancing and to protect employees, businesses acted quickly to get their teams set up for remote work. Within a matter of days, title & escrow businesses pivoted the operations to enable remote work by adopting digital collaboration tools; establishing paperless workflows; and even leveraging remote online notarization (RON) where permitted to complete transactions remotely.
According to Ottoviani, the old ways of doing business will likely not return. “Now that we’ve dipped our toes in [fully-digital processes] we’re not going to be able to go back,” she said.
Hooper echoed this sentiment and noted that the workplace changes brought on by COVID-19 will also impact employee expectations. “I think there will be more demand from the American worker for a remote workforce,” he said. “We’re realizing that we can work remote, so I think we’ll be seeing more flexible [work from home] plans moving forward.”
Strategies for returning to work after COVID-19
While many title & escrow businesses are considering more flexibility to allow remote work, a post-coronavirus-world still necessitates physical office spaces for most title & escrow businesses—at least for now.
For example, some roles require office tools for wire transfers and check cutting. Additionally, in states where RON or RIN are not permitted (and in cases where a signer wants to meet in-person to review documents), many signing agents must come into the office to complete a closing with a client.
Title & escrow businesses will need to start developing plans to safely bring employees back into the office. Aparicio provided a few guidelines from the Department of Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) for creating a back-to-work plan. Ottoviani, Hooper, and Choumil also provided their own strategies for bringing employees back into the office.
IMPLEMENT AND COMMUNICATE WORKPLACE FLEXIBILITIES & PROTECTIONS
Choumil noted that many of his staff are feeling anxiety around returning to work. “We have a handful of people in our office who have a real fear of getting sick,” he said.
Before returning to in-office environments, it’s important to ease these anxieties by communicating your updated sick leave policies and the safety measures you plan to put in place to protect employee health. Aparicio noted a few best practices from OSHA.
- Talk to employees and be aware of their concerns about returning to work
- Actively encourage sick employees to stay home
- Ensure sick leave and work-from home policies are flexible
- Maintain flexible policies to enable employees to work from home to care for a sick relative or to watch children if school or childcare is not accessible
In addition to greater flexibility, ATG Title and WFG both noted “phasing in” employee return as a viable solution to help protect employees and ease anxiety. Ottoviani offered a high-level view of ATG Title’s phased approach: 1) bring back post-closers who need equipment to cut checks 2) bring back processors 3) bring back pre-processors. This strategy allows ATG Title to easily maintain social distancing with fewer employees in the office and to then gradually improve practices and standards as more employees come back into the workplace.
IMPLEMENT BASIC INFECTION PREVENTION MEASURES
Ottoviani noted a few protective measures ATG Title is considering in the weeks ahead as employees return to the office. “We’re taking all preventative measures possible,” she said, noting the potential usage of thermal cameras to check peoples’ temperature when they enter the building; offering face masks to employees; and providing an overall safe and sanitized environment for ATG Title staff.
Aparicio noted a few best practices from OSHA to maintain sanitized office environments including:
- Promote frequent handwashing and provide supplies as needed
- Encourage respiratory etiquette, including covering coughs and sneezes and provide employees with tissues and trash receptacles
- Maintain regular housekeeping practices including routine cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and equipment
- Practice social distancing in the office and discourage workers from using their coworkers’ phones, desks, or other tools
What lies ahead for real estate transactions after the pandemic?
Overall, Hooper, Ottoviani, and Choumil agreed that COVID-19 has not just transformed offices, it has also transformed consumer expectations.
“We’re going to need to be a lot more flexible to what the consumer needs,” Hooper said. Resuming back to the way real estate closings were performed before (paper-intensive with limited options for remote closings) simply won’t be an option; however, businesses must also be sensitive to consumer demand for in-person closings. “Several consumers have said they want to come in and sit with us to talk about documents… others want that eNotarization experience,” he said.
Regardless of the continued need to offer in-person closings for consumers who desire it, Ottoviani believes remote online notarization (RON) is the “way of the future.” As more states adopt RON legislation and as GSEs and underwriters provide more acceptance of RON transactions, Ottoviani is hopeful that lenders who have traditionally been slow to accept RON will begin to enable these types of transactions alongside title & escrow companies.
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