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My New Normal: LightBox Senior Vice President, Broker Operations Tina Lichens

This series aims to capture a moment in time, talking to men and women in commercial real estate about how their lives and businesses are being transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic has turned most people's work life upside down, but rather than wallow in the situation, Tina Lichens is making the best of the new normal. 

Lichens is the senior vice president, broker operations at LightBox, a tech platform that allows clients to make better decisions relating to commercial real estate. Lichens has been with LightBox for 20 years.

Since the pandemic has forced her and her team to work from home, Lichens has focused on making the best of the transition. She admits she wasn't a work-from-home fan prior to the pandemic, but she and her team have adjusted to the experience and continue to collaborate with one another.

As for her, she has taken this time to spend more time with her three children. She is embracing her new role as a teacher or even family therapist. She and her family have grown a vegetable garden in the backyard.

"The actions we take now and the foundations we lay, personally and professionally, will define or at least guide our lives for the next 10 years," Lichens said.

LightBox Senior Vice President, Broker Operations Tina Lichens

Bisnow: Describe your work-from-home life and what you are doing in your spare time.

Lichens: Spare time? What’s that? It’s a bizarre paradox that during this time of reduced mobility and fewer social obligations that so many of my colleagues, clients and friends share the sentiment that we feel busier than ever.

Not only do we find ourselves challenged to lead our businesses and teams through an unprecedented health, social and business environment but we’re taking on new roles (like teacher or family therapist), learning new technologies (honestly, how many of us considered ourselves Zoom experts six months ago?), and trying to manage our own anxieties (without relying too much on BevMo).

Instead of thinking of “spare” time, I’ve been working to incorporate more joy into the things that need to be done. Important meetings become a time to get my oldest child to try ‘babysitting’ for her 2-year old brother. I love to cook so meal planning is a chance to get more creative. Team meetings on Zoom can occasionally be Hat-py hours. Quarantine has provided the initiative to build out our home gym and plant veggies in our garden that we actually want to eat.

The actions we take now and the foundations we lay, personally and professionally, will define or at least guide our lives for the next 10 years.

Bisnow: What is your company’s return-to-the-workplace plan?

Lichens: LightBox is taking a careful, measured approach. After the Fourth of July holiday, we plan to begin the first phase of return to work in which groups of people are scheduled to come into the office on alternate weeks. Seating arrangements have been modified to accommodate more distance between desks and we are taking all the requisite health precautions such as masks, hand sanitizers, traffic flow and extra cleaning. This is in addition to conversations with our various landlords about things like air filtration and elevators.

I’m proud of LightBox’s sensitivity to employees’ individual situations and understanding that coming into the office at this time may be challenging or simply not possible for some. For people with children, many day cares are not yet open and camps are questionable. Others may have or live with family members who have underlying health conditions. We have an employee whose grandmother will be turning 100 next month and all their family members have agreed to self-quarantine until the celebration so they will definitely be waiting until afterward to return to the office.

LightBox Senior Vice President, Broker Operations Tina Lichens works from home while her children play.

Bisnow: What will reopening businesses and workplaces look like for you personally?

Lichens: It will look great. I’m cautiously excited about reopening but it will also be different as we adjust to new guidelines — social distancing, reduced concentration of employees, no-touch/low touch, etc. — in our own offices and in the offices of our customers. It will also look more efficient as we’ve gotten quite used to online shopping and grocery delivery. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Bisnow: How will you manage the homefront as stay-at-home restrictions ease and businesses reopen?

Lichens: Very carefully. I have three young children, ages 8, 5 and 2, so it’s a challenge to balance their social and educational needs with a ‘go-slow’ approach. I’m looking into outdoor summer camps for the older ones (surf camp, horseback riding, tennis) and planning a lot of beach time. I don’t see us going to any zoos or theme parks for a while.

Bisnow: What is the state of your business at the moment?

Lichens: Improving steadily — the broker business of LightBox is comprised of transaction- and subscription-based products. Our data/GIS (LandVision) and CRM (ClientLook) businesses have continued to do well but the RCM transaction business for investment sale marketing slowed dramatically the back half of March and through much of April. Things have picked up quite a bit since the low of April as investors resume disposition plans and the market slowly gains confidence.

As part of our normal course of business, these last several months have been filled with furthering initiatives that create or enhance the products and services we make available to our customers. For example, on the transaction side, we’ve been actively developing new and/or improved tools that will be beneficial for what many in the industry believe is an imminent wave of distressed investment situations. Some of this work already was underway as many envisioned a slowdown was looming. As a result, we believe we’re well-positioned for that eventuality. We’re also emphasizing programs around note sales and tools that help debt professionals obtain financing.

We are also reminding our clients of solutions that haven’t been as popular in a booming market — like our online auction capability that was used to transact billions during and after the Great Financial Crisis.

The LightBox team having a hat-py hour meeting

Bisnow: What was your impression of work from home before this got started? What is it now?

Lichens: For me personally I have never really enjoyed working from home. I have always believed that there is so much more to the work experience. You can be more effective and productive when you are engaging and talking with people live in a shared environment. But I have been pleasantly surprised to look back and see how much we’ve been able to accomplish these last few months. Our teams continue to collaborate with each other, innovate new solutions, enhance existing technologies and most importantly, engage meaningfully with our clients.  But collaborating and communicating face to face is still the optimal working environment, in my opinion.

Bisnow: How is your company fostering community and maintaining its culture from a distance?

Lichens: There has been a whole evolution to this, and it’s been very positive. As the pandemic was unfolding and we all went to WFH, the focus was on making sure that the leadership was engaged and on board with the transition everyone was making. We held weekly calls. It then spread quickly to the various layers and functions and divisions within the company. The other interesting aspect for LightBox is that the pandemic occurred as the company overall was integrating a number of previous acquisitions and establishing an overall culture. Over the last three months or so, people in the company — who are dispersed across the country — have engaged in trivia games and “speed dating,” which has allowed us to get to know the company better. We’ve been introduced to employees at all levels that we might not otherwise have known before the pandemic. 

Bisnow: How do you think the coronavirus could permanently affect the way real estate does business?

Lichens: The concept and process of online marketing of properties likely will continue to evolve. Business must move forward in new ways. Leases expire and dictate some type of action. We’ll see more virtual tours and other 'virtual' elements to a transaction. Nothing will replace face-to-face meetings and interactions altogether though some of that may take time to come back to previous levels. But at the same time, we’ll likely see even greater ideas and opportunities to enable customer decision-making and to be even more efficient. 

Bisnow: What are you most hopeful about right now?

Lichens: There is reason for hope, in our industry and the world around us! The commercial real estate industry is full of resilient, creative, entrepreneurial people who will find a way to thrive regardless of what the future brings. The pandemic and other demonstrations have shined a light on humanity and seeing ourselves and our businesses in new light has the potential to inspire positive changes in both. And finally, there are extremely hardworking and dedicated individuals around the world who are devoted to finding a vaccine as quickly as possible.