Building the right office space for workers means facilitating greater teamwork, forging a strong culture and building resilience to future disruptors.
Stephen Minnett, director of Futurespace, says his architectural firm has found that businesses are finding it increasingly difficult to predict or prepare for the future.
“Australia is probably leading the world in the adoption of new ways of working on a large scale and there's just that massive impact of technology on so much of what we do, so it's really responding to a client's need for their vision of where the future is,” he says.
According to Mr Minnett, Futurespace analyses the evolution of workplace design and how modern concepts will influence future developments and trends.
“We take the pulse of what's happening now with big issues like health and wellbeing or activity-based working (ABW) and we then look outside of those trends to see what else may impact on workplace design,” he says.
Another growing trend in workspace design is the configuration of spaces into core space and spaces used on an as-needed basis.
“We find people who, for example, want a big meeting room for 40 people for their quarterly management get together and they just can't afford to have spaces built for occasional use, so it's enabling people to take advantage of that,” Mr Minnett says.
‘Futureproofing’ real estate
Real estate agencies often have a mix of space usage in their offices since there’s a diversity of roles and functions, plus a transient element with staff regularly attending open for inspections or travelling to meetings.
“Most real estate companies offer property management services, so they'll often have people embedded in client spaces, so the head office almost becomes a hub that people come back to,” Mr Minnett says.
Futurespace was responsible for the refurbishment of REA Group’s Melbourne office, which uses agile principles to encourage and facilitate collaboration.
Nigel Dalton, chief information officer at REA Group, said the move to the new building was necessary since the company was constrained by the old office.
“There was no flexibility in work spaces; every inch of space was used up and it wasn't fitting our working style, which is a very open, face-to-face culture, so it actually constrained the culture and performance of people in the organisation,” he says.
Mr Dalton notes that REA Group did not want ‘hot desking’ and also did not want computers allocating where staff members sat; instead the group opted for shared spaces.
“Considering the way we work, there's a family-type culture to the place, so we built a very big shared lunch room, which we call The Hub and its where we hold company meetings,” he explains.
REA Group also has a big commitment towards visually displaying work, which means the new office was equipped with numerous boards and screens so staff could display their progress, performance and results.
“At the same time, we also have 120 people working remotely and they can't be in the office to see those walls, so those teams use electronic boards with systems like LeanKit and Trello,” Mr Dalton adds.
The layout of the office includes a large space for presentations, communal spaces for collaboration and smaller spaces for individual work.
“It's got a real neighbourhood, family-feel to it that is very deliberate and aims to make people feel at home,” he adds.
Mr Dalton concedes that making the transition was not easy, however, so the company put some of its staff members through a trial period to help them adjust while gathering employee feedback.
“We configured some space in the old building, we put in the furniture types that we were hoping to have, we put in lockers, we put in different work spaces and we just went for it,” he explains.
“Those people soon became champions of the architecture that we were building because they loved it so much, so as a reward, they got to choose the furniture for the new building.”
According to Mr Dalton, one of the motivations for changing the office layout was being able to reduce the amount of email sent.
“People email each other when they're on different floors or even on the same floor; it's really unproductive,” he says.
“We counted that we used to do 4.5 million emails a month in our old space, but with the new building and the new architecture it was reduced to 3.5 million emails a month.”
The use of open planning and communal spaces has helped flatten the hierarchical structure of REA Group and created more cohesion across the business.
“Nobody has an office, not even [CEO] Tracey Fellows; so she sits wherever she needs to with whichever part of the business she's working on at any time of the day," Mr Dalton says.
“I know several companies that have attempted this kind of radical transformation, but the execs decided they needed offices, and that's not going to work because everyone has to be equal.”
Building resilience brick by brick
Mr Dalton says resilience is the key to real estate’s future prosperity, particularly in light of industry disruptors that are challenging traditional ways of working.
“We're facing Google, Facebook, Airbnb and eBay in the property industry in Australia, and they're all incredibly inventive, very innovative cultures, so we need to adopt their ways of working," he says.
According to Mr Dalton, surviving in an ever challenging environment is about being able to create teams that work closely together and to invent new methods of delivering service.
“There are no ‘eureka moments’ at REA; it's always teams, and this workplace is specifically designed to allow those teams to have time for each other, bounce off each other and be creative with each other.”
Mr Minnett says the key to developing an office that can thrive both now and in the future is to find a balance between the key three elements: the people, the space and the technology.
“If an organisation wants to implement greater agility for their people and work in new ways, then we can set up a system and space that supports that, but if the technology doesn't support that, then it won't work," he concludes.