by Rebecca Merrett

CIO of REA Group: Step into the 21st century office

Jan 15, 20157 mins
CareersIT LeadershipMobile

It may be easy to overlook how the work environment influences productivity and job satisfaction, but it’s something business executives ought to really pay attention to. Nobody really wants to spend day in, day out in a rigid office.

That’s what the CIO of real estate advertiser REA Group, Nigel Dalton, focused on in the last couple of years building up to the company’s recent head office move to 511 Church Street in Richmond, Victoria. The company relocated to the new office at the end of 2014, working with interior designer company futurespace,

Having outgrown the former office in Richmond, Dalton saw the move as an opportunity to invest in creating a stimulating and collaborative work environment that would not only inspire staff to put more energy into their work, but also make work practices more agile.

One change has been introducing activity-based ‘neighbourhoods’. Having siloed teams reduces opportunities for workers to bounce ideas off each other. And with an already mobile workforce, tying people to dedicated desks seemed silly and a waste of space.

“They have a locker, and they bring the tools they need to a desk every morning in a neighbourhood designated for their team,” Dalton said.

“Each one of those lines of business has a distinct neighbourhood, a distinct colour, and people get to express themselves through how their neighbourhood looks rather than how their desk looks.”

Kicking dedicated desks out the door saved an entire floor’s worth of space in the new building, reducing six floors down to five.

Desktop computers are so yesterday at REA Group, with all 558 workers in its Richmond office being equipped with Apple laptops and Cisco Jabber instant messaging (IM), voice, video, desktop sharing, and conferencing system.

“That runs on a mobile device or laptop. That gives us the flexibility of not only working from anywhere in the building, the Wi-Fi is high quality, but also enables them to work from home if need to,” the CIO said.

Most collaboration-based projects take place in the ‘marketplace’: A collection of different meeting rooms in the centre of each floor.

“That was quite difficult to do in the old building; there weren’t the right spaces and people wouldn’t serendipitously run into each other [and] start conversations as easily,” Dalton said.

“The new space is architected entirely around that, so cross-fertilisation of ideas is a real benefit from it. We get a lot of synergies from people walking though that space, running into each other between the neighbourhoods.

“There are nooks and crannies. And there might be a lovely high banquet chair with a casual table you can sit at with four or five people and a whiteboard. Or, it might be a quiet two-person collaboration room that isn’t bookable, you can turn up to that any time and occupy it for as long as you like.”

Beside the marketplace, towards the floor-to-ceiling windows, is where the ‘neighbourhoods’ or clusters of desks reside. And in between the desks and the windows are the ‘backyards’: Cosy meeting places and social spaces with TVs.

“The symptom in the old workplace was a large portion of people having earphones on. And it wasn’t because they loved music; it was because they just needed to focus on those problem-solving moments and ignore the people around them. There are very few pairs of headphones seen in our new office.

“The people who need to solve hard tasks can pick up their laptop and go into one of the alternative spaces and spend the day there,” Dalton said.

The office includes small, split-floor meeting places halfway between level two and three and level three and four. Level two and a half and level three and a half meeting spaces almost sounds like “platform nine three quarters” in Harry Potter.

“We have a massive internal stair case through the middle,” the CIO said. “Half way up the stairs there’s a little caf?-style banquette seating space for about a dozen people who can sit and have a meeting. It’s a kind of visual or physical expression of ‘I’ll meet you half way’.”

On level 3 there’s a kitchen/caf? and “all hands” meeting space. “That’s also extremely popular for getting up to 20 people around a big, caf?-style table and just knocking out what’s going on,” Dalton said.

Integrating all these secluded and open meeting places into the main floor space has removed the issue of people having to fight for almost booked out rooms.

“It was estimated three times the number of bookable meeting rooms would be required to meet demand. All these different style spaces in the marketplace completely took the pressure off for what people perceived to be the need for a bookable meeting room,” Dalton said.

“There’s nothing more annoying than having to book a meeting in Outlook a week ahead because [otherwise] you can’t get a meeting room. It interrupts the flow of work. So we monitor room utilisation; we have an amazing room management system in place. We have exactly planned utilisation of the meeting rooms that are bookable.

“We know more decisions are being made without needing to get people into a meeting room because they are using the marketplace spaces.”

Walls in the new office are not just there to block out sound or look pretty. They are valuable space that can be used for brainstorming ideas and writing down project updates or notices, Dalton says. This is where he saw an opportunity for the office to encourage more agile work practices.

“There’s an enormous amount of wall space for visually displaying the work and the priorities that are being worked on. A lot of the material used in the marketplace is quite humble, so we use plywood and whiteboards, encouraging people to visually display the work.

“There’s nothing like having to put your prioritised work on a board and letting people see it to [generate] good open debate about what is being worked on by teams. I’ve seen a lot of increase in people’s understanding of the big picture around our purpose and objectives for teams.”

Making the office look vibrant is also important. With staff in the head office being predominantly people in their 20s and 30s, Dalton wasn’t afraid to take it down to funky town.

“The colours and the furniture and the spaces are very funky and stimulating,” he said.

He said that to make an office fun, it doesn’t necessarily require spending a lot of money to ‘Googlefy’ it with ball pits and fireman’s poles. It could be something as simple giving it a lifestyle and leisure feel with meeting spaces located around the caf?.

The new REA Group head office also has its own tech zone, which is where it holds its hack days and where workers can spend some time pursuing their own creative ideas. Projects in the tech zone include using drones for aerial photography and studying how 3D printing applies to the property sector.

“Virtual reality is a very big deal for us this year, using things like Oculus Rift to enable you to walk around a property without actually going there. The Oculus Rift thing is going to be very big for us, I think. That came out of a hack day and collaboration between people,” Dalton said.

Dalton said from what he has seen in the new office so far, he estimates the company will receive a return on investment within two years. The initial lease term is seven years with options to extend.

More importantly, Dalton said employees coming to work happy is one of the biggest benefits and will also deliver benefits to the company in the long run.

For example the cost of recruitment, training and lost productivity involved in replacing a software developer could be $100,000, Dalton said. “So every single person who stays here, because it’s a great and humanistic work environment, is going to save me that kind of money,” the CIO said.

Follow Rebecca Merrett on Twitter: @Rebecca_Merrett

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