A constantly evolving media landscape, the disruptive impact of digital technologies, and evolving organisational structures meant that Fairfax Media needed to be increasingly agile and responsive to change.

Coupled with multiple internal initiatives running concurrently, its Real-Time Working project represented a significant challenge.

Real-Time Working (RTW), or activity-based working, is a set of physical, behavioural, and technological strategies that enable more efficient and flexible work by individuals and teams. It recognises there is a spectrum of work styles and demands, and that each day, people will have different activities to complete that require varying levels of innovation, concentration, and collaboration. 

The Real-Time Working project at Fairfax is reminiscent of the attention Silicon Valley start-ups pay to work space and employee needs.
The Real-Time Working project at Fairfax is reminiscent of the attention Silicon Valley start-ups pay to work space and employee needs.

RTW is about choice, with staff being able to choose to physically locate themselves wherever it is most appropriate for them to undertake their work.

If quiet concentrative work is necessary, then a semi-enclosed area can be used. On the other hand, if an informal discussion is on the agenda, then there are small rooms equipped with screens and audio-visual equipment available for use.

The choice is supported by appropriate tools of trade such as wireless/cloud IT solutions and a menu of work settings with appropriate technology. Providing this choice means that staff members are no longer forced to do everything at one desk. This enables Fairfax to dramatically increase desk utilisation as the majority of employees are not assigned a fixed desk. 

After moving into the new RTW environment, observational studies were commissioned to assess the utilisation of space. Fairfax sought feedback from employees, post-move, to understand how they had transitioned and what was still required to make it sustainable. Further focus groups and training were available to employees who required additional support.

In response to the feedback, Fairfax developed an orientation programme, including e-learning modules, an introductory video, and a manager induction tool kit to ensure future sustainability.

Fairfax has found that new technology is having a dramatic effect on how and where work is done. Trends such as the adoption of mobility, virtual workplaces, and the migration to cloud computing have seen a fast-paced transition to new ways of working.

Workplaces designed around desktop PCs, fixed desks, and limited staff mobility are becoming obsolete — fast. Employees and their organisations now need to be agile, mobile, and responsive. 

As part of the project, Fairfax conducted observation studies that found the average utilisation of traditional desks across Sydney and Melbourne was only 40%. Moving to RTW has enabled the business to significantly reduce its footprint in those two offices by addressing the inefficient use of space. This increased spatial agility allows the company to restructure and re-organise the business with minimal impact on space. 

Fairfax believes recognising and responding to these needs will bring life to its culture and values while simultaneously improving the operation performance of its business, attracting the best people, as well as enabling innovation and collaboration. 

Fairfax introduced Real-Time Working to its Sydney and Melbourne metropolitan offices across a 12-month period. It required staged implementation due to staff continuing to occupy the space while the company refurbished the offices. 

A cross-functional project team — comprised of members from the technology, human resources, and property teams, as well as staff from each business unit — was brought together to ensure an integrated programme delivery.

The team, called Evolving Our Workplace (EOW), was dedicated to the implementation of RTW at the two sites over 12 months. Fairfax also commissioned experts to help develop the project plan, and an EOW brand and concept were formed and agreed upon by the board of directors and senior leadership teams.

The project team researched various global approaches to RTW and commissioned studies and focus groups that helped define Fairfax’s approach.

The Real-Time Working project would enable Fairfax to reduce the space occupied in its Sydney and Melbourne metropolitan offices by 40%. The Fairfax plan was to sublet surplus space. The project delivered a cost-effective redesign of the workspace in the Sydney and Melbourne offices. This included building and technology upgrades along with a staff change/management education programme.

People were the key focus for the RTW project, as it embeds Fairfax’s culture and values and helps its staff adapt to the ever-evolving media landscape. It encourages employees to have choice and a voice, empowering them to challenge the status quo and define the way they work.

Team effectiveness was equally important for these reasons, and RTW has provided teams with the capability and infrastructure to be innovative and creative, with collaborative workspaces enabling employees to share knowledge and participate in virtual team environments. 

To attract and retain high performers, Fairfax Media needed to make itself a more attractive organisation by translating corporate values and culture into action. The new workplace provides a powerful visual and physical medium to convey these messages not only to staff, but also to visitors and the public.

Executed well, the workplace can be a key lever available to management to transform the business and bring to life its culture and values.

RTW has also embedded Farifax corporate values into daily work practices: 

  • Innovation and collaboration: providing tools, workspaces, and technology that promote a creative, inventive culture and increase team effectiveness. 

  • Audience-centricity: providing the flexibility and agility to choose the work environment relevant to employees’ work and audiences. 

  • Transparency: reducing silos, increasing cross-functional and cross-regional collaboration. 

  • Accountability: having managers lead via outcome and employees choose the way they deliver their outcomes. 

The change management plan helped to build employee knowledge. Fairfax created a dedicated Intranet site and sent regular bulletins to all affected employees. It also hosted employee road shows, tours, and special information sessions at the two sites and for senior managers.

The manager training programme focused on change management and managing via outcome, while employee training included how to operate in the new environment. This included embracing tools such as Google Drive, Chat, and Hangouts, meeting-room smart boards, and audio-visual equipment, as well as ergonomics training.

Fairfax researched and identified the “successful habits” required to work successfully in RTW and reinforced these through the training and communication programmes. 

Some of these successful habits are: 

  • Self-introduction: With the greater likelihood of interacting with new people, those who network comfortably (i.e., ease in and out of interactions, establishing rapport) will find it less overwhelming and more invigorating. 

  • Checking in: Especially when employees do not always see each other, it is teams that excel at informal communication that develop mutual trust, collaboration, and boost productivity. 

  • Digital first: Being light on paper is key to mobile working, and this requires patiently replacing a very entrenched habit of jotting things down on paper with digital note taking. 

  • Planning: If walking up to one’s desk is no longer the default plan for the day, those who reverse-engineer their plans from the end goal — matching settings and resources to the task at hand — are the ones who thrive. 

  • Speaking up: As ownership shifts to output, it is those who can comfortably and respectively address intervening issues, taking control of their day, that have the best experiences. 

RTW secures cost savings because property is a significant fixed cost for Fairfax and needs to be closely managed to ensure it is aligned with current and future business strategies.

In addition to improving the underlying operating performance of its business and delivering key strategic objectives, the project was scoped to deliver A$32 million of savings over four years. 

Editor’s note: This is one of 17 case studies featured in INMA’s strategic report “How Media Companies Embrace the Process of Innovation.”