The story is familiar. Fairfax Media knew that retaining and attracting the best available staff, creating a culture of collaboration and innovation, and increasing online focus were the keys to success. The answer to how to do that in the face of significant change in the media industry was not so obvious. 

In pursuit of answers, Fairfax realised that a key enabler to reaching its business objectives would be a new workplace strategy covering property, technology, and staff.

In August 2012, in a move that signalled a key change in its workplace strategy, the People and Culture sub-committee of the Fairfax Board approved what it called the “Real Time Working Project” (RTW).

The project focussed on our 2,400 staff in Melbourne and Sydney. It embraced upgraded and flexible building fit-outs, a technology upgrade that created an anytime, anywhere set-up to enable maximum use of a newly implemented Google operating system, and new management practices and staff behaviours. All that was made possible by savings of more than A$30 million over four years on the back of a reduced property footprint. 

On paper, a perfect alignment of business and workplace strategy. 

In practice, it wasn’t easy. 

Like in many other businesses at the time, a restructuring process was underway. RTW was viewed with suspicion. Even though we regarded the project as a means to enabling revenue growth and property footprint reduction, selling the project to staff wasn’t easy. 

It was made more difficult by the fact that it was a first-generation project for us, and we were learning as we went. In spite of that, the results were better than we ever envisaged.

Here are five ways we have made the programme better:

1. Reproducibility: Taking the concept over to Wellington, New Zealand (NZ), this year provided a great opportunity to consolidate our understanding of RTW. The pace of implementation of the projects in Sydney and Melbourne hadn’t given us any time to implement any associated learnings. Here was our chance to make it better and to be clear about what was really important.

The updated version of the RTW methodology that was introduced in New Zealand included the establishment of smaller neighbourhoods and simplification of the editorial set-up, as well as improved furniture and technology and spaces specifically designed for the agile working project methodology

2. Larger neighbourhoods: The arrangement of groups into home zones was well received because it gave teams an anchor in the workplace and a sense of belonging. It also bought managers some time to get used to managing by outcome rather than line of sight.

While it is tempting to think of “officially” declared neighbourhoods as training wheels for RTW, the reality is that they flex as teams and requirements change … and as the boundaries become softer. We went wrong in some cases by making some neighbourhoods too small. 

We quickly found that small neighbourhoods led to territorial and inflexible behaviours. That was in stark contrast to the flexible, shared thinking we had been hoping for. The New Zealand team quickly learned from that and established only five key neighbourhoods rather than 30 as had existed in Sydney.

In part, I think the decision was made easier for the New Zealand team by the great number of recent projects and initiatives that were resourced by cross-functional teams. We now have a lot of internal evidence on why it’s important to be able to work cross-functionally. Certainly, there is far less nervousness about physically planning teams into a workspace along the lines of an organisational chart. 

3. Simplifying the editorial set up: The majority of newsroom revamps during the last 10 years have adopted a hub-and-spoke structure, with key editorial figures physically located within the centre of the wheel, and production, genres or platforms teams fanning out from the centre. 

Although a space-hungry and sometimes inflexible design, that set-up has been heralded as a success by The New York Times, BBC, and many other mainstream media organisations.

Fairfax, too, had implemented wheel structures for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald teams. Space constraints and a preference for a more inclusive editorial process drove us to a different design for The Australian Financial Review in Sydney.

The wheel structure was abandoned for a more conventional desk set-up, at the centre of which was an open-plan furniture setting, described by some as something from a Jetsons cartoon. Filled with integrated technology, an upholstered circular sofa — capable of accommodating 10 people seated, 10 more standing, and 50 more within earshot — became the hub of the newsroom.

It has worked well and prompted a move away from the closed-door editorial conferences of the past.

4. Project/Agile methodology: As mentioned earlier, cross-team project working increased dramatically over the last two years. In particular, use of Agile project methodology has increased substantially. 

By the time we pulled together the design brief for the Wellington project, it had become a critical design requirement, even though some of what we were hearing from staff about Agile didn’t make sense to us. 

Was it really the case, for example, that highly skilled “techies” with computing power one can only dream of wanted wall space for Post-it notes, coloured pens, and anime for each team member?

Was it also true that the collaborative, creative, and innovative process would be highly structured and run off a strict daily timetable?

Confused? We were! It seemed like a big change from the way staff members were working 12 months ago. We did our due diligence, visited other businesses doing similar things, and worked through alternative ways of working, but ultimately reminded ourselves that workflows keep evolving and the workplace must keep pace with current requirements. 

5. Improving furniture and technology design: RTW is mature in some sectors such as financial and professional services, whereas it is fairly new in the media industry. 

Within six months of first looking at it though, we had a good feel for what would and would not work for our workforce and workflows. It was also easy to collect feedback so, because we could see what was working, we were able to deliver a more refined design for Wellington. 

We modified the furniture design, varied the placement of the facilities, and brought in new technologies with simpler set-up. The big lessons for us from this were to expect to get some things wrong and to be aware of the cookie-cutter approach to RTW that many suppliers and designers tout, but which might not fit one’s specific needs.

So, what’s next?

The customer: As I thought more about our workplace design, technology, and training needs during the first phase of the RTW projects, I kept reminding myself how staff want to work in the future and what we want to be as an organisation. Those thoughts became the “north” that I kept checking against when options seemed to be too broad or complicated, when nerves were frayed, and when time or budgets were tight. 

“North” has expanded in our second tranche of projects to include thinking about our customers in our workplace design.

During the past six months, I have learned a lot from our regional managers about the importance of physically interacting with customers and maintaining a presence and relevance in the local community. Even though that can be achieved through events, sponsorship, and advertising, our physical workplaces have a part to play as well. 

A key part of our regional design brief now includes thinking about how we can open our space to the community and to customers by making it shared space. It could be, for example, a large conference room facility with a cafe area for use by local associations for monthly meetings, or a meeting room with video conferencing that local journalism students can use for practice interviews, or simply great WIFI in reception for use by passers-by. 

Regardless of what model or configuration we adopt in each of our offices, we need to keep our brand at front of mind, continue to have a trusted voice in the community, and grab every available opportunity to talk to people about who we are and what we do. 

Not all about the metros: I’ve seen a fair bit of online debate and heard people talk at conferences about how many people or what square meterage justifies real time working. Is the golden number 100 people or 1000m2? 

From what we’ve learned in Sydney, Melbourne, and Wellington, we have a fairly clear picture of what RTW means for metro sites, and are now developing our thinking for regional sites.

Our business needs are forcing us to “learn by doing,” so there has been little time to sit back and strategise. We have recently gone live in Adelaide, Australia and have advanced plans for Hamilton, New Zealand, in each of which we employ around 100 staff members. Our plans for our smaller sites are still at the approval stage. 

Keeping it alive: Management speak for “keeping it alive” would perhaps be sustainability or embedding. RTW initiatives are often grounded in some sort of property development or building refit project. The “physical” elements of such projects can sometimes overshadow the “people” component, and can give a false impression that changes such as we have made and are making will be self-sustaining and low-maintenance. 

They will only be self-sustaining if, at the end of a RTW rollout, the project ceases to be called a workplace or property project, and the business and HR community take ownership of the cultural and business benefits of RTW and of the broader initiative.

It won’t work any other way. The sugar high from a RTW rollout is pretty amazing, but the real work comes with maintaining the benefits.