Charter Hall, one of Australia’s leading property investment and funds management groups, has been on what can only be described as a successful organisational change journey. On taking this journey it has become a very different organisation to what it was a just a few years ago and it is now starting to realise its original ambitions.
Charter Hall’s founding plan was to facilitate more interaction, accountability and collaboration, create a more open innovative environment, build a sense of community and belonging in its workforce and create better work-life balance for the organisation and its people.
However, as with most businesses, early on there were limitations in physical and technological infrastructure that impeded the vision.
It wasn’t until the company moved from its former office at 333 George Street in Sydney, a site it has recently redeveloped, to a new location across the street at 1 Martin Place, that the opportunity to start fulfilling its vision came into focus.
It has been a complete transformation since then.
Over at George Street, Charter Hall had the standard number of meeting rooms, two offices for managing directors and individual desks for everyone else. There was no space to collaborate, there were no quiet spots where people could do work requiring intensive collaboration.
All that changed at Martin Place with activity based working a central feature of the completely open office environment. There are no landlines. Phone calls are now made and taken on mobiles. Staff now have collaboration tools like Yammer and work from home opportunities.
Indeed, Charter Hall has become a modern-day, contemporary workplace.
Natalie Devlin, Group Executive of People, Brand and Community at Charter Hall, said the company had been working on a workplace cultural shift for some time.
“We had spent that time before our move thinking about what we wanted to be when we grew up; how did we want to act together, how did we want to organise ourselves, what were our values, all those kinds of things,” Devlin says.
“And then this wonderful opportunity came up. We had grown out of our space and had an opportunity to move, so we chose a building that we own through one of our funds and started to look at the way we worked and the way we wanted to work going forward that would reinforce our culture.”
She said Charter Hall had done a study and found people weren’t at their desks for 45 per cent of the time, so the executive team knew it had to work with the smart utilisation of space. It decided to look at the concept of activity based working through the lens of passion, collaboration and accountability.
“Our primary objective was cultural because we thought if we did it well we could really use it as an opportunity to complete our cultural transformation and break down the difference between the old business and the silos that existed and create something new for our people,” Devlin says.
The Charter Hall office at Martin Place is built around the concept of activity-based working.
If people need to work together, there’s a collaborative space where they can white-board ideas. If someone for example has to prepare something important, say a paper to the board, they can go to an area where no-one will interrupt them. There are formal collaborative settings and informal ones. Alternatively, people can use bookable meeting rooms for external or highly confidential discussion.
There are spaces called huddles, which are big round desks where there’s a multi-purpose screen to project on or conduct teleconferences, and there are large project and team tables for people working on big projects.
The office has work processing spaces which come with a computer where people can either sit on their own next to one person or at a table of four to six and process while talking to people. There are phone booths for private conversations, bunkers where people can do a piece of confidential work for a period of up to an hour, high focus areas where people are working out in the open but everyone knows not to approach them in those areas.
And then there is a learning space called the Yard where people can go and write on any surface and move all the furniture around and create different spaces.
How did the company make the transition to such a radically different working space? How easy was it for people who had worked all their lives at a desk with a phone and computer?
Devlin says it took six months to make the initial transition and a further 12 months to really embed the new way of working in people’s daily lives, but in the end, everyone was on board.
“It’s a generalisation but I would say for the younger generation, the millennials, they are used to working in lots of different environments, as long as they have a laptop, there are many spaces in which they can work,” she says.
“There are other people who would have been highly desk and paper dependent. The give in all of it is that when you suddenly have a laptop or a virtual desktop that you can access, and you don’t have a landline, you are able to work anywhere anytime.
“That does give you a personal level of flexibility and that was the first step for us to enable other types of flexibility.
There are people who battle with the concept of not having a space of their own but generally over time they get used to the idea and have their own way of working.
“The way we dealt with the transition was with less policing and more thorough coaching.”
The result was a more flexible workplace with greater accountability for everyone.
As part of the changes, Charter Hall now has policies not only around flexible working but also physical health with access to local fitness facilities, sponsored participation in fun runs and internal yoga classes, around mental health with meditation spaces, company sponsored counselling and career breaks, around nutrition with healthy snacks, food options and after hours meals, a community focus with personal and corporate donations and two annual volunteer days and family support with paid parental leave, a purchased leave scheme, school holiday programs, return to work support, reduced work week opportunities and days off for birthdays.
Devlin says the company’s mantra was to create a new way of working which meant it was flexible not only about where people worked in the building but also about start and finish times, or whether people worked from home or in the office.
“Essentially we shifted our thinking towards being outcomes focused regardless of physical presence. This requires a level of trust and respect between a manager and their people but as long as you are delivering on those outcomes then the way you do that we are supportive of,” she says. “For me our way of working is about how we create the environment or the conditions for everyone to flourish in all of their roles and aspects in life.
“Our approach to wellbeing, for instance, considers not just the physical environment but also the mental, spiritual and physical health of our people. This forces us to consider the kind of food we provide to our people, the kind of options we provide around mindfulness or even physical activities and support for working parents.
“So we have developed a menu of benefits for our people that includes things like discounts for gym memberships and support for corporate events. We have implemented school holiday programswhere our working parents bring their children to work to participate in fun learning activities as well as the ability to purchase leave to be able to accommodate school holidays,” Devlin adds.
The policies are built around supporting Charter Hall’s people to be accountable and outcomes focused. As long as people are delivering, Charter Hall will create a working environment that suits their needs.
“We started to build out a suite of benefits that’s supported the philosophy that as long as you are delivering, and we believe we ask a lot of our people anyway, then we are going to put as much in place in our environment to support you to flourish in all of that.”
Other changes include Charter Hall becoming the first Australian property company to join Pledge 1%, an initiative that enables businesses to learn more about how to create a culture of giving, by donating 1 per cent of their equity, product and employee time to the communities in which they operate. Other companies that are part of the Pledge 1% movement include Atlassian and SalesForce.
It’s a model that allows Charter Hall to create a sense of community in its workforce and give its employees a higher sense of purpose.
“That is why the concept of community became important as part of our definition of success and why Pledge 1% plays both to our strengths and benefits our community,” Devlin says.
Charter Hall’s managing director and group CEO David Harrison is also part of the Property Male Champions of Change movement which seeks to break the glass ceiling and increase the representation of women in senior leadership in the industry.
Charter Hall publishes its gender targets annually, has real time diversity reporting for managers through an online HR management system (and it prescribes that 50 per cent of any new appointment has to be internal people and 50 per cent women). It also has programs in place to ensure the transition of women into revenue creating and client facing positions.
The cultural change at Charter Hall has been enormous. Turnover level has dramatically decreased and engagement levels have increased by 30 per cent.
“Now I feel like people come to contribute ideas as part of the way we do things and people want to keep growing and refreshing itself,” Devlin says.
“It’s a significantly different organisation to the one it was three years ago and that’s been evident in things like turnover results and engagement which have significantly improved.”
Culture change fits in with Charter Hall’s overall business strategy which has seen change in the past when the Group acquired Macquaries unlisted real estate business in 2010.
Devlin says the cultural change has made that possible.
“I think we wouldn’t be able to take on these new things if we weren’t used to change and prepared for change. The mission is to keep agile even as we get bigger, that will be our challenge,” she says.