Episode 29: What does the office of the future look like?


All Xero In episodes

Hosted by Jeanne-Vida Douglas and Rob Stone

We’ve come a long way since the days of the office with four walls, a door and a desk. So what does the office of the future look like? And will architecture alone get us there?

This week Xero In hosts Rob Stone and JV Douglas are joined by Justin Kabbani, managing director and owner of Hardhat Digital, a creative agency that is pioneering the way forward in office design.

“One of the things we like to say at Hardhat is that our office is our temple. The office is the body of the company and everything that comes in here should follow the same kind of guidelines that you would about diet,” Justin told Rob and JV.

Tune in to find out how office design is key to fostering innovation and creativity in the workplace.

Small business resources:

How to build a great small business team – Xero Small Business Guide

8 Top Office Design Trends For 2016 – Fastcompany.com

Workspace flexibility to shape future office markets – Sydney Morning Herald

Episode transcript

Hosts: Jeanne-Vida Douglas [JVD] and Rob Stone [RS]
Guest: Justin Kabbani [JK]

JVD: Welcome back to Xero In, thank you so much for downloading the show. I’m JV Douglas and I’m joined again by Rob Stone.

RS: Hi JV.

JVD: And today we’re going to talk to someone who’s incredibly creative.

RS: That’s right, we’ll be talking with Justin Kabbani, managing director and owner of Hardhat Digital in Melbourne.

JVD: It’s a creative agency that’s pioneering the way forward in office design.

JVD: I hear it rumoured that they actually have like a great big long snake desk that everybody can kind of work on and collaborate on all together and that they have cakes up to two times a week, this place sounds awesome.

RS: Sounds like a great place to work.

JVD: Let’s hear from Justin.

JVD: Today we’re joined by Justin Kabbani, he’s the managing director and owner of Hardhat Digital. Hey there Justin, how are you?

JK: Hey, I’m great thanks.

JVD: Thanks for joining us today.

JVD: What I find fascinating about this sort of whole workspace focus is that it’s kind of waxed and waned over the years. So tell me then, what impact does office planning have when it comes to fostering innovation and creativity in the workplace?

JK: You really need to believe in what you’re doing. You need to throw yourself into the open space and also I guess adapt that thinking that, hey you know what, hierarchy was around for a while and it serves its purpose, but it’s probably not going to get the best results out of people. Have that mindset and that lifestyle change that says ‘let go a little’. Most people want great outcomes so let’s leave it to the group to decide what the outcomes are and the group will take us there.

Some companies get really carried away with them and trust me when I tell you that we’ve got two dogs in our office, a bunch of skaters, indoor bike parking, the Woolworth’s guy just arrived before to stock up the refrigerator, and the cupboards. We’ve got Sonos wireless speakers throughout the office, we’ve got catered lunches most weeks, we’ve got cakes all the time, we’ve got a basketball court, we have a fully stocked whisky bar that’s open all the time for people to use whenever they want. All these things are great, but really beyond the first week they just become part of the furniture themselves. So you can’t just put these things in place and hope that your culture is going to then change into a flat culture.

RS: And it also makes it more authentic as well because you’ve got buy-in but on top of that you’re putting culture ahead of the space.

JK: Yeah, we operate in the digital world. Most of what we create is virtual in the sense that it lives on a website or an app or in social media or places like that. So when given the opportunity to create something physical, we dive at it because there’s a real sense that you know, sometimes we’re creating things that in two or three months are just gone. So creating a physical space is exciting. In fact we’ve got a lab in our office where we’ve got a bunch of drills and wood and soldering irons and all those kind of things just to give people that opportunity to make sure that we’re still creating things in the real world.

RS: Can you give us some background on this journey and bring us up to speed coming up to starting Hardhat Digital and becoming the managing director and owner there?

JK: We started the business 11 years ago we’ve been digital since, digital from the start.

We’re a team of about 40 now in Melbourne and we’ve recently launched a Sydney office as well. We’re probably now in our sixth office. So, as with a fast growth company the thought of signing a three or four or five year lease can sometimes be a little bit intimidating, but we’ve had to find creative ways around that too.

RS: When you first started, did you have this concept and this philosophy at the very start or has it evolved over time?

JK: We started this business kind of straight out of uni. It’s actually – you know, still my first job 11 years later and I think we always wanted to create a place where we wanted to work and it doesn’t matter what you’re planning, you know, even down to where you’re choosing the location of your office, as a business owner you might as well choose it close to home because why would you spend commuting time if you didn’t have to. You know, when it comes to buying a chair, like don’t just pick the first thing but, you know, actually have a look and see is that the thing that you’re going to enjoy sitting in, what does it, you know, say about your office?

So our chairs are designed by an orthopaedic surgeon. Right? It’s kind of like a small subtlety, but you don’t have to just go and pick from a catalogue, you can go on a bit of a journey and you can enjoy the process.

RS: But if you’re a small business owner, what type of questions should they be asking, you know, themselves. I mean you’ve got a very strong sense of purpose and that comes through in everything that you do and I’m also conscious that your brand is very important in a digital space as well, when you’re pitching for work.

But there’s a lot of small businesses out there that (a) might not have the resources, but (b) have never really asked themselves the question of what type of space do I want to come and work in and what, you know, my employees as well. Where should they begin the journey?

JK: Attracting and retaining staff is one of the most expensive things that you’re going to do in a business, far more expensive than anything that you’re going to spend on the physical environment itself. So you really need to think that we’re in a competitive marketplace, fortunately in Australia we, you know, haven’t had to deal with, you know, high levels of unemployment and particularly in a growing industry like this where things are changing, we really need to think like how can we become an employer of choice?

And once somebody walks through this door how can we nurture and grow their skillset and continue for them to achieve employee satisfaction for years to come? And it would be my ideal situation if every single person that’s sitting here now is still here in five years and not sure what Hardhat will be in 10 years, but hopefully in 10 years. So you really want to think about that employee experience. You’re not just buying a service item. You know, I get carried away even down to a pen. Right? I don’t like biros, I hate biros. Biros upset me because they write slowly. I feel like we sometimes impeded our own progress because the pen that we’re using can’t keep up with our thoughts.

JVD: So tell us a little bit about these creative spaces that you’ve made?

JK: Yeah, so when we launched into this office we probably didn’t realise that we were at a space of being able to create our dream office yet, but when we got into it, you know, you sit down with an architect and you sit down with builders and you start playing things out and you start looking at budgets and very quickly the numbers start flying up. And we thought, like how can we make this truer to our culture, how can we make sure that we spend every single cent in here with a smile and that there are no grudge purchases in the office, because there’s no resentment.

Like one of the things that came back we were going to split an area into two, you know, seminar meeting rooms and then I got quote back about an acoustic wall that was going to be $25,000 and I was, (a), just the thought of spending $25,000 on an acoustic wall was – just made me think like what else could we do with those funds. And that room now is – is what you walk into our office, and it’s – it’s a half-court basketball court with – complete with bleachers, a bunch of basketballs and a trophy cabinet on the wall.

Yeah, and it’s a really versatile space. Just this morning we had a full company presentation in there so we’ve got a projector up there as well. Last week we had an event for an industry group, the week before that we had a social event for the Australian Marketing institute for – for 80 people. So it’s become a really versatile space.

One of the things we like to say at Hardhat is that our office is our temple.

The office is the body of the company and everything that comes in here should follow the same kind of guidelines that you would about diet, for example. So we protect what goes in. We cut out anything that’s suspicious or spreading undesirably and we follow our rituals religiously.

So one of the things that we like to say is, you know, once a week or once every two weeks someone will get up and say, ‘hey guys, it’s time to Zen the temple’. And so we’re not telling everyone, ‘hey clean your desks’. It’s like Zen the temple, respect what the workplace is and how important it is and you know, get rid of the shit that’s lying around on your desk, or empty out your rubbish bin because it’s overflowing, those kind of things.

Other rituals that are really important is first days. You know, how familiar is this that people rock up to a business on the first day, and look we care so much about the way we welcome in new customers into our business and we think about how beautiful our proposal documents are and how nice our boardroom looks and put some flowers in there and put some Tim-Tams in, all those sorts of things. But a new person, a new employee rocks up to our business, how many times do they just rock up on a Monday morning, things are crazy, they sit in reception, and then perhaps they go off and they meet HR, they sign some forms, you know, come over here, sit in this empty desk – it’s not your desk, but yours is not ready yet. Oh sorry, we don’t have a computer for you but, you know what your manager’s busy right now but they’ll see you after lunch. You go off to lunch alone, you come back you twiddle your thumbs at your desk until 5.30 and then you go home and – and then your partner says, ‘Hey honey, how was your first day?’

And your answer’s a bit like, ‘um well, it wasn’t that good actually’. So at hardhat we make it a religious experience. So firstly people only ever start on a Tuesday because Mondays are just too crazy. Secondly, like a four day work week is more than enough. You know, a new job can be exhausting, there’s so much to take in. We tell people, I know you want show – show off how eager you are, but come in at 8.55 at the same time as everyone else, five minutes before stand up so you don’t have to sit around by yourself. Then they get welcomed by the entire company where everyone mentions their name and their role, and that’s really after that, it’s much easier to start a conversation with someone, because you’ve, you know, already had an eye to eye with them.

Your desk is ready with your computer, usually a brand new shiny Mac, your email’s set up, your phones are set up, your business cards are printed, your log ins to everything and how do you know which one your desk is? Well easy, it’s the one with the balloons above it, right? So and where are you going to have lunch on your first day, well, don’t worry, because we’re putting on a full company lunch to welcome you in and give you an opportunity to talk a little bit about yourself.

And then we’ve got a full planned induction meeting there where you’ll meet key people in the business. So when Hardhat people go home on their first day and their partner says, ‘Honey how was your first day at Hardhat?’ Their usual answer is, ‘I think I’m really going to love it at this place’.

RS: So you didn’t spend $25,000 on a wall, what’s some of the most expensive items that went into the space?

We thought how can we expand that out? So what we actually built is one single continuous desk that goes throughout the office and currently all 40 people are sitting around this single desk. Everyone from myself, through designers, strategists, developers, accounts people, and it’s really cool because wherever you are in the office, you’ve got kind of line of sight to everyone else. Yet in – in a way because of the way we’ve snaked it around the office there’s still enough level of privacy and people having their own spaces.

JK: The real key things we were looking for in a new space were natural light, being able to open doors and windows and a super high ceiling.

JVD: What have you been able to pick up from these different generations of thought around creating a really functional office space and what is your current focus on when it comes to creating an office space that’s really, really engaging, but also caters to the different needs of people who are perhaps more introverted or need to work on a small project, or – or need to have a really quiet place to make a really specific phone call?

JK: The open office idea stems back to the 1950s in Germany where it was like this new revolutionary idea. I think one of the big problems with open office and, you know, I’ve seen it in friends and stuff like that where people, at one stage they’re in cubicles and then ‘hey guys we’re moving to the new office’, chuck you all in the new office, no training, no thought around how you’re going to work together.

Like anything else that comes with a change – people need to understand how to work together. We do personality styles training in here. So we understand, each of us know our learning styles and our retention styles and we try and cater those sorts of things. You also need to have quiet spaces that people can pick up and go to. So it’s been relatively common that people have, you know, laptops over the last couple of years. But actually creating spaces where they can go and close the door and have quiet time is pretty important.

RS: And Justin, you talked about having a flat culture how does that reflect in the office space, you know, do you sit at the head or the tail of the Noodle, the snake, or you know, how is the positioning done, and what happens when you’re growing at a fast rate, do you have to continually then move people every time you have an influx of new employees?

JK: Yeah, so moving is absolutely part of what we do all the time in fact today is a moving day so we’ve just come to the end of a cycle of a bunch of projects.

What we do is we take a cross functional team so we’ll take an account manager, a designer, a frame developer, a programmer and a strategist as an example, and we’ll move those people to sit together. So facing each other, three and three, and then what lands up happening is that as people look at each other’s screens, the conversation starts to become about the project and we start to have in-context conversations.

JVD: Justin can you tell us a little bit about the connection between technology and workspace and the sorts of opportunities that the current, I guess, generation of technology, whether it’s sort of collaborative software or mobile apps or what have you, how they’re impacting the way we work and the way we can put workspaces together?

JK: I think in a big part it’s actually set us back a long way.

Agile methodology came about because of, you know, projects getting bigger and bigger yet people not seeing the results. And they’re getting stuck in these long periods of trying to create documentation. And, you know, of the four core values of agile, the first one is to value individuals and interactions over process and tools. I think what happens when we have amazing software running our businesses is that we land up turning around and someone says, ‘hey what’s happening with that project’ – and their response to that question is, ‘well if you check the project management software, you’ll find out what’s going on exactly’. Whereas when you have things like daily stand-ups or project stand-ups where people get together really quickly, what have I completed, what am I working on and what are my blockers, then things move faster at a greater velocity.

RS: You mentioned four different aspects of agile methodology and you spoke to one, what are the other three?

JK: The other three are working software over comprehensive documentation. So even the process of planning out a project, rather than having a business analyst sit and write a 100-page spec document for what the outcome of a project is going to be, clients are usually surprised actually at the start of the project where we get in a room for a day or two with big post it notes and Sharpie Markers and all we’re doing is just asking a million questions. That level of conversation and understanding is really important.

The other two are customer collaboration over contract negotiation. So really building a great strong relationship between agency and client and that the relationship lands up meaning more than the details that you’ve negotiated in a contract. And then the fourth one is responding to change over following a plan. So change is a guarantee. The nature of technology is that even in the course of creating something there may be a version upgrade to something that you’re integrating with. There may be a change of rules around privacy, there may be all these things, and then the business themselves may change.

So having that adaptability built into your project and saying, you know what we’re going to plan out the next three months work but then we’ll stop after that and we’ll plan out the following three months’ work is really important to ensure that the outcome that you have is right at the time that it’s launched and then continues to be right as things change.

RS: What of that methodology do you apply to structuring your workspace?

JK: A couple of the rituals that we have in our business that really use and utilise the space are that we have a 9.00 am stand up every single day.

So we stand around in a group the entire agency and we go around person by person, what did you complete yesterday, what are you going to achieve today and what are your blockers. And, you know, even the subtlety of talking about what did you complete or what did you achieve, we land up, the first conversation that we have as a group is about achievement and about what we are completing as an agency. So you pick up that momentum created from yesterday and you keep rolling with it again from the start.

It also means that when some people are overloaded, that they’re able to share the workload out because everyone’s talking about what’s going on.

You know, one of the things that agile does is it creates a favour-based culture and I know we talked a lot about methodology here, but the methodology really influences the layout of the office. Again, going back to project management stuff. When a client calls up with a small task, you know, they might ask for something that’s two hours or less.

Now, when a small task comes in we write it up on a piece of card, it’s colour-coded depending on the skillset that’s required to do it, so is it a design task for example, then it’s green. We put it up on the board on wall in the office so that people can see it, and if a designer finishes something early or is waiting on something or simply is, you know, perhaps mentally blocked on a task they’re doing, they can turn around and look up at that board and say, oh there’s a green task up there. Walk up, physically take that card from the waiting, put it into the in progress column on that same whiteboard, head over to whoever put it up there and say, ‘Hey can I help you out with this’.

RS: Can you share with us some of the other unintended consequences that you’ve seen not just from having this internal marketplace where you’re heightening the sense of ownership, but also around how that’s replicated in the workspace.

JK: One of the things that we learnt was the visual auditory and kinaesthetic learning retention model. So some of us will retain information visually, so we’ll remember what we saw. Some of us will retain it because of auditory because we’ve had a conversation about it and some of us are kinaesthetic, probably the best example – you know those people that are sitting there doodling in their notebook in the middle of a meeting and you think what the hell are they doing and then at the end of it, they’re able to recite every word back of what they need to do.

The team takes the project and the team cares about the project as a whole and they’re involved with it from the start through to fruition. And so one of the unintended benefits is that the lynchpin, the project manager, is no longer the lynchpin.

RS: Is there a dark side to all this? You know, have you seen some challenges that have come through as a result maybe fostering a higher sense of expectations?

JK: We’re pretty strict in the way that we hire. We really make sure the people that come into this business are bringing in the value set that we want to see the business have itself. Like the values are driven by the individuals themselves. So for the most part we’ve been successful at that and haven’t seen too many negative situations and I think front footing that question of where conflict could happen.

You need to continue to invest in your workplace, you need to continue to listen to your staff about how they want to use it and how they want to work in it and keep your mind open. Something that I’m reading into now is holacracy that Zappos and a number of other companies in the US have looked into. So the complete abandonment of hierarchy and that every single task in the company goes onto a task board and people can nominate for it.

It’s a really interesting thing and I think again, that will have implications on the layout and how the office comes together and works together.

RS: Thanks so much for joining us it was a fascinating interview.

JK: Cheers mate.

JVD: What was great about that conversation was the way agile methodology, which originally comes from computer programming, is influencing so much of what we do and how we operate within organisations.

RS: Yeah you have to respect how much someone can create a work environment to reflect who they are and what the business stands for.

JVD: It seems so obvious, of course the space we’re working in influences what we do and how we do it but then when you get somebody who’s actually put so much thought into it and who is actually having tangible outcomes in their business from that thought and from that input it’s just fabulous to see.

RS: Yeah – it’s a great interview.

JVD: Absolutely, look forward to next time Rob.

RS: Me too JV.


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