The co-founder of TRA says team members can choose when and how they work - as long as it's a win for them, their teams, and their clients. 

JEREMY HANSEN Amber, TRA recently introduced a policy called TRA Flex across the company. Can you talk a little bit about what that is, and what led to it?

AMBER COULTER Coming out of Covid, we recognised that it wasn't just about work anymore, that work was about people's whole lives – and for me, that's things like my kids, or for staff it's perhaps their interests or their families. The whole workplace was upended: people wanted the flexibility to choose where they worked, how they worked, what hours they worked. 

We've got staff at the moment working in Palo Alto, Queenstown, Christchurch, Dunedin. From a location point of view, people structure their hours however they want across the week; some people work longer days because they want to do nine-day fortnights; some people will log on really late at night; some people really early. Our TRA Flex policy is just recognising that, after Covid, there was no real going back to the way that things were. 

Really, I think the staff drove the policy. With TRA Flex, we talk about a three-way win: how our staff’s work approach has to work for their team, it has to work for them personally, and it also has to work for our clients. So those are the parameters around that. It’s about everyone being empowered. If you look at the science, that is a much better predictor of outcomes than the command-and-control model. We like to be reasonably radical. We really wanted to go all in and not just say, "Look, it's two days a week from home." Instead we’re saying, "You’re in charge as long as it works for the business, for your team, and for you personally”. 

JEREMY HANSEN How is it working so far?

AMBER COULTER It’s a little bit scary as a leader when you first start, but people are really happy so I think it's great. Staff obviously love it, and it’s really good for staff attraction as well. All of our employee engagement scores have risen quite a lot. It’s early days and we're still working through it, but there are no issues or red flags so far. In fact, I'd say the culture's probably never been better.

JEREMY HANSEN When you say the culture's never been better, how would you describe that? I’m interested because there's been a lot of discussion about the challenges of building culture virtually. 

AMBER COULTER We conduct a culture survey quite regularly and we benchmark against other service industries, so we try to keep our finger on the pulse. In the latest round of results you can see we've moved forward on a lot of metrics since we put TRA Flex in place – obvious answers like, work allows me to meld my life with work, or work allows me the flexibility that I require in a role. The employee engagement scores have been so high lately that we were recognised as one of the best places to work in the AFR Awards which was quite a big win for us. But in general, employee engagement and also financial performance are our two indicators.

JEREMY HANSEN What's it been like for you as a leader, relinquishing what to many people feels like a degree of control when you have people in the office each day? Has that been a process for you to go through?

AMBER COULTER It's quite funny because whenever I meet someone in the weekend or whatever and talk about TRA Flex, they're like, "Can I come and work there?" It's a really high-trust model, and you've got to have really good people and good processes to support them. 

JEREMY HANSEN Are there any downsides?

AMBER COULTER The one thing on our employee engagement survey that was a negative from the digital collaboration side was that collaboration is a little bit harder online – not so much within teams, but across teams. So that's one area that we are digging into improving. One of the things we've done in the office is we've made every meeting digital-first –we only hold meetings that are digitally inclusive under the Flex model. Obviously, there are a few challenges around that, where technology doesn’t necessarily match your office design and that kind of thing. 

JEREMY HANSEN How do you as a leader stay alert to the mental and physical wellbeing of your teams in a more virtual environment? 

AMBER COULTER That's an interesting one. I mean, during Covid lockdowns, when we were able to, we left the office open during some portions of the pandemic just to allow people to come in if they really needed to. We're a pretty tight-knit team so I think people's line managers are very aware of potential issues emerging and deal with them pretty quickly. 

But I think you're probably getting to this question about what the other key needs from the office are now that our work practices have fundamentally changed. Social connection and collaboration are the two key things that we see the office of the future being about. When we’re in the office, we get this energy or creative spark from working together that gives us the edge, and that's a little bit harder to do from home. It's that sort of talking across the desk or collaborating with someone at the end of the table, that kind of creative energy that's a little bit harder to pull off digitally.

JEREMY HANSEN How will this manifest in how your offices look and feel in the very near future? Because it sounds like you're still saying there is a place for the office for your business.

AMBER COULTER I absolutely believe there's a place for the office. We still believe going forward that people will still want somewhere to assemble or go. It's that social connection and collaboration that is the driving force of people wanting to come into the office. We’re still working through what that will look like in terms of the physical space. Well before Covid we put quite a lot of work into our office; it was a statement piece of our brand. At the moment we’re running it as more of a messy studio; the needs have changed. We are looking at things like Peacepods, these small, freestanding Zoom rooms or meeting rooms and adding some of those to the space, because the one challenge we do find is we run out of meeting spaces pretty quickly in the era of Zoom. We’re playing around with our spaces and giving them more of a studio feel – and also more spaces that are fit for the technology needs of today.

JEREMY HANSEN How does all this affect your relationships with your clients? Your offices have a client waiting area which is a, "Welcome to our brand, welcome to our values" space, an effort to impress and also communicate what you're about. How do you make potential clients understand what TRA is if they're new to the business and only meeting you virtually?

AMBER COULTER I think for us it's probably about using a range of other touchpoints beyond just the office to connect with our clients. We've been doing a lot more online virtual events, for example. Next week is we're using our boardroom and doing a livestream from it with an international expert on customer experience and inviting clients to participate. There's still a place for social connection with clients, it's just that we can't do it all of the time.

JEREMY HANSEN Do you think you’ll continue to rent the same amount of space, or less?

AMBER COULTER I don't think we've got all the answers. It's certainly something that we've been exploring. The things that we identified needing from a future space are flexibility, wellbeing, community. The need for people to thrive, feel a sense of belonging and inclusiveness. They need to be part of a herd. People want to feel happy, creative, productive, stimulated, and collaborative. What we are finding – because we've done our own research using cultural currents and talking to staff about their needs – is that people want quite a lot from this space in the future, which could be things like a wellness centre, maybe an auditorium, a podcast studio, they want a bar, they want a cafe, they want storage, they want a lounge, they want focused meeting rooms but they also want collaboration spaces, even things like exhibition spaces or just general spaces to connect. If people come into the office, they want to enjoy themselves. It's not just a case of going in because you have to anymore.

It's interesting because we've set up these new offices in Sydney and Melbourne over the last year and rather than take out an office space like we have in Britomart, what we've done is take permanent spaces in The Commons co-working spaces. It's working really well because they have movie theatres, yoga, free craft beer, and you get to connect with all the other businesses there. It’s a real creative hub. So I don't know what the future of offices will be like, but I do think shared spaces have a lot of the flexibility that companies will be looking for. Because if I'm going to go and refit our office and put in movie theaters and yoga rooms, we're going to run out of space pretty quickly. 

JEREMY HANSEN How does this dovetail with providing individual workspaces for your team members in offices? Because there’s some talk that hot-desking can be a disincentive for people, as they have to book themselves a space or risk commuting into the office only to find there’s no space for them. 

AMBER COULTER We were a hot-desking environment prior to the pandemic. Because of the Flex Policy we generally aren't at capacity for desk space. Recently we had a big social event in our Britomart offices so there were a lot of people in on that day – it was really interesting because it's the first time we've had so many people in for a long time, and there was a really good buzz, that buzz that you can't recreate at home.

JEREMY HANSEN One of the issues that’s been raised about the demands of being in the office is the time it takes for people to commute. How have you managed this in TRA?

AMBER COULTER It's definitely a consideration for people. I think it aligns with the point that the office has to be somewhere you want to go – it’s not just about the office, it's about where you can grab a sandwich at lunch or go to the gym and those sorts of things. People are saying they'll commute if they’re going to get what you need out of the space and its surroundings. We're pretty lucky being down at Britomart because it's so handy for people to get into. The idea in the future is that the boundaries between the office space and the area around it is going to be much more fluid. And outside the office would be all those things we’ve been talking about, like yoga and meditation rooms, cafes, art exhibitions and that type of thing. I can see the walls coming down between offices and public spaces.