The New Workplace

Josephine Sukkar , 17 December 2017

Businesses owners are being called upon to be socially aware, and flexible, and provide work-life balance to employees, while still remaining financially viable.

At a time when margins are small, and the war for talent is real, Josephine Sukkar outlines the importance of trust, clever recruitment and succession planning, and the cultivation of flexible management and teams.

Architects (and builders) are experiencing disruption from every direction. The New Workplace is one of new and ever-evolving technologies, a war for talent, an increasing absence of trust, and low margins. Clients want more, quicker, for less. At the same time, there has been an increasing demand for flexibility in the workplace, for both men and women. With the increasing involvement of men in parenting roles, there is a general desire for a better work–life balance. Employees also want to know that their company has a social conscience and are good corporate citizens. Against this backdrop, we are trying to keep our businesses financially viable, and the doors open. It’s a juggling act.

Wisdom comes with experience

I have worked in other firms, and (with my husband and some partners) I have established my own business, Buildcorp. In its 27 years, we have had over 1100 people come and go (we currently have over 300 staff). I have had good and ordinary bosses. I have been a good and an ordinary boss at times. I am absolutely sure. I have also raised two (now adult) children – and this, as well as my experiences within our own business and from my work on the boards of other organisations, have helped to form my views on flexible work.

I have employed and been privileged to watch the journeys of scores of staff through marriage, kids, ageing parents… And no two people have ever asked me to create the same parental care or leave policies in our workplace.

I admit I have not listened closely enough at times. I have created “opportunities” for staff that were not really opportunities at all, such as the childcare centre that we nearly invested a fortune in, on the roof of our Sydney office, so that our staff could have their children close to their work. We wanted to play our part as an employer who “supported” our people. That I never even ASKED them if that was actually what they wanted is quite another thing! They told me no, they didn’t want me to build a childcare centre on the roof. But it was a useful discussion, because they came to trust us – to trust that we would invest whatever we needed to support them to do their jobs, and to keep their families at the heart of all they do. They didn’t need what I thought they needed, but they saw that we put them first.

The New Workplace not so new

My experiences lead me to the view that the New Workplace is not necessarily different at all from the workplace of old.

There are certain factors that have never changed in creating a financially sustainable, safe and productive work environment:

  1. Trusted managers.
  2. Managers personally recruiting and ensuring strong succession for the business.
  3. Flexible teams and managers, not flexible roles.

Each factor is interdependent on the other, and critical in the “new – old – same” workplace.

Now, this may seem basic, and not particularly strategic or highly technical. But they underpin everything.

1. Trust

An organisation must be transparent and live its values if it is to gain the trust of its employees. Trust must be present in any high-functioning team or organisation. An environment of trust is achieved when everyone in the team feels safe and knows that any decision made will be fair (even if they don’t personally like it, they will feel it is fair).

I have often shared that my husband and I have worked together for over 30 years. Now, that has come easily to us, but it has done one thing that perhaps doesn’t happen for a lot of other couples. It means that our values are on display all the time – to our staff, to our children. We publicly stated our corporate values, which we developed in consultation with our staff (passion, teamwork, preparedness, integrity, continual learning, fair play – and social responsibility).

We are predictable (which can be incredibly boring for some), but it tends to feel safe for many staff and family, because we are not continually moving the goal posts. They know what we stand for. They know we will be transparent and honest with them – when the times are good and when the times are challenging. We are open with staff. We share everything. They hopefully trust us and tell us what we want to hear – but more importantly what we don’t want to, but need to hear.

Of course, sometimes you will be let down. But it is so rare and so unusual that we have never stopped being open with our people. (To me that would be like not driving, just in case you have a car accident. You might, but it is so rare we all continue to drive and enjoy the benefits that brings).

A number of years ago we installed an advisory board at Buildcorp. It was our first day of meetings, and we started with a morning boardroom breakfast with our bankers, insurers and auditors. Then we had our State of the Nation with our staff, where we came together and told them exactly the state of the business. At the wrap up of the day, our board actually asked us why we shared everything when we didn’t need to, the way a public company needs to.

It was easy for us. We employ smart people. How are they going to help us grow the business if we only give them part of the information they need to do their job? And trust builds trust. Even when I got the childcare “great idea” wrong, they at least knew that we were prepared to invest in what we say we value. Them.

2. Recruitment and Succession Planning

I am not talking about the role of the HR department here. This is recruitment and succession planning by YOU. Management and everyone in the organisation who understands your culture, are best placed to identify who to “let” into your business.

High-performing CEOs work to ensure that they have a number of potential successors identified, within and outside of the business. If a leader does this, it’s music to the ears of boards. A true leader is one who is focused on building his team and succession. High-functioning leaders understand it is ALL about the people.

It is the people who deliver the designs. People build buildings. People deliver the numbers. Our people are the custodians of our values and our culture. In our businesses, we are not making widgets. We are managing and leading people. And often we make the mistake of using search firms or our HR teams to identify and manage talent, when our involvement in the process is crucial. After all, people are the most important resource we have.

Team leaders and executives need to make time to understand their teams and develop a skills matrix, informed by a skills audit. [Check: Do you need to upskill yourself and your team leaders to do this well?] They need a front row seat in recruitment of new staff to determine not just what skills, but what values will be coming into the business. [Who are you letting into the business and why?]

Leaders need to understand what skills are already in the organisation, and what skills are needed to deliver on the business and strategic plans of the organisation. For example, a company might want to get into the aged care sector, but it doesn’t have a team with that skillset. Clients won’t use that company until it does, so they need to get moving on developing or recruiting the right people with the right experience. 

Team leaders also need to be responsible for developing a pipeline, or a “bench”. [Check: Do you need to bring in an HR consultant to help upskill you and your team leaders?] The cost of not having a clear succession plan is substantial. There are several things to consider:

  • How much money did you invest with a search firm to recruit?
  • How much have you invested to develop this resource?
  • If these employees are good, do you really want them with your competitors?
  • What is the cost to try to replace this resource?
  • Might it have been possible, with a clear succession plan, to create a growth opportunity within your business and keep the resource?
  • Flexibility will be optimised, only when you have recruited the right talent and created succession plans to hold them in the business.
3. Flexible Teams and Flexible Managers

When considering the practice of flexible work arrangements, it’s important to focus on the “why”. Why is it important to support flexibility? The answer is clear-cut. Because we will do everything we possibly can to hold talent. Because it makes good business sense.

Individual Flexibility Arrangements (IFAs) are a contractual arrangement, which makes the administration of a flexible work arrangement manageable. They codify the spirit of the arrangement you have negotiated with your employee.

But ultimately, I must come back to ‘trust’ again. Your people need to believe that you are genuinely interested in working with them to meet their personal desires and obligations. They need to trust you. And the trust needs to go both ways. It’s just another employment contract.

In 1990, when we began Buildcorp, workplace flexibility was not something we discussed. We did, however, have a need to hold talent. And in 1990, it was only women who were asking for flexibility. And those really valuable, ‘we cannot do without’ women remained in the business in one form or another.

Importantly, they were prepared to be flexible with us to ensure they were able to keep a job. They didn’t demand the same roles they used to have when they were full time. And we were able to find them roles and keep them.

One woman came to us newly married – her eldest has just finished school, she has been with us over 20 years, and she still works four days a week.

Another case is a gentleman, an estimator, who works with our joinery business Euroline in Sydney, and measures work remotely from somewhere near Byron Bay.

A design manager from Sydney moved to Brisbane because of the cost of living and is working for the NSW contracting business but operates largely out of the Brisbane office.

A tender coordinator works part-time since she had her baby and right now that is working for us all.

However, flexible arrangements aren’t always possible. When a site manager wanted to go flex, we worked hard to try to figure out how to do this and we just couldn’t make it work. So, he went to another builder. But he’s back – because in that specific role it is very hard to manage a flexible arrangement. That doesn’t mean we are not looking for ways to make it work, but it will require a systemic change in how we manage contracts and client expectations as a sector.

There is no way you are going to be able to retain absolutely everyone when their requirements change, but when they are really good you will work hard to try and keep them.

Some of the things that helped Buildcorp deliver flexibility in a manageable way include:

  • Understanding what roles can be flexible and what roles can’t (site-based roles are hard for us at the moment);
  • Acknowledging that flexibility goes both ways (employer and employee are open to try to make it work);
  • Encouraging transparency –  our people know the business plans of their business units, so come to us with ideas about how they might be able to work flexibly without affecting the business plan to which they need to deliver;
  • Having flexible teams – organising rosters for sites (most that open Saturday), so that site supervisors get some weekends off (the entire team works to spread the load);
  • Having flexible management – when ideas are suggested to us as to how somebody might want to work moving forward (like an estimator working from Byron Bay!), being open, rather than losing the talent;
  • Avoiding making suggestions for staff (like childcare centres!) and instead listening to what they need; and
  • Giving general flexibility, such as someone attending their son’s swimming carnival or their ailing mother’s doctor’s appointment, or simply needing a mental health day. Ensure your team members know what their role is in the broader business, and they will invariably be in the position to take opportunities as they need them with minimal impact on the team.


No-one is more motivated to find a workable solution than the person asking for it. Be open and transparent about the business challenges or obstacles you are dealing with. Once they know, they will help you find a solution.

All businesses benefit when employees are supported to remain in the workplace, but employees need to understand the impact of the changes they seek when their life circumstances mean they need to move their employment ‘goal posts’.

This profession, architecture, is well placed to address the opportunities the new (old / same) workplace throws up, because of the innate creativity and EQ of the professionals who work within it. Architects are hardwired to find creative solutions to difficult problems, so designing and rolling out creative solutions for flexible teams comes naturally.

Grounded in trust, with a focus on recruitment and succession, your team will help you design the solutions to their own FLEXIBLE work situations, in a commercially viable way, to ensure that you are able to hold onto your most valued business assets – your people.

Josephine Sukkar is a professional company director with governance and executive experience across a range of industries including construction, finance, sport, the arts, medical research and social services. As a former scientist and teacher, Josephine is analytical in her approach, and multi-disciplinary with strong communication skills. Having established Buildcorp with her husband 27 years ago, the business now employs over 300 staff and has revenue of $500 million. Josephine has public company  and government board experience, and serves on a number of not-for-profit boards.

This article is based on The New Workplace, Josephine Sukkar’s November presentation to the ACA – Qld/NT.

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