How I Got Here: The Great Room’s Josh Alfafara on subverting traditional understandings of an office

by Helena Morgan
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Some people think facilities and operations managers just make sure the lifts are running and the lights are on. In reality, an FM wears many hats. From space management to sustainability and security in the built environment, responsibilities can vary from FM to FM. It’s a career full of opportunity that takes people down many different paths.

Facility Management’s ‘How I Got Here’ series chats to impressive people who have worked in the field to map out some of the paths taken and demystify this essential profession.

Josh Alfafara wants you to want to return to an office space. As the general manager of The Great Room’s soon-to-open co-working and flex space in Sydney, he believes an office should be more than just a hundred bodies in a hundred chairs, complete with fights over instant coffee in a cramped office kitchen, and bursts of productivity, followed by lethargy and dwindling motivation. 

More than just four walls

“An office is not just a place to get things done, but a place to gather, create and innovate – it’s more than just four walls,” says Alfafara.

With 15 years’ experience in the global commercial real estate industry, he maintains that an office space is responsible for igniting passion and inspiration and providing users with direction and connections. 

“We thrive, personally and professionally, from connection – and an office environment that sees to that, will make people want to come in,” says Alfafara. 

As the return to office debate gets hotter and more divisive, many workplaces would perhaps be wise to adopt The Great Room’s memorable company philosophy – “it’s all work, it’s all play” – and encourage returning to an office space that oozes energy and joy, and delivers unbridled support and encouragement to staff. 

Human-centric workplace management 

Now the proud general manager of the first Great Room co-working space in Australia – set to open on February 1 with an impressive 70 percent presale occupancy – Alfafara had an industry start working in real estate firms in the Philippines.

However, he cites a degree in industrial psychology as responsible for arming him with a human-centric approach to workplace management. “I’m passionate about people – how they operate and what makes them tick,” says Alfafara. 

Upon first moving to Australia 10 years ago, Alfafara worked as a business developer for a global co-working company and developed solutions and remedies to workplace issues. His tenure also saw him acquire a keen interest in account management and brainstorming how to retain and entertain members.

Alfafara’s promotion to city head at this company saw him lead the Sydney office and work to guarantee workplace wellness, contentment and productivity.

The soon-to-open Great Room flex space in Sydney.

Welcome to the coworking revolution

After a stint working in flex solutions at global real estate company JLL, Alfafara yearned to be “back on the ground,” and found himself at the epicentre of the co-working space storm at The Great Room. 

Founded in 2016 in Singapore, The Great Room promotes a holistic approach to business and office culture. It vows to revolutionise the way people work, meet and socialise by making workspaces enjoyable, alleviating stress and anxiety and eliminating unrealistic and damaging work standards. 

“I think what sets us apart from other office and workplace management is that every day our teams and community executives consider what we need to do to make our members happy,” says Alfafara. 

The Great Room

The Great Room has 10 Asia Pacific locations – with a main office and home base in Singapore – and welcomes a new addition to the family via the Sydney office under Alfafara’s care, at 85 Castlereagh Street in the CBD. Additionally, global flex operator Industriousrecent acquisition of The Great Room will see it fall under the helm of 160 locations across 65 cities. 

Sydney members will be afforded 24/7 access to a range of workspaces – a 30-person capacity office, a ‘hot desk’ or a day pass for a short-term visit – alongside a bar privy to skyline views for knock offs and weekly breakfast clubs and personal development and lifestyle events. 

“We want to incentivise coming into the office, and make it a desirable option for people,” says Alfafara.

An enriched office experience 

Although not a new concept, co-working or flex spaces are very much worthy of buzzword status and have nestled their way into the zeitgeist. A co-working space allows for a variety of workers – the solitary employee, freelancer, entrepreneur or small business owner – to still access a sense of connection and camaraderie away from a traditional office environment. 

Alfafara is excited to see the perks and rewards of flex and co-working spaces no longer just resonating with start-ups and sole traders. “Many large multinational companies are now including flex spaces in their workplace strategy,” he says. 

Co-working and flex spaces offer companies the flexibility and freedom to expand or downsize when adapting to changing environments, The Great Room’s general manager says. 

The soon-to-open Great Room flex space in Sydney.

Moreover, co-working and flex spaces aim to avoid the feeling of a clinical and sterile office that bears witness to stress and anxiety, and instead encourage people to go on coffee breaks, chat to colleagues and feel permitted to be themselves in a professional space. 

Alfafara’s role at Sydney’s The Great Room will extend beyond the general facilities or operational realm of restocking pantry supplies and managing security. He will don many different hats as a cross-functional lead – working across operations, business development, marketing and finance. He also debunks the misconception that facilities management is a solo role confined to an office. 

“It’s all about people – ensuring on a daily basis that members are happy and engaged and their needs are being met, and understanding what their personal and professional goals are,” he says. 

Workplace wellness 

Ensuring everyone’s needs are met is an ambitious task, but one Alfafara is eager to take on. He is managing all businesses – whether small, large or a one-person show – as The Great Room’s own. 

“Everyone has different needs, and being able to deliver that may seem easy from the outside, but it’s something that needs to be carefully managed, because we can’t please everybody at the same time, and yet we do have to please everybody at the same time,” he laughs. 

And so ensues a case of Catch-22 – understanding that constantly catering to all members is not always achievable, yet striving to make sure the best outcome is reached for the biggest number of people. “Each day I will communicate with people to make sure they’re connecting and working together,” says Alfafara.

He is an advocate for gentle wellbeing check-ins to foster an environment that is not dripping with seriousness and solemnity, but instead authenticity and realness. “It’s about creating a space where people can be themselves and still be professional,” says Alfafara. 

The soon-to-open Great Room flex space in Sydney.

The aforementioned company motto of “it’s all work, it’s all play” echoes the goal to pursue a healthy work-life balance and remove the stiffness and awkwardness of office affairs. Alfafara surmises that if an atmosphere is light-hearted, good-humoured and relaxed, people may be more productive and diligent. 

He sees eternal reward in having an open-door policy and encouraging candid and respectful conversations about mental health to determine what motivates us, upsets us or triggers us. 

“Not every day is going to be easy, but it’s about being able to communicate with the team so we can cover for each other or pick up the slack where needed and still be a well-oiled business,” he says. 

A culture made by the community for the community 

Some businesses are apprehensive about joining a flex or co-working space as they fear their company identity may be lost when homogenised into a general corporate identity. 

“Our community executives will work hard to ensure that businesses don’t lose that sense of identity,” says Alfafara. “Although they are in a shared workspace, they can still maintain their sense of self, even if it means having company colours or a logo in the office.”

Member-driven initiatives such as running clubs, trivia nights or raising money for charity create a community that is a colourful and vibrant fusion of different professions and outlooks. “We do find that businesses grow to love being a part of a bigger community and a bigger picture,” says Alfafara. 

The soon-to-open Great Room flex space in Sydney.

“If a member initiates that means that we created a safe enough space for them to feel like they own this community,” says Alfafara. 

He is determined for the first Great Room space in Australia to set a precedent for others to follow, and while this is a slightly daunting task, the potential to create a legacy is exciting. 

“We set the culture, we set the tone as to how this business will be run and create the foundations,” says Alfafara. 

At the end of the day, what Alfafara reveals is one of the most gratifying parts about managing co-working and flex spaces suggest his role is akin to a matchmaker. 

“One of the most exciting things about being responsible for connecting businesses is seeing them work on a project, but more so, seeing two people from different businesses that you introduced having lunch together – and you think, oh wow, I did that!” says Alfafara. 

Photography supplied by The Great Room. 

The Great Room in Sydney will be a collaborative coworking haven.

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