MixInspired Manchester – Leading from the Front

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We at Mix Media spend a good deal of our time ‘putting people together’, whether metaphorically, through the magazine and online, or actually, through our events. Of these events, Mixology may be the most recognisable (do have a look at page 94 to see the great interaction we’re able to create on a grand scale). Another event is our MixInspired seminar programme, which does quite a different job. Now in its third year, the aim for MixInspired was to create a platform for us to consider some of the bigger issues facing the interior design industry.

Our ninth MixInspired took us to Manchester and our focus for this afterwork affair was to consider who is leading the Workplace Revolution and what consumes their working day. To help, we assembled a panel of end user clients who had all recently been through the rigors of creating a workplace fit for the 21st century.

It is now commonly accepted in the interior design sector that we are going through changes, the likes of which we have not seen before. For example, the technological advances in the workplace have been so profound in recent years that, if you haven’t already embraced them, there is a danger of being left behind. We think the next tech focus will be the monitoring of staff and their work habits – expect this to be less intrusive and very quickly the norm.

Technology aside, the most significant change for many people is our view of employees. Business leaders are becoming more humancentric in their approach for a number of reasons. Firstly, unemployment in the UK is at its lowest since 1975 and employment rates are at nearly 75%, the highest since comparable records began.

Secondly, there is the power of communication. In just the way that young people in particular are alerting the world about their latest meal, they are also telling their friends about their wonderful new workplace.

“Building your amazing human workplace is like building an app, platform or system. If it doesn’t meet the need for its end users in a sufficiently accessible way, they won’t use it!”

Thirdly, after the most recent financial crisis, every business changed; the most obvious change was a more customer-focused approach – customer service improved overnight as businesses aimed to survive. This same focus is increasingly being used when business leaders consider their staff. In his excellent new book, The Human Workplace, Andy Swann suggests that ‘providing the best possible experience for your customers will create loyalty and brand advocacy, this same approach is exactly the same with the experience you provide to your employees. Building your amazing human workplace is like building an app, platform or system. If it doesn’t meet the need for its end users in a sufficiently accessible way, they won’t use it!’

The venue for our MixInspired event was Manchester Hall. After two years of refurbishment, this former Freemasons Hall has been turned into a multifunctional event space. A wonderful old building given a very tasteful new lease of life.

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One of the early questions we asked our panel – which comprised Bruntwood’s Ciara Keeling, TalkTalk’s Jenny Rickus and Avenue HQ’s Matthew Kennedy – was what they loved about their jobs. We were not surprised to hear that all of them enjoyed the variety of their roles and focus on people.

Ciara was quizzed about the Neo Building, a 12-storey, 1970’s office block. She explained that the journey started about two years ago, when Bruntwood had that rarest of things – an entire building available. As those in the know will be all too aware, Bruntwood are keen to look at things differently and they saw this former Bank of England outpost as an opportunity to react to the changes in the market. When asked what was the single biggest difference to their normal approach to serviced offices, Ciara was quick to point out the shared space – a space that, under normal circumstances, would have been allocated to fee-earning clients.

This shared space is designed to be used by the myriad of clients at Neo as a community space. Asked if the use of a communal space will be used in future Bruntwood projects, the response was an overwhelming ‘Yes’.

Creating communities and shared spaces for both Avenue HQ and TalkTalk were central to the plans of Matthew and Jenny. We recently visited TalkTalk and were shown around what was arguably the most impressive space in the building – the top floor. With amazing views, perhaps in the past this space would have been used by the upper echelons of power. However, today it is the staff canteen for TalkTalk. Jenny told us that ‘Bringing people together and working in a collaborative way’ was key to their initial objective.

Matthew explained that his background was creating incubator communities in both Liverpool and London. Whilst the term incubator has somewhat faded, the word community has certainly not. Matthew’s experience working with smaller, fast-growing companies helped him shape the idea for Avenue HQ. Initially in discussions with the developer Neptune, Matthew teamed up with RBH Properties to develop the co-working concept.

He was aware that young businesses wanted support in the areas where they lacked expertise. He was also acutely aware that once a business ‘flew the nest’ from the usual serviced office environment, being on its own, often in a small office, could be a lonely existence. Therefore, as he told our audience, he wanted to create a community where businesses could share experiences, ideas and ultimately grow; crucially paying for only the things they needed.

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Seeing as our panellists have all experienced the fact that pushing the boundaries comes with challenges, we asked for their own stories. Jenny told the audience about the TalkTalk team’s journey. Along with a team including Nigel Sullivan, her former boss (now Chief People Officer, Bupa), they aimed to get all their staff from two facilities into one within two years – and they did this with virtually no staff leaving. TalkTalk’s offices provide a very open environment both physically and with their work practices. Jenny told us that initially there was some resistance by a few of the more senior managers to the new looser form of management – but those concerns soon disappeared after seeing the benefits. Interestingly, Matthew cited technology as one of his biggest challenges. His desire to create a community environment where all businesses could benefit from one another required a different approach to communicating with each other.

One of Ciara’s initial challenges with Neo was the reception. There was insufficient room in the entrance to have a suitable community area, so they created a wonderful spiral staircase that takes guests to the ‘café area’, where they are met in a very welcoming environment. Interestingly, the staircases also take centre stage at TalkTalk, acting as a means of transport between floors but also as a great way to reduce the barriers between them.

“If you start to get a feel that they are happier, then they are more productive… countless people come to me and tell me they can get more done”

We talked about the future and Matthew revealed that, as we spoke, Avenue HQ was being developed in Leeds – a 32,000 sq ft new workplace that will complete later this year. As with all our panellists, Matthew was very open in saying the lessons learnt in Liverpool would help the Leeds development. When asked, Ciara said that Neo took two years to develop – so it’s hardly surprising that workplace thinking has moved on. She explained that part of her asset plan is to ensure all the buildings she is responsible for are being constantly monitored and adjusted to suit the needs of their future clients.

The subject of how you measure success, post-refurbishment, was raised. For Jenny it was relatively straightforward: ’If you start to get a feel that they are happier, then they are more productive…countless people come to me and tell me they can get more done.’ Jenny also told us that they measure success through the Great Place To Work survey – which, as you would expect, improved results since the relocation.

In one of our earlier MixInspired events in Cardiff, the delightful and very experienced Matt Philips from Knight Frank told our audience that, as little as five years ago, those making decisions about the workplace (moving or refurbishment) were generally finance executives. If we needed any more proof, it is once again clear from those on our panel that not only are the decision makers changing, but also their focus has moved away from the purely financial to a people-centric approach.

Clearly a building remains a financial asset, therefore making a decision about any grand interior design project has to be balanced with the value of the building. However, what is clear from Bruntwood’s Neo was that they believed giving up a valuable revenue earning space to what is in essence a lounge scheme was a strategic risk worth taking. Neo’s full occupancy and happy clients suggest that they got it very right.

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