Designing an Experience

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Thanks to all who took part:

ANNA DEJLOVA, Morgan Lovell / CHARLES SINTON, Pareto FM / CINDY LAU, PLP Architecture / COLIN OWEN, Maris / ALISTAIR SHOVE, Modulyss / SARAH LAURISCH, ID:SR / GILES FLAXTON, Cushman & Wakefield / JAMES HAMERTON, Area sq

The term productivity is prevalent in the development of the modern workplace – but many believe that even the end user doesn’t know what productivity looks like. What seems to be more relevant is a focus on the ‘experience’. In much the same way that designers in the retail sector are brilliant when it comes to creating an experience (think Adidas stores, The All Blacks Experience) many workplace designers are now realigning their focus.

We’ve gathered a panel of industry experts together at London’s fantastic Material Lab to discuss this emerging trend. Here’s a snippet of the fascinating conversation.

We start by asking our guests how the design of a successful workplace can best be defined.

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Charles: It definitely can be defined. Each client has different requirements. Sometimes it’s about driving greater sales per employee, sometimes it’s about attracting a greater quality of candidate, sometimes it’s about increasing the variable strategic footprint…the workplace can be a facilitator of all that and what we also know is that it can be a facilitator for behaviour change. What we see is how different environments have a massive impact on how people behave.

James: I think there is a more quantitative route as well. So you can look at time and motion studies, pre- and post-occupancy of the space, utilisation of the space – measurable things.

Cindy: The client’s that we have, usually come with an aspiration of what they are trying to achieve although they probably couldn’t quite pinpoint how they are going to get there. They have an aspiration of the company and the brand culture they want to embrace – and very often the workplace design is what they expect to demonstrate that. So as a company they don’t just want to showcase to their clients that this is about their corporate identity – but also to show to their people that this is a company that truly embraces its core values. We look at what the client aspires to be and then we help them to get there. There is certainly a way to measure whether a scheme is successful – retention of staff is always a key thing. Every staff member lost is money lost for your client. They then have to train new people and reinvest.

“Clients often come in and ask you to help them increase productivity – but they can’t really define it. They don’t really understand what it means.”

Anna: Clients often come in and ask you to help them increase productivity – but they can’t really define it. They don’t really understand what it means. So what we do is look at all the different users of the space and define how each of them works. From that, we find their understanding of productivity and then create that definition with them – and we finally then bring that into the final design.

So is this a common thread? Clients talk about productivity but they don’t really know how to go about improving that?

Sarah: I think it’s exactly that – they can’t quite put their finger on it. Maybe the space isn’t working for them. Maybe they should stay and make better use of it or maybe they should move to a bigger space.

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Giles: It’s slightly different for me. We’ve recently been working with a client who has a very well defined view of the workplace experience – it is fundamental to what they are trying to provide within their offices. This is driven by talent – by attracting and retaining the right people. There is a very strong view of what the workplace looks like. It is important what the space looks like, but it is equally important that we get the operational side right.

“Suddenly they have a complete outsider walking in and wanting to change everything for them.”

Colin: Clients do talk about productivity – although often they don’t know exactly what it is. We mentioned time and motion studies and looking back at what people do, often if someone’s been in a space for five or 10 years, they look back at what they have done and what they’re doing now – and we’ll ask them why! That company might have started as 100 people, they’re now 200 people and then you look at changes in technology, the number of clients they’ve now got, the way they actually work – and yet they’re still sat at the same desks, using the same rooms. People get used to things, they get comfortable – and they just end up doing things that they are comfortable with. We talk about change managers – people are terrified of change. Suddenly they have a complete outsider walking in and wanting to change everything for them. You have to manage that; you have to get them to embrace it. Unless it is absolutely defined – rock solid – a project will go wrong. We call it the ‘Project Manifesto’. These are the ‘rules’ of the project and it is very easy to dilute. As workplace designers we have to keep clients on track. Otherwise they are likely to lose the thinking behind starting the project in the first place.

Charles: The key thing is to lay down a set of guiding principles – this is absolutely critical. There are lots of competing interests in a business. There may be competing interests in the leadership team and there certainly will be in the middle management team – and without an agreement on those guiding principles you’ve got no means of reaching a resolution. You have to keep going back to those principles.

Cindy: It’s very rarely just one person making those decisions from day one. An architectural project is a long game. Throughout the process you get more members of the project team and you have to be very clear about those guiding principles. You have to ensure that everyone has the same vision – otherwise you run the risk of going off at a tangent and you end up with nothing coherent.

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Colin: You do have to keep them on the straight and narrow. It’s almost like you become their personal trainer!

We recently featured the Reward Gateway project and were also fortunate enough to have the company’s Founder and CEO, Glenn Elliott, speak at our London MixInspired event. As a lead designer on the project, we ask James about his experience with Glenn and the team.

“You have to stick to the initial concept and not allow people to water that down.”

James: Glenn is an incredibly creative guy. Their ethos and mantra is all about creating a better place to work. Our project was a big opportunity for them to have a workplace that reflected what their offering is. Glenn was very hands-on in the process and really pushed us a partner. But what’s already been said here is absolutely right – and this was our experience with Glenn. You have to stick to the initial concept and not allow people to water that down.

Sarah: It’s great to have that one strong person at the top. We’ve worked with clients who have a very different approach. You have the local teams in regional offices and you also have the operational team in London – and you often have two very opposing views. Our job then becomes to keep both of these teams happy – and the regional offices very much want their own identity. Manchester, for example, does not want to be like London – and Leeds wants to be different from Manchester!

One thing that is clear is that, wherever a project might be in the UK, it is crucial that the client is brought along for the entirety of the journey – and that means post-occupancy as well as throughout the design process.

Colin: At the end of the day it is about designing for humans. It’s not rocket science.

James: If you look at retail, they look into understanding human behaviour – how people will react to smell, colour, the journey…they are truly trying to create an experience.

Anna: You shouldn’t have to think – you just have to react to the space. You shouldn’t need a manual. It should be obvious what you need to do. If you look at airports, for example, they often use the floor to guide you through them rather than signage.

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This gives us a perfect opportunity to bring in our sponsor for today’s event.

Alistair: As well as delineating the space, we’re finding that people are using more and more textures to define space. I think there’s definitely more changes in the way that designers are using texture than there are in the way they are using colours right now. That change of texture can help different areas provide and create different experiences.

Colin: If you look at Star Wars – there’s a lot of sky and a lot of floor! From an experience point of view, that tactile, texture aspect is a big thing right now.

Sarah: The floor is a massive part of any project. It’s great to see that there are now so many more choices out there. In terms of texture, flooring has definitely become a lot more grown up.

Alistair: I’ve seen a real change in experience of flooring with design and texture. modulyss carpet tiles have certainly become more creative and bold in our product design. We endeavour to supply those solutions to designers every day and have a lot in the pipeline for the future. I think we are working hard to create more options for designers who can then create the office and experience required for their client. It’s all very exciting for us.

Conclusion: Increasing productivity is of course at the very top of the wishlist for the vast majority of clients. The interior designer has to find a way to help achieve this – and that means understanding how the client defines productivity, understanding the way they work, their culture and their expectations. And then they have to manage those expectations – and create the right experience.