What do clients really want?

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It is somewhat fitting, with the Manchester derby just a couple of hours away, and a sea of red- and blue-clad fans expectantly making their way off to Old Trafford, that we’ve found an oasis of calm high above the city’s St Peter’s Square.

We’re settled into CBRE Manchester’s fantastic office space, together with our sponsors, Senator, and a panel of industry experts, to discuss what is possibly the most important subject of the lot – yet one that is far from easy to resolve; what do clients really want?

According to CBRE’s 2018 Occupier Survey, more than 80% of tenants perceive amenities as integral to the employee experience and 65% think service-oriented amenities are more important than fixed space based amenities. Delos, the founder of the WELL standard, stresses that creating a culture of health and wellness in which employees actively participate is more than providing a gym and healthy items in the cafeteria or introducing a corporate challenge.

What is clear is that there is no single, flat-pack solution – but how do you ensure a happy client and contented workforce?


Regular readers will be aware that we always like to ‘ease’ our expert panel into the discussion with an icebreaker question. So, we begin by asking our panelists to reveal the strangest requests they’ve received from their clients.

Rachel: One of the strangest things – and we do get asked this a lot – is whether we can specify stuff from Ikea. A lot of people don’t understand why we don’t. They don’t understand about longevity and if they don’t put in the up-front costs they’re going to have to replace things 10-times over.


Adrian: There have been a variety of strange requests over the years – running tracks at the bottom of swimming pools, health and safety rooms next to the MD’s office, right through to slightly off requests when it comes to tea and toilets.

Stevie: The strangest thing we’ve recently been asked for was for three hi-spec hair-drying facilities in a male changing room.

Simon: About eight years ago, for a Greek shipping company, I was asked to provide a 3x3m rubberclad room with a hook in the middle. It never got built!


Andrew: We’ve been asked to cut a car in half a couple of times. One of our clients was a cable tie manufacturer and they wanted us to dissect the car so people could see where their cable ties were used in a working car. Again, it didn’t actually come to fruition in the end.

Mark: This might not sound so strange today, but it certainly felt strange at the time. Back in 1988 we were asked by an insurance company for a funky, psychedelic, freaky fun room. It actually ended up being quite a nice room and was good fun!


Oliver: The weirdest request we’ve had from a client is for a meeting room that looked like a space ship. It did get built – and even though it had to actually function as a room, you could definitely see galaxies far, far away!

Ashleigh: I was recently asked to tank and steel reinforce a basement with noise blasters, smoke screen and high-frequency sound to knock anyone out if they go near it – because there were a number of personal items down there!


Moving away from the weird and wonderful, we get down to the real subject at hand; what do clients really want?

Ashleigh: I think the key thing for me, at the moment – and we’ve seen this in a job we’ve been working on in Liverpool – is empowerment. Employees want to be able to go in and change how they work every day. One day they might want to work in the open plan but the next day they might need to focus.


Simon: It’s about accessibility to decision makers and visibility to be able to control your destiny. Whether that’s about choosing to work in a particular environment or choosing whether or not to come in today or having the ability to shape and change the task you’re doing, this is one of the big things about productivity, but it’s not the exclusive thing. It’s about that visibility of the management. What is dissatisfactory is when people are so far removed from decision makers in global occupiers – it’s nice to be small because you feel accountable. There’s a certain amount of autonomy that’s needed – and that comes from a mix of the space and the culture. It’s so frustrating to see how juggernaut slow the pace of change can be with some occupiers – and this is why the tech companies have really championed this new way of working, with no hierarchy. When it comes down to it, it’s about a mindset. I think we can support it in terms of space planning and interior design to a certain degree, but a lot of it comes down to design and HR working hand-in-hand with FM as a design team to help influence people’s behaviour.


Andrew: I think titles are interesting right now. We’re seeing people’s titles switch from Head of HR to Head of People – with HR as a title becoming almost redundant. I also think flexibility is a key thing – particularly with younger generations, who expect that flexibility in terms of how, where and when they work.

Oliver: There has been a huge shift in the last 15 years. Organisations are now willing to open up the floor to user groups and allow people to have a say. We’re involved a lot of the time in the briefing stages of a project – pre-design tem being brought on board. The conversations are predominantly not with the MD’s any more – they’re with the people who are empowered to change the environment. The focus is no longer simply on how quick, how much will it cost and where are we going to move to – it’s much more of a combination now and it usually starts with the user experience conversation. I do agree that there are a lot of bigger companies who are behind the curve when it comes to adapting and implementing these changes.


Rachel: I think it’s all about making sure people understand how things are going to change – and sometimes it’s about explaining why they’re not going to get everything they want. One brief works for one client, but won’t work for another. If you look at Google, for example, a lot of people jumped on that bandwagon but it didn’t work them – it was never going to work for a lot of industries. It’s about making sure that you listen to the client and really understand what they do day-to-day. A tech company is not going to need the same things as a law firm. If you don’t handle the change management process in the right way you will end up with disgruntled staff and then you simply won’t get the best out of them and then staff retention won’t be good. You really need to listen to what there are doing in their day-to-day work.


Mark: Investment has to be upfront. I think it’s really important that you fully make that investment. I think there’s an awful lot of heart driving design right now. We’re finding, when you break things down, that people want geography without borders. They don’t want walls and borders – and tech has enabled that hugely. People are now intuitively walking around from place to place without even being conscious that they are. What you then plot within that open space is open to fantastic variety nowadays.

Simon: A good workplace design doesn’t happen to you, it happens with you – and you need to inform that. The bits that have to go into that space have to be developed around a particular workstyle and no two occupiers are ever the same. When you’re pitching yourselves – which we have to do as designers – you have to tell the client that there is no inevitability about design – just don’t tell me that you want a ‘wow’ factor! What do you really want in there to get the best out of people. One of the things I’m trying to push more and more is the mental health and wellbeing of a workplace. It’s happening more and more – and what I would like to see is more systems manufacturers to recognise that it’s not all about performance. It’s about someone’s ability to do a job – and this all comes back to management philosophy.


Andrew: I think happiness is going to overtake productivity in terms of how people measure the success of a workplace design and fit-out. We’re seeing more and more employee engagement apps being used – and they’re about measuring how happy employees are. I do think that, as Oliver mentioned earlier, that for all the businesses that are switched on to this, there are 10 times as many who aren’t. There are still a lot of owner managed businesses that are still focused on ‘what I want’ – not what their employees want.

Adrian: I think it’s easy to forget the human bit! Furniture is judged on reconfiguration, wire management, metal-to-metal fixings, 20-year guarantees…and none of that really benefits me. Do I care if my desk can be reconfigured? We’ve forgotten that this should be about reading, writing, drawing, thinking, concentrating. If you give people a great space but they haven’t got room to think and then go home to work in their kitchen, then the design has failed. If you consider your home, it’s judged solely on an emotional reaction – do I like this place? You don’t get a spreadsheet out and consider cost per square foot or durability. It’s an emotional attachment. We’re definitely going in the right direction though. Also, I think we’ve forgotten that the largest part of the working population is 35-50 and this is going to be the generation that, for the next 10 years, dominates decision making.


Ashleigh: We’ve got a brief at the moment where the brand is incomplete. So we’ve got no brand guidelines, no colour palette, no look and feel to work with. Their brief is to bring joy to the workplace  – which is, like Adrian was saying, about emotional attachments and how you consider your own home. One unhappy, disgruntled person amongst a bank of six happy people will soon get into their ears – and suddenly that unhappiness can snowball.

Simon: Always try to get that disgruntled person on the steering group! If you win them over, you’ll win the lot.

Rachel: I think it’s important to remember that we’re talking about individuals – no two people are the same. For example, some people can work remotely quite happily, whereas others need that interaction. I know that if I haven’t seen an adult all day, I’ll chew my husband’s ear off!


Stevie: I think, for me, it’s great to have a fantastic looking office, a great coffee machine, employers who promote health and wellbeing and create a community environment, but I prefer my directors to give me autonomy – to give me creative freedom. That’s far more important for me. We want direction, of course, but we don’t want to be micromanaged. I think that’s going to retain staff – not a ping pong table! You want to feel valued, appreciated and trusted. That means more than anything.

Simon: It’s fascinating to work out what range of spaces and facilities you need to provide in order to keep everyone feeling like that! We have one of the most voyeuristic jobs on the planet. You get to see the inner workings of a business – and then you’re tasked with creating a space that responds to that. That is what good design is!



This is, of course, a mere snippet of what was a fascinating conversation. We wrapped things up by asking our guests, in a single word, what they felt, having discussed the topic at length, what workers really do want.

Rachel: Ownership.

Adrian: Trust.

Stevie: Happiness.

Simon: Ownership.

Andrew: Flexibility.

Mike: Choice.

Mark: Happiness.

Oliver: Amenity.

Ashleigh: Fulfillment.


Our Guests


Simon Millington, Owner, Incognito

Simon is the founder of Incognito, an exciting boutique design studio that specialises in delivering creative interiors solutions for occupiers and landlords alike. Simon’s experience spans 20 years and reaches as far as Amsterdam, Moscow, San Francisco, New York and Sydney. Recent projects closer to home have seen him designing spaces for AstraZeneca, Regatta and Nestle.


Mark Alcorn, Managing Director, c2:concepts

Mark is the Managing Director of c2:concepts, which he founded in 2003. He has over 30 years’ experience in the design business within organisations such as GMW and BDG. He believes that creativity is paramount at all times, from the art of space planning to the design language of the interior architecture.


Rachel Bishop, Project Director, tp bennett

Rachel joined tp bennett in 2015, when she returned to the UK following two years working in Australia. She has gained experience at some of the leading practices, including Foster + Partners, where she was part of the Workplace Consultancy team. Rachel is a highly creative, passionate designer, who has delivered award-winning projects across numerous sectors.


Ashleigh Biggins, Senior Interior Designer, Denton

Ashleigh recently joined Denton as Senior Interior Designer in the Manchester office, with a role to oversee all workplace design and fit-out for the North. She has worked alongside a variety of clients, from corporate professional services to innovative technology businesses, to deliver a number of fantastic schemes across the UK.


Oliver Thomas, Head of CBRE North Building Consultancy, CBRE

Oliver heads up the CBRE North Building Consultancy Team and works across the commercial property sector, ensuring he is in touch with the market. A building surveyor and PM by trade, Oliver has a real interest in the built environment. Impossible and challenging briefs excite him and he loves stakeholder engagement, design and high spec projects.


Stevie Leigh, Associate, Fairhursts DG

Stevie has a wealth of experience in designing and delivering engaging spaces for commercial and residential developers, universities and Premier League football clubs. She has executed projects across the UK, Isle of Man and Australia. She has recently completed transformations at Three Piccadilly Place and Teesside University.


Andrew Jackson, Marketing Director, Opus4

Andrew has worked in the commercial interiors industry for more than 20 years. Joining Opus 4 in 2002, he is responsible for promoting all aspects of the business, managing clients and developing new opportunities. He is passionate about helping businesses improve their workplace culture and employee engagement by demonstrating the benefits of great workplace design.


Adrian Campbell, Workplace Design, Senator

Adrian heads Workplace Design at The Senator Group and has just written a book. People like to make sense of their world and ‘it’s all about me’ gives a very easy to understand doctrine as to why furniture, psychology, productivity, satisfaction and motivation in the workplace are so intrinsically linked.