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Mix Roundtable: Is there still a great divide between US and UK commercial workplaces?

Much has been made of the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the US but, when it comes to commercial workplaces, is there still a great divide?

18/07/2019 10 min read

We’ve undertaken our most ambitious workplace conversation to date, bringing together leading designers from the US, Canada and the UK to consider the idiosyncrasies of our different countries’ markets – and also the differences that exist within different US territories. What can we learn from each other and what are the trends currently at the top of our client lists?

The Discussion

Despite the fact that it was the Sunday before the start of NeoCon, our friends at Allermuir were way ahead of the game and their new Merchandise Mart showspace in Chicago looked absolutely pristine, as our guests gathered for what we anticipated would be a fascinating discussion. We weren’t wrong!

As our group was so geographically diverse, we decided we’d begin by getting to know one another a bit better and asking each of our guests to tell us where they’re from and the best thing about their hometown.

Todd: My hometown is Chicago. The best thing about Chicago is that, right now, it is a collision of both coasts. It’s one of those cities that I think is a great mix of the United States. There’s a lot going on here right now – and I always say that great cities are always by the water. What’s really exciting is that there is a lot of energy in the city right now – and what is particularly exciting is the shift of showrooms from the Mart to the Fulton Market district, which is pretty crazy – and I think you’re going to see a lot more of that.

Tish: My hometown is actually Efron, Ohio, but I think of Chicago as my hometown now because I’ve lived here longer than I lived there. Todd just said some great things about Chicago – and I think that one of the really great things about this city is that, in wintertime, it’s really flat and, when you’re driving and it’s icy, you can’t skid too far – where I grew up, it’s full of hills! People tease us for our weather, but our summer is the best – and we absolutely take advantage of it! I always wanted to stay in the Mid-West, and Chicago is the biggest and best city in the Mid-West.

Simon: I live in Brighton, which is about 50 miles outside London. I’d say that London is probably the most exciting city in the world – it’s just an amazing place. It’s very diverse, there’s always lots of things happening there and it also has a really broad mix of financial institutions and cool organisations that are open to new ideas!

Caroline: I’m from Toronto – and the great thing about my city is that we’re just about to destroy the Golden State Warriors in the NBA basketball finals (indeed they did, Ed). Basketball was actually invented in Toronto! Seriously though, Toronto is a pretty exciting place to be right now, especially when it comes to the building industry. One of the things that attracted BDP to the market is that there are currently more cranes in the sky in Toronto than anywhere else in North America. It really is booming – although that does bring its own problems. I feel as though finding and retaining staff has become my full-time job! We are doing some really different, innovative work right now. I’m actually Transatlantic. Canada is a Commonwealth nation and my mother was from London, so I feel uniquely qualified to be involved in this conversation! 

The best thing about Chicago is that, right now, it is a collision of both coasts. It’s one of those cities that I think is a great mix of the United States

Kay: My house is in Washington DC, although I’m rarely ever there – maybe three or four days a month! What I love about Washington DC is that it’struly a big, international city. I love all the different people there, the influx and the constant changes. What I also love about Washington DC is that however little or much you like someone, they’re typically only there for four or eight years – and then they’re gone! 

Ginger: I’m from Omaha, Nebraska. I love my city and one of the best things is that the culture, design, the restaurant scene, the music scene…pretty much everything has changed incredibly over the past 10 years. It’s been amazing to be there and witness these changes – to see little neighbourhoods pop up, with all kinds of arts and culture. It feels as though we’re starting to get small elements of the culture that you’d find here in Chicago injected into our town.

David: I moved to Perrysburg, Ohio, which is the south side of Toledo, where we’re headquartered and we manufacture out of America. I think the best thing about that community is that it really is ‘small town USA’, just like where I grew up in Western Iowa, so it feels like home – parades on the holidays, car shows on Friday nights in summer – that kind of thing.  

Clay: I’m from Los Angeles and the great thing about the city is that, for many years, it was vilified as the capital of suburbanism – and in the last five years it’s really becoming far more urban. There are even cranes out in little Culver City now – which has extended my 3.7 mile drive by about 30 minutes! 

I think the biggest difference between Europe and the US is that London ran out of space 20 years ago – they had to find new ways of doing things, and that is just accepted

Steffan: I live in Twickenham, in west London – although originally I’m from Cardiff in Wales, which is a small country, historically downtrodden by the English…seriously though, I was lucky enough, when I was growing up, that the Welsh culture and language were very much in recovery. Cardiff is the capital and it’s very much the capital of culture. The recovery of its culture has brought lots of energy – it’s very small, but still feels like a proper city. 

It’s clear we have some great people from vastly different places. So what do our guests feel are the major differences between the two sides of the pond?

Todd: I think the big difference for me, having practiced in both the United Kingdom and the United States, is budget. I think there’s an amazing alignment of budgets in the UK. Maybe projects don’t happen so much in the UK, but when they do happen they’re really well thought through, they have an appropriate budget, they consider the architecture and the space they’re moving into and, in general, they have a really solid base structure – which I find really refreshing. 

Tish: We finished the McDonalds headquarters last year – moving them from the suburbs to Fulton Market. When we first started the strategy for that, we got a little floorplan from Steve Easterbrook, McDonalds (relatively new) CEO – and it was his office in the UK. He’s from the UK, and he handed us this 5,000 sq ft floorplan for his UK office and he said, ‘I want this! I want this kind of space at our headquarters’. It was flexible, it was agile it was dynamic, people could move around, they didn’t have assigned seats…it seems to me that CEO’s who come into the US from Europe bring change – and are not afraid to make that change. 

Kay: I think the biggest difference between Europe and the US is that London ran out of space 20 years ago – they had to find new ways of doing things, and that is just accepted. In the US, people are still really struggling with some of the new ways of working and constantly question why they have to do it. Tell someone in Texas that they have to go to open plan or benching…they’ve got all the land they want! It’s a very different thing. I think the attitude, the acceptance and the willingness to push those boundaries is probably 10-15 years ahead in Europe, just because there isn’t the same need or the same drivers.

You say program, we say brief. You say schedule, we say programme! In many ways, we’re nations that are disconnected by a common language

Randy: I come from a different perspective, coming from the standpoint of running an association for the profession and having connections with the British Institute of Interior Designers and the Society of British Interior Designers. As Kay mentioned, from the practice side, Europe is light years ahead. That being said, I don’t think they have the architectural and interior design challenges that we have here in the US – the recognition of practice rights. The term ‘interior architecture’ is used fairly liberally in Europe, whereas here in the US it is regulated – so you can’t actually use the term unless you’re an architect. On the other side, I think our associations, who represent our professions, are real advocates – we’re seen as the organisations’ voice and we’re often on Capitol Hill advocating for interior designers. 

Simon: You say program, we say brief. You say schedule, we say programme! In many ways, we’re nations that are disconnected by a common language. You can be speaking with someone from the US, for example, and you suddenly realise that you’re not talking about the same thing at all. Slightly controversially, I would say that Europe is more open to transformational ideas. I recently went to the BCO annual conference in Copenhagen, and the stuff that is going on in northern Europe is pretty amazing – a lot of it really pushes the boundaries. 

So are any boundaries being pushed here in North America?

Caroline: One thing we have found is that the younger generations are not interested in what you think their career path should be – they now talk about career lattices rather than career ladders. They’ll jump about and they’ll collaborate with whoever they feel like collaborating with and create product, regardless of whatever the ‘norm’ is. This is not just about disruption, they’re just thinking in another way. 

Randy: I do think that, on this side of the pond, we are starting show a great deal of interest in a number of things that have already been adopted in Europe – issues such as wellbeing. We’re starting to look at connecting these issues with the built environment and at areas such as stress in the workplace.

Ginger: I’ve always lived in Nebraska and haven’t done a great deal of travelling, however it seems to me that Europe is still very fashion-forward with regards to the acceptance of change – particularly when it comes to the wellbeing of employees, but things are starting to change, to improve – even in smaller towns and cities.

Steffan: We’re incredibly lucky because, even within our own firms in the UK, we find incredible diversity. I work with some incredibly talented people – and if you look at my friends, I’m one of two Brits in a group of about 20! We take that for granted, I think. One of the major differences between the US and the UK is the relationship between organisations and their employees. I married an American – and she will never come back to the US because her employment rights are so much better in the UK than they are here. I’m sure that has an impact on the quality and attention that employees give their people in the UK. Also, cross-sector collaboration is far more developed in the UK – that comes from having so many more spaces crammed in together than here in the US, which has far more space.

Todd: London has its Design Week, which brings all these disciplines together – while here in the US we still have these separate events, like NeoCon for workplace. 

David: I have to say that the differences between the two markets are far greater than I anticipated, moving from a US manufacturer to a European manufacturer. From a furniture point of view, there’s far more of a focus on design in Europe than there is in the US. The scale and the regional behaviour is also very different in the States – here you can almost notice it project by project. New York has vastly different requirements from Dallas, which has vastly different requirements from even Austin!

Clay: We’ve done a lot of work for Lend Lease – and they are a very forward-thinking company, because they’re based in Australia. A lot of our clients aren’t so forward-thinking, however, and I appreciate that and look to design the projects that they really want – and of course if I see the opportunity for innovation, I will always give them that option. I don’t claim to be an expert in European design, but I would say that it does appear that they do have more liberal clients, who are willing to let their designers experiment more. Sometimes we do have clients like this – and sometimes we have to try to make chicken salad out of chicken shit, frankly! 

Kay: I think that, for years, real estate was seen as a liability here in the US – something that was on your balance sheet as a liability. We typically reported up to the CFO. Now, the biggest drivers are attention and retraction of talent, and user experience. Now we’re seeing more and more that HR has a bigger seat at the table. 

Tish: To me it’s now all about being collaborative and all these different experts bringing their knowledge and points of view to the table – it’s about diversity. It’s not just about collaborating on the design side, with your colleagues – it’s about that collaboration with your client. They know their business better than we’ll ever know it!

The Conclusion 

If this was the Ryder Cup, it would be Europe celebrating – not that this was designed to be a competition. What is extremely clear is that the UK and Europe is still some way ahead when it comes to workplace culture, focusing more and more on people, wellbeing, mental health and neurodiversity than just real estate and productivity. There is, however, a genuine appetite from the North American designers on our panel to address this and to change the thinking of their end users.

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