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What is the impact of emotional design?

We recently took over Barclays Eagle Lab at Bruntwood’s Manchester HQ for another fascinating MixInspired, this time on the topic of emotional design. The session explored the importance of emotional design within the workplace, and the impact it can have on the end user.

05/09/2019 7 min read

Our expert panel comprised Muriel Altunaga, Director of Workplace at CBRE; Karen Broadbent, Change Manager at Bupa; Aisling McNulty, Development Director at Bruntwood; and Naomi Timperley, Co-founder of Tech North Advocates.

Here is a mere snippet of what proved to be a very lively discussion from a panel with a real variety of experiences. We asked our panel to consider the leading factors behind emotional design, and the driving trends behind the concept however, before diving into this hugely broad subject, we asked the panellists to tell us a bit about themselves.

Muriel: I’ve been working within workplace strategy and design for the last 20 years – I started young! I am a trained architect. One of the main projects we are working on at the moment is with the Post Office, who are looking to move from a more traditional environment to more a more tech-ready space, to attract a younger and more vibrant audience. We’re also working with Aviva – they are going for a similar position with all of their portfolio. The challenge is around how we can deploy the same kind of environment all around the country.

Karen: I’ve been involved in trying to change people’s behaviours and cultures for the past 10 years. I’m not an architect or anything technical like that, I just deal with people! I’m currently working with Bupa on the implementation of their workplace strategy, which is designed to bring the workplace and the workplace experience from a variety of places, including a 1970s office block, into a modern 21st century environment, which is attractive to people and supports retention and helps people to have the best day at work possible.

We’ve just completed Bupa Salford Quays, which was a new build. We’ve also transformed our Leeds office, which was two very dated 1970s buildings, which we’ve now merged into one rented space that is fitted out to the same standard as Salford, with the same expectations. 

Aisling: I’m a Development Director at Bruntwood, specialising in mixed-use development schemes. As a business, we’re a provider of space for people to work in, people to live in and also to improve the communities around us. I’ve been at Bruntwood for 13 years and have seen the business change quite a bit in that time. Amongst other major projects, we’re currently working on Circle Square by Oxford Road station.

Naomi: I’m Co-founder of Tech North Advocates, which is a private sector led advocacy group. It’s part of something that’s global – there are around 10,000 people globally. My day job is a consultant working with tech and digital companies around scaling-up through partnerships and engagement. I’m also chair of the University of Salford Business School’s advisory board; I sit on the board of Future Everything, which is an arts organisation that fuses tech with digital to solve problems…and loads of other things!

The pressures that employees are under – the time spent at work, the complex relationships they have – it’s no wonder there’s a carousel of emotions in their every day. How do you design for that, and what have you done to a workplace that impacted on users’ emotional experience?

Karen: We’re taking a very large workforce of 2,500 out of three buildings, which were dated, difficult to access, low lighting, old furniture, with high levels of churn. We came to the conclusion quite quickly that it wasn’t just a building project – it was a change project. 

The first thing we had to do was to find a reason why people would want us to create a new environment for them, and then we had to give them a foothold into the change – so it’s not all about us doing it to them, it’s about giving them as much opportunity as practical to influence the change in the workplace and ensure they could see that taking shape. We created an enormous education and communications programme; we did site visits and we produced lots of collateral that they could take away. Our aim was for them to have their best day at work every day – that’s our strapline!

We moved them in and now we have testimonies from people who have been coming into offices which were past their best for 20 years who can now turn around and say they feel privileged to work in this place and it makes such a difference to their day – they own it basically. 

We came to the conclusion quite quickly that it wasn't just a building project –
it was a change project

Have you been able to assess their emotional state there today? Can we measure happiness?

 Karen: We do workforce surveys, the NPS score improved, attendance has improved, and we have had what I describe as ‘Lazarus moments’. People who have been off work for a long time, who we couldn’t entice back into the workplace, have come back into work because they’ve had feedback from people who are there, who have said that the experience is different and that it has made a difference to them.

In terms of employability, we assessed every single role to determine the level of agility that would be attached to a particular role, because we’re a very diverse organisation – and there’s even more that we can do to promote the fact we have this amazing building and this amazing experience. It’s filtering through via sites like Glassdoor and will really help us when we’re trying to attract new people to show that not only is this a company with great benefits, but also that the workplace experience is second to none.

We’re going to talk about emotional experience, which is a hugely broad subject. What is emotional experience – what exactly are we talking about?

Muriel: Firstly, we are all different emotional beings, we’re all individuals with different approaches to different things. Our response to what happens around us is different – depending on gender, age, culture etc.

Secondly, we already know there are some specific elements that are created with the ability to improve concentration, focus and to be calmer around the space we’re occupying, based around lighting, acoustics, the sense of belonging and identifying yourself within this space. Other elements are related to ourselves: our systems, our health, the food we eat… 

We can design something like a hotel, where someone is there by option – so they have the option to leave the space and never go in again – but in the workplace we’re there for the next 5/10 years. Therefore, we are engaged on a permanent basis with this space. CBRE ran a sample of two teams and spent six months to try to understand how different spaces impacted on individuals. We improved air quality, improved the presence of plants and biophilic design, improved noise control. The level of accuracy increased almost 40% with the presence of things such as a biophilic design/concept and noise control that meant the level of concentration increased. The most interesting results from this research related to nutrition and food – those who consumed sweet snacks, like donuts, were around 25% less likely to concentrate than those who took an apple at the same time! 

What’s the single most important driving force behind the trend in emotional design?

Naomi: Ultimately, it’s about cost.

Aisling: I think staff retention is such an important thing for businesses, the people are the single biggest factor and if you can’t get the right people through the door and keep those people, you’re failing your organisation and your expansion plans, and this is ultimately the front window to your brand, so if you want people who work for you to be intelligent and like-minded, and you can’t show a space that represents your brand and business, then you’ll fail to attract these people.

Muriel: Also, it’s very interesting how many clients approach us and say they want to change. 

Five years ago it would be, ‘You’re a financial company, you’ll be like this; you’re a pharma company, you will be like this.’ But then the likes of Microsoft and Google took the first approach to a new concept of workplace experience and suddenly clients want to be like those kinds of companies. 

Naomi: It’s all very well and good being like that: you can have ball pits, allow dogs etc – but ultimately you need to look after your staff, mentally and physically.

I think the most important thing is people – getting them to talk to each other, having conversations. That's how things happen.

What technology do you think we will see in the future workplace?

Naomi: I’m old school. I think the most important thing is people – getting them to talk to each other, having conversations. That’s how things happen. 

There’s a big thing around people working in their own time – and therefore being more productive. Having people that can be more agile and quicker at doing things because they can work in their own time – I think that’s really powerful. And thanks to technology you can work anywhere in the world. That’s the future! 

Muriel: Combining technology and experience, it’s interesting to go through the technology that replicates the experience both in the built world and the tech environment. There’s some interesting technology being developed – so everything related to your journey around the workspace is contained within a single platform. 

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