What makes a great workplace design client?

Office Politics: A Rise to the Top by Alex E. Proimos, on Flickr

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on if great workplace design was a result of great business leadership.  This generated some discussion on who makes a great client, so I thought I’d consider some points on what I think makes a great client for a workplace design project.

Working with any organisation there is more than one side to the client – there is both the culture of the organisation and the personalities of the individuals involved – and usually we interact with two or three groups of individuals.  Firstly the key client representatives, secondly the wider user consultation groups (or end users they are often termed) and thirdly the executive or approval level (in a smaller organisation it is likely this may be the same person as the client representative). As interior designers it is the client representatives we have the most contact with – usually at least weekly.  So it is usually the key representatives that have the biggest impact on client relationship and also the design of the workplace.  Working with the same client organisation can be quite a different experience if one of the key individuals involved at this level changes.

Most often my client representatives have been project or facilities managers at various levels within an organisation. Sometimes they were going to be working in the new workplace, at other times they will remain based in another office (often even in another city). There is a variety of backgrounds in these client types- whilst there were many with a background in construction or architecture or others who had been in facilities a long time and had much experience if fitout, there were plenty with absolutely no experience of buildings, property, fitout or design. Now in my view this isn’t a problem – as long as they realise this and engage us for an appropriate scope of work.  I have had a client who had no experience of fitout design argue with me over how I knew what size to make a 6 person meeting room and wanted a list of projects where I had used that size room before! (Even with plans demonstrating the setout of the room) At the opposite end of the scale I had a client representative who was actually an interior decorator outside of her 9-5 job.  This didn’t make my life easy either though –  she used to call at least 5 times a day and for over 1 month would drop by the office daily to look over samples because she was so personally involved in the design. At the end of the project she returned a box the size of a removalist carton full of samples. (How do you factor someone like that into your fee agreement?)  So as you can see from the above example a passion for design (or maybe just too much time?) is not necessarily the answer as to what makes a great client.

My top 10 attributes for a great client representative:

  1. Trusts us – Respect our professional advice and opinion. Sometimes a colour or a piece of furniture might not be what you would choose yourself but if you put your trust in your interior designer you’ll generally have a better project outcome. That said, the most successful design is a result of an open relationship between the two designer and the time where the client can question and debate the interior designers proposals.
  2. Understands the organisation and business – Both at the strategic level in terms of company direction and aspirations, and at the operational level in terms of the different functional groups within the organisation.  Understand what the organisation wants to achieve through the fitout and clearly communicate these priorities to the interior designer.  Be able to direct the interior designer as to which business groups have specialised needs, and be able to make the judgements about what the user groups need.
  3. Appreciates design – To me this does not mean that you must have highly developed design of knowledge, education, or aesthetic appreciation but that you appreciate and value that you are paying for an interior design service and that this service offers tangible value to your organisation.  You respect that my time is valuable . And you understand that it is our job to design the fit out not yours – you understand the difference between providing the design team with functional requirements of a space versus designing the space yourself.
  4. Manages the user groups – It is important for the design team to have access to the end users at some point during the design process. They need to be the option to ask questions and gain a further understanding of the way people work especially if there are very specific activities undertaken by certain groups. However as interior designers we need your assistance to manage the user groups. We don’t have the authority within your organisation to tell people what they can and can’t have or what they do and don’t need – you need to do this.
  5. Tells us the budget – Trust us to manage their budget (I’ve blogged a little on this subject before). Allow your interior designer to suggest where money is best spent. Clients can get quite caught up in the price of an individual chair. I think this is because they understand and can relate to the price of a chair – you have bought one before. However you need to look at the cost of the fit out as a whole or of larger components of the budget rather than just at a single individual expensive item. Especially if there are just one or two of those expensive chairs in the reception area. Of course, if it is a task chair the cost will add up – but here we are talking about then the investment in good seating which is an important consideration not just the cost. Understand that your fitout is not just a one of project with a capital cost budget to meet now. The decisions you make now will impact upon operational and maintenance costs, as well as how well your fitout will age or meet changing organizational structures and needs. Maybe you would be better off spending more up front to have more energy efficient lighting for example.
  6. Has reasonable expectations – particularly with your expectations regarding program or scope changes.  Understand that there is a fine balance between cost, time and quality, you can’t reduce your program and expect the same cost and quality.  We probably can’t revise the design in less time than you spent reviewing it.  Agree and stick to the timeframes for your own internal review processes. Manage your team (and your management) that needs to be involved in this process.  If you make changes later, or want more 3D views understand you have to pay for this (refer point 3 again!)
  7. Understands that significant internal resources are required – we need access to a wide range of your staff through user groups, to your executive team for decision making (unless they have delegated this task), you need to manage your inputs and reviews and someone needs to manage the relocation process as a whole – there is a lot more to be done than just designing a new office.  Interior designers usually don’t undertake relocations planning, but may be able to assist with some tasks if this is agreed as part of their scope (for example fire evacuation plans or phone number/seating plans would not usually be part of the scope but an interior designer may be happy to provide these as additional items).
  8. Has the authority to make decisions – you don’t have to be the final decision maker, but you need to understand the priorities and provide the design team with confident direction on all matters relating to design – be they functional, aesthetic or budgetary.  If the interior designer is not in regular (weekly) communications with the decision makers you need to be ensuring they are kept in the loop and we are heading in the right direction.  Otherwise we might waste weeks of both our time.
  9. Isn’t worried about their own corner office – you have the interests of the organisation as a whole in mind and not just a focus on your own office, own team or a particular driver that motivates you. You understand that the workplace design will influence staff motivation and productivity and satisfaction and you care about improving the place you work.
  10. Is part of the team – you understand that the best workplace design will be the a result of collaboration and trust between you as the client and your interior designer.  Your input, and particularly your detailed reviews and feedback are an important and necessary part of ensuring that we have understood and captured your organisational aims, objectives and functional requirements.

This list might seem pretty demanding, but I guess that is part of the point.  For a major office relocation, being the client representative is an important and necessary role that does take up a lot of time.  As interior designers or architects we can’t just walk in and give you an office without an understanding of your organisation.  One thing you will notice though – is nowhere on my list does a job title come into the picture.  To me it doesn’t matter if your real day job is in FM or HR or you are the CEO – its about your approach to your workplace design project, your organisation and the people that work there.

What do you think?  Are there any qualities that I’ve left off the list?  Do you disagree with any of the above – am I expecting too much? If you are client side – what are your qualities for a great interior designer?  (maybe thats another post someday)

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