Customer-First Design: Learning from Hospitality, Education, and Retail

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Melissa Marsh
Melissa Marsh
I am a passionate practitioner of Workplace Strategy and a leader in Change Management services. By combining social science research with architectural expertise, I recommend evidence-based interventions that promote both individual wellness and business success through a more responsive built environment. In addition to working with clients across North America and Europe, I have contributed to courses for CoreNet and WORKTECH, spearheaded international learning and technology initiatives, and lectured at UVA, Cornell, and MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

While modern workplace environments have become highly specialized, should designers be looking for inspiration from successful organizations in other parts of the economy?

An office is not the only place work gets done. Any space that generates value is a workplace, and the nature of that environment shapes the experiences of the people who use it. There are plenty of insights to be gained from examining trends and innovations in other industries, especially in light of the ongoing consumerization of workplace. As business leaders seek ways to increase the engagement and performance of their teams—sometimes with mixed results—we all may benefit from considering strategies from sectors that prioritize social and customer experiences: hospitality, education, and retail.



The bread and butter of the hospitality industry—hotels, restaurants, cruise ships, vacation providers, etc.—is the customer experience. If the workplace of yesteryear was indifferent to the preferences of its occupants, then one that’s inspired by the hospitality industry’s service orientation puts them front and center. This industry is keenly aware that failing to meet expectations means that customers—or talent—will go elsewhere.

Shift to Biophilic and Resimercial Design

No more drab cubes! Guests at hotels or restaurants expect their spaces to be both functional and beautiful. Hotel spaces that incorporate or simulate parts of the natural environment are on the rise. Workplace designers should definitely take note; plants, fish tanks, green roofs, and other elements reduce stress and improve cognitive performance. Natural lighting has a positive impact on sleep. If your workplace doesn’t have the budget for renovations, don’t sweat; even images of nature can help.

The hotel business has been transformed in recent years by changing customer preferences and competition from sharing services like AirBnB. People now expect a more customized, curated experience that reminds them of home. Successful workplace strategies can leverage this by drawing on the familiarity and utility of typical household features. As we’ve written before, resimercial design can incorporate these elements into a high-performance workplace that is also innately comforting.

Service model

A stellar workplace is one that puts a focus on premium service. When people go to work, they expect (and deserve!) to be treated well. The trend toward co-working reinforces these expectations. A defining feature of many co-working arrangements is the omni-presence of staff who provide concierge-like services. They make sure the fridge is stocked and coffee is fresh, of course, but they are also trained to help with office tech issues and to create opportunities for education and connection amongst members.

In more traditional business environments, this might look like an expansion of human resources capacity to include more community management functions. It might also include the expansion of knowledge management and training, ensuring that employees are stimulated, in addition to being satisfied. Even small efforts can send a signal that the employer cares about its people.



Peter Senge’s 1990 book The Fifth Discipline made the case that a commitment to lifelong learning and development is good for any company. His words still resonate today: “The rate at which organizations learn may become the only sustainable source of competitive advantage.”

The connection between the built environment and learning outcomes is of great interest to the education sector. Researchers like Peter Barrett are demonstrating that the link between design parameters and student achievement is stronger than many might expect. As we mentioned in our recent presentation to WORKTECH Barcelona, business leaders can draw on this long history of research to create environments that are tailored to maximize development.

Freedom of choice

The desire to improve is baked right into every person. Children and adults harbor a natural drive to learn. When given freedom to do so, they will explore their environment and learn to use whatever is at their disposal. This principle is at work in Google’s famed 20 percent innovation time. People who are committed to the vision of a company don’t need or want hand-holding; they want to contribute. Providing them with an opportunity to do so is good for both wellness and performance.

The university experience is another useful paradigm, as Cindy Froggatt highlighted in her 2001 book Work Naked. Within the parameters of their program requirements, college students choose specialties and build expertise. If they don’t like a class or their major, they can change it. Students get to choose when and how to do their work. They can choose to sit in a busy cafe or a quiet library. Multi-purpose common rooms abound. Many university facilities are available 24/7, because you never know when inspiration will strike. Education is also inherently social. Students self-organize into mutually-helpful study groups.

In the workplace, this doesn’t mean that people should just be wandering around doing whatever they feel like doing with no accountability. It means that we can and should get more creative with our efforts to measure and encourage performance, finding ways to achieve shared goals while harnessing the natural human desire to learn and create. Laszlo Bock, who presided over a tenfold increase in Google’s headcount as their Senior VP of People Operations, shared some thoughts on how to create management and metrics that promote innovation in a presentation to the Wharton People Analytics Conference, as well as in his book Work Rules.

A mix of physical and mental activity

The American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in on the importance of physical activity to the learning process in a recent report: “After recess…or after a corresponding break time for adolescents, students are more attentive and better able to perform cognitively.” Teachers also benefit from exposure to the outdoors, or just a few minutes to mentally regroup. Our brains are never really “off”. Scheduling some time to enter what psychologists call the default mode—allowing the mind to wander—improves comprehension and mental health.

In college, each class occurs in a different place, providing some movement in what might otherwise be an entire day of sitting. This allows spaces to be more specialized and takes advantage of the fact that memory and location are strongly linked. Workplaces should be designed to not just allow for, but to take advantage of our natural need to move. Practices like Activity-Based Working can help people perform better and feel better.



The procession of news stories about the retail apocalypse would suggest it is not a great place to search for inspiration. Who wants to emulate an industry that, at least by public consensus, seems to be dying?

It’s true that the sector is facing major challenges to its business model. Many stores have closed and even well-known national brands have struggled. Yet, the turmoil that retail is experiencing may be instructive; retailers that survive—while many are doing well—offer lessons for thriving. PLASTARC moderated a discussion on this very topic last year, organized by AIANY’s Social Science and Architecture Committee, which you can watch in full.

Measure performance the right way—and then make changes

Retail is unique because it takes a measurement that is common to many industries and flips it on its head. Real estate is typically regarded as a cost center in most businesses; the usual metric is cost per square foot. This measurement, while easy to calculate, is all about downside. It doesn’t always capture the value of how that space is being used. Contrast this with retail, which frequently measures revenue per square foot. Every business could be served by a better understanding of how effectively their space is contributing to their top line performance.

That being said, much retail space has not performed well enough recently. While the move to online shopping tipped many retailers into the abyss, they were already dealing with an oversupply of space that had existed for years. According to a recent report by Morningstar, the US has far more retail space per capita than any other consumer economy. Large and luxurious stores might have been attractive when they were first built, but all that space became a massive liability when consumer behavior began to shift.

Use technology to drive performance

Importantly, some retailers have embraced the technology trends fueling their supposed obsolescence. For example, clothing stores have added memory mirrors that record short videos of a customer in a piece of clothing, allowing side-by-side comparisons of different looks from every angle. Augmented reality will soon allow customers to try on clothing in any color instantly, blending the digital and physical into one retail environment.

The retail sector knows that you can’t just exist online or in the physical world; you need both. A physical presence helps build awareness and reach out to potential new customers—or even new employees. A digital presence enables product delivery. Ideally, these should be mutually reinforcing from both a design and branding perspective. When a customer enters either one, they should immediately feel welcomed. Businesses in other sectors can apply this same thinking to their own operations. Can your team members find a coworker they’re looking for in the virtual domain as easily as they can visit the person’s physical desk?

Offer an experience

The retail sector has figured out that customers don’t just want to look at goods on a shelf; they want an experience. Customers want to find what they’re looking for—or perhaps something they don’t even know that they want—intuitively, and through positive human interactions. They want to associate with brands and shopping experiences that fit into their lives and values. For example, Le Pain Quotidien offers baking classes—they teach customers how to make their signature product—because they understand the business value of creating memorable experiences. Another example: Nordstrom’s fashion show for kids might look like a social media stunt from afar, but consider how it feels to be one of the kids or parents.

Companies that prioritize mission, vision, and purpose can also use their physical spaces to those ends. Outdoor retailer Patagonia invites the public to seminars on local environmental issues, even taking care to remind attendees to bring a reusable cup for refreshments. Sometimes, deciding how not to use a space can make a statement; as champions of civic participation, Patagonia closes their NYC stores on election day so that employees can vote.

The bottom line

Our built environments have become highly specialized—which is a good thing. Yet, every now and then it’s wise to peek over the wall of our own silos and see what successful organizations are doing in other parts of the economy. Providing top-notch service, supporting lifelong learning, and creating memorable experiences are good goals for all.

Images courtesy of PLASTARC
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