Banking goes Zen with spa-like branches

October 16, 2017 Globe and Mail

By: Wallace Immen

Visiting an old branch of BlueShore Financial, there was never any doubt that it was a credit union. The fluorescent-lit offices featured tellers’ cages and a decor whose highlights were posters advertising current mortgage rates.

In surveys, customers of what until 2013 was known as North Shore Credit Union said going in for a financial service “was a daunting experience, like going to the dentist,” recalls Chris Catliff, president and chief executive officer of North Vancouver, B.C.-based BlueShore. There was little to differentiate the company from the competition.

Deciding not only to change its name but also to make its environment more relaxing and spa-like, the company, working with Weber Marketing Group in concert with architectural design partner, EHS Design, did a total makeover of its branches and head office. That not only resonated with its 40,000 clients, the company says, but also has proved to have the added benefit of significantly changing the way its predominantly millennial-generation employees feel about coming to work.

“Our market is rife with baby boomers who have aging parents and who are trying to get their kids through school. They were stressed out by mortgage payments and they were crying out for financial planning, but the whole experience of financial planning proved very stressful,” Mr. Catliff says.

“We chose the concept of financial spa because people that go to a spa are relaxed and are able to let people poke and prod them and [still] feel comfortable and come away feeling good.”

Employees and clients were consulted on how to make the process and the offices more appealing and user-friendly. People from all around the organization were gathered into a boardroom for 10 days, tasked with reinventing banking.

The result is what BlueShore coins a financial spa, emphasizing West Coast attributes of nature and personal attention. “We’ve redone our branches and head office using natural materials and created an environment that’s less like a banking hall and more like a high-end hotel lobby or a residence,” Mr. Catliff explains. “The decor includes fresh-cut flowers [and] subtle and soothing music to give clients cues that for the next hour or so they can relax and be taken care of.”

Out went cubicles and cages. Locally sourced elements such as wood, river rocks and boulders were incorporated into the designs to create a Zen ambience. Murals on the walls are of natural scenes of the British Columbia coast. The layouts optimize the amount of natural light in work areas.

BlueShore’s employees are predominantly millennials who value technology and collaboration. While there are still assigned work stations, there are a variety of collaboration areas for discussions and consultations with clients. Every desk is equipped with a communications system incorporating voice, video and text messaging. Meeting rooms have wireless touch displays, interactive whiteboards and video conferencing equipment.

“The offices were also deliberately designed so that the back of the house is as nice as the front,” says Marni Johnson, senior vice-president of human resources. “We have comfy chairs, fireplaces and stainless steel appliances and art in all the employee lounges. We have also specifically not installed televisions, because we just want staff to interact with each other.”

The new head office at Lonsdale Avenue and 13th Street, home to 210 of BlueShore’s 350 employees, was the final phase of the evolution. The four-storeybuilding was reconfigured to locate work areas along windows and a central atrium. There are panoramic views of Grouse Mountain, downtown Vancouver and Stanley Park.

A grand staircase was installed between the first and second level, where client meetings are held. The third floor houses administrative departments, which had previously been in the basement in the former office.

On the top floor, the staff lounge features a kitchen as well as an extensive patio with tables and umbrellas and couches that can be used for events and fundraisers. The layout includes a Zen garden for relaxation.

Employees were involved in discussions of the layouts and furnishings. “We had displays of alternative furniture and let staff test them on their own. The furniture is all from the same supplier and co-ordinates, but there are several variations in design and how they are configured,” Ms. Johnson says.

This has led to what BlueShore calls a “Velcro management style,” Ms. Johnson adds. Employees can peel off from one group to join another to collaborate on new projects. “The physical space allows them to move from one work zone to another and reconfigure the seating the way they want.”

The changes have had a quantifiable boost to productivity and professionalism, Ms. Johnson says. “It has been fantastic for us to have these gorgeous premises from an employee engagement point of view.”

BlueShore’s employee engagement score, as measured by surveys by Aon, an independent human capital consultancy, has risen to 82 per cent in 2016 from 77 per cent in 2012.

One of the survey questions asks whether “the physical work environment is appropriate for the type of work I do.” Before the renovations, 77 per cent of head office employees agreed with the statement. After the change, 85 per cent agreed. Additionally, 91 per cent said in this year’s survey that they are proud to work with the organization.

The 13-branch credit union is on the 2017 list of “50 best small and medium employers in Canada” selected by Aon, as well as among “Canada’s 10 most admired corporate cultures” selected by Waterstone Human Capital.

As the branches and head office were changed to become more spa-like, “It was wonderful to watch how employees transitioned in how they dressed, their actions and even how they spoke,” notes Vanessa Bragg, BlueShore’s manager of learning and development.

Employee fashion became more dapper, and “I often see employees proudly touring our business partners and family through our head office,” she says. Attendance at training workshops has also increased.

That’s had a big boost to recruiting new staff. “We’re finding that our head office and branches are real selling features for attracting new candidates,” Ms. Johnson says. “People come into one of our buildings and say, ‘Wow I really want to work here.'”

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