Imperial College Acuity Case Study

About Imperial College

Imperial College London is amongst the top 10 universities in the world. It was founded in 1907 as a public research university and today has an international reputation for excellent teaching standards. It has a mission to benefit society and focuses mainly on science, engineering, business and medicine. It has over 100 undergraduate courses, close to 150 Master’s course and also offers professional development courses, summer schools and evening classes. It has approximately 8,000 staff and 20,000 students.

Imperial has nine campuses in total: South Kensington (main campus), White City, Silwood Park, and six medical campuses in Charing Cross, Chelsea and Westminster, Hammersmith, North West London Hospitals, Royal Brompton, and St Mary’s.

The scale and growth of the University necessitated a comprehensive Receptions team to occupy the desks at different entry points across the College. The desks range from more ‘local’ receptions to the larger, main entrance locations. The management of this service previously fell under the Estates Facilities Division until responsibility was transferred to Campus Services, which immediately undertook a review to determine whether the existing provision provided the welcoming front-of-house experience that best reflected a world-class institution.

The Challenge

Following an initial deep dive into the service and close engagement with internal stakeholders, Karl Scholfield (Head of Special Projects & Strategic Change) decided that a more thorough audit was required. “We were stuck in a bit of a rut,” explains Karl, “and if we were to bring about the right kind of strategic and operational change that would lead to the Receptions team delivering a more fitting five-star, front-of-house service, we needed to bring in some private sector experience and know-how.”

This is where Karl turned to Acuity to find out how the University could learn from the approach found in some of London’s flagship buildings and professional settings. Karl and his team wanted the Receptions team to deliver a first-class impression and service to visitors and a top-quality welcome for staff and students every day. Karl understood that this was part of presenting the best image and reputation of a world class institution:

We knew we had to essentially start from scratch. Receptions had really been left to run themselves in a lot of ways and had failed to keep pace with the modernisation of processes and services elsewhere in the College. To some extent, the team felt isolated and team spirit and job satisfaction had almost evaporated.”

Receptions need to provide a dual purpose: to serve and support our academics and students but also to welcome new visitors and guests as they arrive on site. We had lost focus on the latter.” He continues “so we had to work out how we could evolve into something more professional and responsive that brought out the best in the team and also delivered a first-class service to our academics and visitors.”

For the scope of its front-of-house audit, Acuity focused on the desks based at South Kensington, Brompton, Hammersmith and Imperial’s new campus White City. They started with a detailed review of the structure of the team, the individual spaces within each reception area, how they looked and felt, what systems were in place to support the service, and whether the service was providing a positive or negative contribution to a visitor’s experience. This work provided considerable insight into the kind of positive changes required and how Acuity could work with Imperial to support those changes. It also highlighted how the University’s long-term goal of creating a five-star front of house service could be achieved.

The Outcome

The result of the audit was a detailed and time-bound mobilisation plan, mapping out key areas for change. Some reception desks were given a ‘local’ status serving specifically the building in which they were housed, and others were given even greater prominence in keeping with the College’s core strategic aims.

Starting with the basics, Imperial had to consider whether the receptionists were working within the right job description: “We had to change the framework of their role so that it better matched our expectations for what the function should be delivering,” says Karl. “Their titles were changed to ‘Welcome Hosts’ rather than ‘receptionists’ to better reflect their new purpose, and similarly they now worked at ‘welcome desks’ rather than receptions. This was more than a title change, it had to be matched by a culture change too.”

“We also had to rebuild and reskill the team itself and keep the best of our people but also bring in new talent who could support the transformation that we envisaged.”

Acuity was able to help Karl and his team by drawing up a comprehensive set of reception standards so that the Welcome Hosts knew what was expected of them as they delivered an excellent visitor experience. “Acuity also helped us through the recruitment process by bringing their hotel sector expertise to the table and ensuring we identified and recruited the best team that would go on to help us deliver our new service and approach.”

Essential to this was the bespoke training designed and delivered by Acuity to give the team greater confidence in providing a more welcoming experience to staff, students and visitors. One-on-one coaching was also provided for some of the more senior roles to enable them to better manage a new, more unified team and to understand how to improve and maintain good morale and create a team spirit. Improvements were also made to the spaces and processes relating to reception areas that improved the working environment and made the service more efficient.

Achieving a sense of team spirit was Karl’s key focus from the outset. “Whilst the project itself has helped to highlight the importance and value that reception services have to the college, the new team structure means that individuals are now much better supported and trained,” he adds.

Other steps have included the introduction of regular breakfast meetings which provide the opportunity for the Welcome Hosts to come together and share their learnings and experiences from their different areas and desks. To further support employee engagement and motivation, the contributions and efforts of individuals are celebrated with a quarterly Employee award nominated by the team.

Karl concludes that the reception function has seen transformation in many different ways:

“It has been a complex and challenging project, but Acuity showed us what good service really looks like and then went on to help us achieve it, offering valuable support along the way.”

“The quality of the service delivered by the Welcome Hosts is so important to me and the wider College and this is now being recognised by our senior teams. We regularly get feedback that the Imperial welcome is now so much better than it used to be, and that our Welcome Hosts are happy to go the extra mile for each other and for visitors, staff and students. Our aim will always be to deliver a five-star service at Imperial, and I am confident that this is now the ambition for all of our welcome team.”

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