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In Conversation With: Emma Taylor, Unite Students’ Employee of the Year 2023

5 January 2024

Emma Taylor is Unite Students’ General Manager for Nottingham, home to our new 705-bed Morriss House property. She won Employee of the Year at the company’s 2023 Stars Awards and her Nottingham City Team was Field Operations Team award winner.

Here, she talks about her fantastic achievements, which have come at a very personal time for Emma, who was diagnosed with cancer in April 2022.


Q: What makes Unite Students a great place to work?

A: We’re the largest PBSA (purpose-built student accommodation) provider and where my team’s concerned, it’s our genuine desire to create a home and sense of community. It’s about being there when customers need us, whether that’s through maintenance support or welfare, or simply to collect a parcel, or have a chat.

Even if reception is closed, there is always someone in that building and at the end of the phone, who could meet a resident very quickly if they needed us and we adhere to CARE principles – connect, act, respect and encourage. They mean something to us as a business, we want to be more than a landlord – we want to provide a great place to live that people talk about in years to come. That would be a huge compliment, if people in tens years’ time or longer still talk about where they stayed when they were at university, and that experience was really important to them. I like to think my team, our service and buildings are why people choose us and, hopefully, why they rebook with us.


Winning Employee of the Year is a brilliant achievement. How has the past 12 months been for you personally and how has your experience with breast cancer helped drive your work?

It would be an understatement to say it hasn’t been hugely challenging. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2022. On a personal level, it’s been super difficult but equally it’s been so rewarding from a work point of view. The irony is it’s been one of my happiest in terms of success and how well our team has performed. I tend to live my life as a glass half-full kind of person, but when you hear the words “It’s cancer”, you hear ‘how many days you have left’ because cancer has that kind of effect on you.

The time between diagnosis and going back to understand what the treatment process looks like feels like an absolute age, even though in reality it was around two weeks. I opted for a double mastectomy to avoid the risk of ever going through this again. They said the cancer was treatable and the likely path would be surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy and that’s what happened. I can’t explain how you come to terms with it, I just knew that I wanted to live and once I’d processed everything, even though I didn’t fully understand what I would experience – it took a while to pin that down and try to have a plan of action – there was lots of anger and tears.

Telling people was very hard as I didn’t want them to feel sorry for me, I wanted them to still see me as me, which is why I decided that from a work perspective, I only told my line manager, and my immediate management team. Wanting to be there for my team took the focus off me and what I was going through. All of them were just amazing, the fact we were already such a close team massively helped and there were lots of hugs and tears. I had my surgery, I went back and had a brilliant reception from everybody and that was the same all the way through my treatment.

I started chemotherapy in October 2022, which finished in March 2023 and then I had 15 rounds of radiotherapy towards the end of June, where I had to go every day. Throughout, the team and Unite Students as a company were so supportive – I used to get little messages constantly. It really shows the value of the business you work for and what it means to you. I couldn’t have asked for more. Even now it’s the same, Unite Students has been fabulous – I couldn’t have asked for any better. I do suffer from fatigue and I’m not completely the same person as I was before, but most importantly I don’t have cancer anymore.

At the Stars Awards, colleagues who I hadn’t met before came up to me and said how brave and inspirational I was. But I never really saw it that way. I’d been progressing a long-term plan on where I wanted Nottingham to be and I was certainly not going to let cancer get in the way of that. Equally, coming to work allowed me to feel normal and be Emma. It helped me to manage what was a really tough time behind the scenes. Work was a saviour.


Why did you join Unite Students as Operations Manager over four years ago, and what did your role involve then?

Before Unite Students, I worked in sales and ran three outsource contact centres. I’m used to working for big corporate organisations, everything I did was underpinned through service and people management. I was really attracted to Unite Students, something kept drawing me back to the company and applying for the role. I didn’t go to university and I hadn’t worked in accommodation so this was something completely new to me, but my skill set was incredibly relevant and I have absolutely loved it – I wish I’d found it a lot sooner than four years ago.


What about Unite Students and student accommodation have you enjoyed so much?

It’s the whole process – getting to run a city is like, in effect, managing your own business. The people are fantastic and I’ve never worked for a company where I’ve felt instantly so welcome. When I first joined the business as Operations Manager, I managed two cities; Loughborough and Nottingham. Although they are incredibly different operations, and still are due to their nominations (NOMs) agreements (allocation of rooms taken by a university) and university partnership relationships, the people were genuinely interested in what they did and there was this real family feel. In Nottingham, where I’m focused now, that’s just continued further during my time here.

It was noted in our Stars Awards nomination what a close-knit team we are in Nottingham and I think that definitely lends itself well to the success we’ve had. You go to work in the morning with a list of what you want to do and then within half an hour that could change – particularly if there’s been a welfare or health and safety incident. I could start the day talking about summer cleans next year and then it could be a NOMS agreement or a welfare incident – the variety is just amazing. Some people could be challenged by that, but it keeps things very interesting for me.


How different are Unite Students properties in Nottingham?

I’m responsible for all our Nottingham properties, including our new 271-bed Bromley Place, which will be built for the start of the 2024/25 academic year. All our properties are very different – Riverside Point, St Peters Court and Morriss House all serve the University of Nottingham with NOMs agreements. We work closely with the university and they are a key stakeholder. All the properties have got their own unique look and feel to them. Morriss House attracts a lot with the super new facilities it has, including a ‘welcome hub’ as a reception.

We work with the university and its residential experience programme and sponsor its Gold package. Students that are part of that initiative put on events for other residents in our buildings and act as a point of contact. This really works for us, and those students have the infrastructure and contacts to put on really good, regular events and connect with the rest of the university. We have our own trained welfare officers too.

Nottingham is a popular UK university city and over the past few years that I’ve been at Unite Students, it’s become even more popular as a destination – both universities in the city are very highly ranked. There are more students than we have beds for, so there is still very high demand. Over the years, our reputation for being safe and secure, and our attention to detail when it comes to service, makes us very popular.


How excited are you about our upcoming property Bromley Place? Is its focus towards postgraduates going to make it stand out?

Yes, it’s really exciting, the location is fantastic, right by the city centre’s Victoria Centre shopping centre. There’s lots of development in that area and to see Unite Students in such a prominent place will be great. Also, the fact that it will be geared towards that slightly older customer and how they want to live. The welcome hub and the marketplace café seen in our new 705-bed Morriss House will feature in Bromley Place too. I think this leads the way in what future PBSA will feature. We’ve worked collaboratively with the rest of the business on how these features work, so it’s been a great collaboration, to the benefit of our customers. For the city, and our team, to have one new building open is tremendous, to have another one in the next year is the icing on the cake.

Morriss House has put Nottingham firmly on the map, we’ve had so many visitors over the past 12 months and people have really been interested in what we are as a city and what Unite Students is trying to achieve in Nottingham. I think the team has massively enjoyed that exposure and to do it all again is wonderful.


What makes a good General Manager and how has your career background contributed to your success?

Being an authentic leader and true to yourself is so important. Also, being supportive and encouraging team communication works and in Nottingham we do that really well. We’re always looking for ways to improve that further and with all the different roles we have in the city, that’s vital. Recognising talent and strengths is important – I’m super people focused and for me, being a good leader is wanting to make people better and support them to get the best out of what they do. It’s about making progress and communicating and achieving your vision, we have the right people to deliver that.

Also, to focus on continuous improvement until it becomes inherent and then we repeatedly enjoy those successes. Emotional resilience is really important and being able to lead through change – a lot of the jobs I’ve worked in over my career, I’ve worked through big changes, including when I worked in the IT department for a national media company. I’ve managed to transfer those people and organisation skills across to what I do now.

Want to know more? Click through to learn more about Bromley Place, or read our interview with Dom Thomas, Operations Integration Manager.

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