I’ve only met Neil Usher once, but now I’d definitely like to get to know him better. In his new book ‘The Elemental Workplace’, Neil reveals himself as a natural writer with strong opinions – on a soapbox – but always authoritative and speaking to the reader as an adult. As I read the 200 or so pages I frequently found myself nodding in violent agreement. It felt like a meeting of minds. More than that he made me laugh out loud several times.
This is a book that introduces the ‘ridiculous idea’ that everyone deserves a fantastic workplace and that it is ‘ridiculously easy’ to implement one. What follows is a very practical ‘how to’ guide, organised into sections, broadly: why, how and what. The aim is not to overcomplicate and to keep things jargon free. It isn’t until page 50 that the reader reaches the end of the section on ‘why’. That is, ‘why’ should organisations invest in their physical workplaces at all? That is the right number of pages. All credit to Neil for taking the space to realistically explain the possible legitimate reasons and the arguments that can be used to convince others, when you need to work with real decision makers in real organisations. Neil’s healthy dose of scepticism looms large from the off in this section. And having debunked many a workplace myth, around the measurement of productivity and millennials as just two examples, what could have sounded like his own too easy soundbites are quite the opposite – they are, by and large, nuggets of gold. He also understands and helpfully expounds on the broader challenges of the organisational change journey itself.
Throughout this early part of the book there is a lot of trailing of the ’12 Elements’ which are the meat of the ‘what‘ section which comes later in the book. This is a shame because the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ are just as relevant, if not more so, and the reader finds themselves compelled to hurry along to what is being billed as the main course. In fact to a certain extent the structure as a whole did feel to me a little bit constraining. Towards the end, when writing about the ‘possibles’ and ‘probables’ – the workplace design aspects that you may need to think about but that don’t fit into the ‘Elemental’ framework – Neil seems to hit his stride in a free flowing few pages of damned good advice and where he provides the biggest of many laughs in the book when he mentions badgers and boardroom tables. You will have to read the book yourself to find out more.
Aside from the entertainment value, the book exists to try to extract simplicity out of unnecessary complexity in workplace design. And this is where I thought I might find myself disagreeing with it. Not that I don’t endorse the sentiment. Neil states that simplicity is not the same as simplistic. The 12 elements themselves are at first sight a simple checklist of issues you would ignore at your peril if you aspire to creating a decently effective workplace. Neil provides compelling evidence for why each of the 12 should be there. With a strong statement early on that workplace is not a complicated subject, lurking within the 12 elements are hints at the complexity that I firmly believe nevertheless does exist. For example, the risk that in fact, as Neil puts it ‘a collection of poorly considered, ill-specified and badly designed settings in illogical locations will deliver a terrible workspace’; the ‘delicate balance’ required to make a ‘refresh’ space, which he calls an ‘Elemental Workplace’ in microcosm. And in the excellent section on the social workplace, where Neil refers to how easy it is to misinterpret appearances of activity in the physical workplace and advises that ‘a deeper awareness and understanding is vital’. These things are about fine and informed judgements, taking into account the interrelationships between the many factors at play at the same time relating to space and people. And I don’t think that quite all the workplace data we need to help us to understand this is already in existence, as perhaps the book implies. It isn’t always as simple as we might like it to be. There. That is my quick turn on the soapbox that Neil has provided me with. But he has got up there first and shouted loud and proud about how everyone deserves a fantastic workplace and he should be listened to.
‘The Elemental Workplace’ is published on 1 March 2018.
Ros Pomeroy is a co-founder of brainybirdz with Dr Kerstin Sailer, whose research is referenced and quoted within the book.