Twelve elements are the critical ingredients of great workplaces

Piers Cain discovers the building blocks of better workplaces

There has been a slow but steady deterioration in the quality of the working environment over the years: less space, less privacy, more distractions, less autonomy, more stress. Designer décor, free and excellent coffee, and new computer equipment are little more than expensive window dressing. What would actually improve matters? In The Elemental Workplace, Neil Usher offers a pragmatic guide based on 25 years’ experience as a workplace change leader and consultant.

Management thinker Thomas Davenport pointed out in 2002 that most office schemes are based on “fad, fashion and faith”. Usher cuts through much of the hype about workplace transformation generated by self-promoting designers, architects and business leaders. He concentrates instead on 12 simple elements that are needed “to create a fantastic workplace for everyone”.

Many of the insights in The Elemental Workplace may seem self-evident, but they are worth reiterating. Millennials are just people – the difference between their needs and those of older generations has been exaggerated. When planning a business change, it is a good idea to thoroughly document, analyse and understand the ‘before’ situation if you wish to successfully move to an improved situation ‘after’. A carefully thought-through brief is essential to avoid ‘mission creep’. You can save money by hot-desking and cramming in more people per square metre; but if you overdo it, work quality and performance will be affected.

Usher also takes aim at faddish novelties, such as slides or pool tables. They may impress a few people in the short run, but, he warns, in the long term they are more likely to annoy people. Moving to the strategic level, a new building may facilitate a business and culture change such as a merger, but there are more important factors for the success of your growth strategy.

Usher’s 12 “workplace elements” range from the prosaic to the visionary: from space, storage, and daylight, to choice, influence, and inclusion. His recommendations are eminently practical. We all should have at least 65 sq ft (6 sq m) of space (enough to “swing a large toy cat”, apparently). Lockable individual storage for both work and personal use is vital for hot-desking and high-density offices. We are happier working in natural light. People need a choice of working spaces and the option to switch as their work demands, says Usher. That might mean a standard desk, often in open space; somewhere quiet and comfortable for work that needs concentration; somewhere informal to meet colleagues; and somewhere with a door for formal meetings. Not everything is good for everyone to overhear.

IT connectivity should be of the highest standard available at the time of the fitting out. Not only will this help support higher productivity, but it helps future-proof the office, enabling the workspace to be used flexibly in response to emerging needs.

Perhaps more importantly, Usher argues that inclusion means making modern offices accessible and useable to people with disabilities as the default position, not just as an add-on to meet minimum standards. For example, all washrooms should offer wheelchair access, not just one dedicated room, the minimum typically required by law. Moreover, investment in excellently equipped and well-maintained washrooms is seldom wasted. It is one of the few changes that staff will say thank you for, and it makes a strong statement to visitors.

All this might strike you as a little dull compared to the visionary, but transient, statements of leading designers and architects. Yet the book has the merit of being focused on the real fundamentals of a good workplace, and it sets them out clearly. It has some weaknesses: Usher likes using three words where one would be enough, and occasionally he wanders off the topic. Overall, however, this is a thoughtful work for any non-specialist wishing to become an ‘intelligent client’, and any manager with an interest in changing their workplace for the better. 

The Elemental Workplace: The 12 Elements for Creating a Fantastic Workplace for Everyone by Neil Usher, LID Publishing 

Piers Cain is a management consultant