The Elemental Workplace argues for an end to complexity

A new book by London-based workplace change professional Neil Usher makes the case for simplicity over style in planning new people-centred offices

The global workplace industry has long been addicted to finding the ‘magic bullet’ that will reconcile the inevitable contradictions of office design – between the aims of the organisation and the needs of the individual, between a fixed architecture of infrastructure and systems and the more flexible patterns of occupation addressed by interior design, between the efficiency of the machine and creativity of the human.

When the influential US management thinker Thomas Davenport reviewed a wide variety of office schemes for knowledge workers, he concluded that there had been considerable investment and experimentation to learn not a lot. Most projects, he observed, were based on ‘fad, fashion and faith’.

This ‘desperate search for the Holy Grail’, as workplace change professional and writer Neil Usher describes it in a new book, The Elemental Workplace, has resulted in an over-elaboration of planning and designing for the workplaces of the early 21st century. What should be simple and achievable has become difficult and complex.

Usher’s intervention with this book is therefore timely and important given that it aims to demystify the subject, break it down to the essentials and disentangle workplace design from arguments about aesthetics and style.

Avoiding an image-led approach

In recent years, workplace concepts such as collaboration or interaction have been aestheticized, creating new environments based on the flimsiest of evidence that they actually work. The power of architectural photography to help design firms win clients, and help clients win over employees, has been instrumental in generating a growing obsession with workstyle.

The Elemental Workplace

The 12 elements of workplace design

However, The Elemental Workplace makes no use of any architectural photography because Usher didn’t want the ‘look’ of real case studies to interfere with the underlying fundamentals under discussion. This is a publication sparse and pared down in approach, all the better to address the essentials of workplace design, which are presented for clarity almost like a Periodic Table.

Don’t confuse the crystalline form with a rigidly dogmatic line, however. Neil Usher made his name working on big projects in facilities management by adopting an open, intelligent, non-partisan approach.

A non-doctrinaire position

When WORKTECH Academy visited his scheme for Sky Central in London, which emphatically avoided putting staff through a change management programme and concentrated on providing great spaces for people to explore and adopt in their own way, we commented that it marked the rise of the ‘non-doctrinaire workplace’.

Neil Usher takes a similarly ‘non-doctrinaire’ approach in this book. He is both poet and pragmatist: on the one hand, he accepts that modern offices ‘scream for inspiration’ and he even quotes the poem Dolor by Theodore Roethke (‘I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils…’); on the other hand, he provides a wealth of practical, down-to-earth, actionable advice without over-egging his angle on the subject.

The components of his Elemental Workplace include working for everyone (‘fully inclusive’), doing your best for staff within inevitable constraints (‘sufficiently spacious’), flooding space with daylight and giving the individual local control over the environment. Stimulation and comfort are key ingredients of his package to banish the mediocre.

The Elemental Workplace sets out a series of shrewd steps to design and deliver a desirable new landscape for work. Will companies reform their thinking enough to adopt these ideas? On this, readers can only form their own view.

The Elemental Workplace: The 12 Elements for Creating a Fantastic Workplace for Everyone by Neil Usher is published by LID Publishing. You can read an extended extract from the book in WORKTECH Academy’s Innovation Zone.