By Gloria Lombardi

But how can companies create a workplace where people are nurtured? Where employees can thrive, be productive and engagement levels soar? What are the necessary conditions for a workplace to inspire and encourage meaningful work?

In his new book, ‘The Elemental Workplace’, author Neil Usher, gives some answers, including metrics and an easy to follow set of guidelines. The Elemental Workplace explores how to design workplaces that suit people’s and organisations’ needs in the 21st century. The complexities of workplace design are unpacked and organised into twelve components. Usher’s book is timely, and urgently needed.

MARGINALIA speaks with the author to explore how companies can create workplaces – physical and digital ones – which will enable people to make the most of their skills.

Gloria Lombardi: Why did you title your new book, ‘The Elemental Workplace’? Why ‘elemental’ in particular?

Neil Usher: The idea behind Elemental Workplace is that it’s possible to use a simple framework that everyone can understand, and that enables organisations to create a fantastic workplace. So, ‘elemental’ as in the most simple component parts of an engaging workplace.

The book explores 12 core elements which, when all taken into consideration, can help build a great workplace – wherever companies are located, whatever work style their staff wish to achieve, and whatever their budget. Essentially, The Elemental Workplace describes the basic things that companies could do to improve their workplaces with or without spending millions on the outcome.

Creating such a positive work environment can start by looking at the existing space, and beginning to modify it following the framework, just making some small changes. Alternatively, it’s quite possible to take the framework to a brand new space starting from scratch and constructing it accordingly.

The framework doesn’t do it all on its own. There’s certainly a role for design – the specification of the right technology, the right materials, etc. Yet, it guides organisation on creating the vision for their workplace, so the why, as well as the how to create that space – it helps them in looking at the change process that they would have to adopt and the design principles behind it. The 12 elements are the what – they are the core components.

I’m confident that the framework is entirely transferable anywhere in the world, inside any organisation, within any cultural background – it is a simple, hopefully, quite timeless, framework. Elemental, in fact.

GL: Could you walk MARGINALIA through the 12 core elements?

NU: Although there is not a specific order to follow – this isn’t a hierarchy – the book starts by describing the core component of daylight. Daylight is fundamental to everything we’re about as human beings in terms of regulating our circadian rhythms.

In this always-on world, some people think that we should do whatever we want, whenever we want. But we shouldn’t forget our essential humanity; we are human animals, and should work with our nature.

The second component is connectivity. This isn’t just about the WiFi and cabled network, it includes all the kit employees carry and use. As it is often said today, ‘Every business is a technology business’.

I often say to leaders, ‘Fix the technology, and fix it now; even before you think about embarking on a workplace project, get the technology right’. There’s absolutely no excuse, any longer, for not having the best possible connectivity. Companies can, for short periods of time, work in a fairly poor workplace with amazing connectivity, but they cannot really do so the other way around.

The third element is space. The book argues that it’s important to have sufficient space, but not too much. There’s a small experiment that organisations can run to understand this. It involves a fairly large stuffed toy cat – there is an English expression, ‘not enough space to swing a cat’. If I swung a fairly long-tailed toy cat around, it would make a circle that’s about six square metres in area. That’s a useful starting point for thinking about the minimum space that each employee should have on an aggregated basis across the workplace (not at their desk, but on aggregate across the workplace).

Choice comes next. True choice requires the permission to exercise that choice. While many organisations offer a fantastic range of choices – perhaps about benefits, perhaps about flexible working – the culture can lag behind. Are you really free to choose to work flexibly if the management culture requires you to sit in the same seat every day so your manager can, supposedly, make sure you’re working?

Number five is influence. There’s lots of credible research that supports the fact that employees who have been able to influence their space generally perform better, and feel better about their working environment. The influence element is all about the creation of a relationship, so that a human being doesn’t feel entirely divorced from the space in which they’re working.

Number six is control. Beyond influence, people need a degree of control over their immediate environment. Some people have strong feelings about temperature and noise levels, and if they can’t control these sort of things they should have the choice to move do a different space.

Number seven is refresh – the noun rather in the verb. There’s a growing expectation that the workplace will include an appropriate food and drink offer, hopefully including healthy choices. But the ‘refresh’ component also includes having a significant amount of social contribution. It’s not just about the physiological contribution of rehydrating, or giving yourself enough energy to get through the day, but also ensuring that there’s space where people will make social interaction happen. In the last century, departmental heads worried about which departments would be next to each other on a floor. Now, we find that silos mostly get broken down in the social space, rather than in the working spaces..

Number eight is sense. A good workplace should consider, and satisfy, all of our senses. I have a colleague who thinks we have nine senses, but I’m content to stick with the usual five. The refresh element should satisfy taste, so we still have sight, smell, touch, and hearing to satisfy. We should have a design response, a workplace response, for each sense.

For example, textured surfaces and furnishings can satisfy our sense of touch. Some workplaces share a radio or allow music, but imagine if incidental sounds were triggered when people moved through a social space. Smell is even more emotional; the olfactory sense is linked to the limbic system and so people associate scent with memories and experiences. Most organisations, if they think about scent at all, aim for a neutral smell – they don’t aim for something positive.

Number nine is comfort. A very personal matter. Most of us might agree on what is uncomfortable, but comfortable itself is harder to define. The workplace needs to be designed and arranged with comfort in mind, so that people should never need to remark that the space isn’t comfortable.

Number ten is inclusion. A fantastic workplace should be fantastic for absolutely everybody. Inclusion is a much-discussed topic in terms of making sure that a space responds to the way people are and the way they choose to live. Nobody should ever be made to feel like a ‘special’ case – the space should easily accommodate everyone’s needs. Organisations have to continually look at the workplace, audit the design, to ensure it considers all of the potential diversity of their people. For instance, it’s fantastic to have a great big feature staircase that encourages movement and lets people be seen, but such a staircase can be an obstacle for some people. There are many, less obvious, inclusivity issues that companies must consider.

Number eleven is wash, which refers to washrooms. It may sound bizarre – maybe I’ll become known as the person who improves the quality of workplace toilets! – but washrooms are one of the few spaces that visitors use. Visitors might use the reception, a meeting room, and probably the toilet before they leave the building or when they arrive. So washrooms say something about the way the company values its staff. If you want to know whether your company values you or not, go and use the washroom. If companies can get the washrooms right, then generally they can get just about everything else right. But often, washrooms sit outside of the workspace, and are regarded as an afterthought.

Finally, there is the storage component, which, interestingly in an age of wellbeing, is having a bit of a renaissance. Think about all the gym bags, extra pairs of shoes, cycle gear, personal tech, and all the paraphernalia employees bring with them at work. Secure storage is absolutely vital. Staff want to lock their valuables away. Buildings need to be designed from the inside out. I would say the workspace itself needs to be designed from the ‘inside of the locker out’.

GL: Could you share an example of a company that has been able to create such a workplace, which considers the twelve elements?

NU: Sky Central is a good example; They’ve been recognised as having an advanced and successful workplace. They managed to make sure that all of these factors were considered.

Sky Central’s campus in West London has been built for three and a half thousand people, over only three floors, and with a lot of amenities such as five cafes and restaurants, and a 200 seat digital cinema. It’s an entirely agile workspace. It’s full of daylight, and natural materials. Although it’s designed with a firm, efficient people-ratio, it feels very spacious. There’s plenty of choice and employees have some sort of individual control and ability to influence their space. There’s plenty of storage room as well.

GL: Your book seems to focus on the physical aspects of the workplace quite heavily, although you indeed stress the critical role of technology through the connectivity component. Looking at the future of work, the digital workplace is certainly going to be core. How does the Elemental Workplace you describe actually meld and build on digital workplace transformation?

NU: There’s a section of the book where I talk specifically about the ‘social workplace’, which is the meshing of physical and digital space. It considers enterprise social networking and how the digital workplace can interweave with the physical space in terms of connecting teams worldwide, enabling spontaneous interactions, building networks, and in terms of creating and sharing knowledge. One of the points I make in the book, is that the digital workplace and the physical workplace need to be considered together. It is only when the two are considered together, that a genuine social workplace can be created. So, the book is making an assumption that the digital workspace should always be considered in all of this as well.

Also, I’ve spent some time looking at how people use digital terminology and concepts when talking about real-life and the physical space. There are inconsistent, and incorrect, usages.

GL: How do you mean?

NU: One example is the discussion about communities and neighborhoods. Those two terms are often used interchangeably but they’re not necessarily the same thing. What we’re trying to create in a physical space is a series of physical neighbourhoods as part of a whole, with a sort of overlaid community spirit. It’s the community spirit of the digital workplace that then enables the broadening and the deepening of relationships beyond the physical space.

One of the key aspects here, is the difference between adoption and adaptation. Very often in the physical workplace and when managing large scale change projects, we talk about the need for people to adopt their new space, and adopt new behaviours. When the employer is moving people into that new physical space in one go, there’s no sort of transition from the old system to the new system as we might have in a digital space. There is a physical change: employees are in one space one day, in another space the next day. Whereas with the digital world, we talk much more about adaptation. Organisations allow their staff to get to know new applications and new systems, to discover them for themselves, and to take the time they need for adapting to the new ways of working. So what I’m pleading within the workplace community, is to think about change much more in terms of adaptation, and much less in terms of adoption. In digital terms, we talk about ‘early adopters’ but the term should be ‘early adapters’.

I’m hoping that we will continue looking at the digital workplace and its practices, but transferring its concepts into the physical space in a more meaningful, correct, and helpful way – understanding the differences and unique aspects of each.