The year we discover the elemental workplace

We love a survey. Not a week passes without another startling revelation of the poor condition of our workplace, the fragile state of our engagement, or the dearth of meaning at the heart of our daily pursuits. The data (and I use the term lightly) tells us we want to be productive, if only we could be productive. Our intent and motivation is never in question. We have become masters of realising and articulating that we have a problem, and so we ask ourselves over and over just to make absolutely sure. We bang the table, we sound enlightened when we declare “something must be done!” Unless, of course, you work in one of the 10 Coolest Workplaces in the World in which case you are okay and do not need to worry. Unless you worry that yours is not as cool as the others in the list, envy is a terrible thing. We are drowning in hastily-gathered, invariably sponsored survey data, yet suffer a poverty of solutions.

Interestingly, while the tendency is to define the problem in these terms, on the few occasions we respond it is in pictorial form: people were struggling to get anything done, so here is a shot of a nice meeting room with a motivational slogan on the wall in mock-handwritten text. Possibly even in neon, for effect. We cannot help but respond in aesthetic terms, without considering the underlying infrastructure on which the ephemeral beauty and playfulness of the design totters. There is of course much more to it.

Rather frustratingly we do not hear much from occupiers, those who most understand the present situation and the challenges of redressing it. Ironically, we heard a little more before social media opened up so many new channels of enquiry and network creation, when all that was open to us were the professional leviathans, dominated by a small number of active voices domiciled within brands we recognised. Whether it be for reasons of time or fear of being quoted or misquoted, it is a mute landscape. We are all the poorer for that, and will remain so. The same leviathans still tick over, one or two steps behind, not lost to us just yet.

A bit of structure helps. Not too much, just enough as my old friend Lloyd Davis would say. The workplace world has always struggled with it, lurching as it does from one possible universal panacea to another. We are currently locked into a Wacky Race to the printers to declare leadership in the area of biophilia, without actually stopping to ask whether it is relevant or important: it may well be, but we do need to critically engage, as the end product will be all the more robust for it. A framework is needed that can stand the test of time, that is not imprinted onto schemes that sparkle and so soon dwindle, compromised and superseded. A structure that exists outside of fad, and outside the changing shape of both the corporate and vendor landscape.

Structure in turn requires balance. It must be stable, equally considerate of each of its components. Not a hierarchy, in which we are forced to prioritise or accept the priorities of others. In turn, balance is not compromise, as is often assumed. It should stand scrutiny whichever way it is tipped and turned, from whichever direction it is viewed.

The structure should also be capable of being rejected, on the basis of sound reasoning, as there will always be situations requiring of a different approach or solution. A choice not to adhere is still a valid choice.

The Elemental Workplace is attempt at a solution-oriented approach with structure and balance, a possible pathway from problem to outcome irrespective of culture, location, sector or workstyle. It has been evolving for several years and will continue to evolve beyond its publication this Spring. We know we can do better than we are – it is time we started considering how, and getting on with it. We can do this, and we must do this.

This piece first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Work&Place.

Illustration by Simon Heath


Neil Usher is a workplace strategist. His first book The Elemental Workplace is out soon and available to preorder on Amazon.

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