Pearls of elemental wisdom about workplace design and management

The greatest conundrum in the endless debate about whether the workplace affects people’s wellbeing and productivity is that it’s still going on at all. We’ve known for decades that people are affected in profound and meaningful ways by their surroundings and the culture in which they work. We know which factors are most important and which work in the absence of others. We know how these factors have shifted in response to changing working cultures and technological advances. And we know which are glib distractions from the real deal.

The fact that the debate is ongoing is what makes Neil Usher’s new book The Elemental Workplace so vital. The book declares itself a guide offering a “simple, easy-to-follow way why you need a fantastic workplace, how to create it and what it comprises”. This statement of intent is reflected in the book’s title, which is descriptive of its pared back approach and the fundamental characteristics of a workplace that inspires and motivates people and addresses their health and wellbeing.

The first thing to say is that it’s well written. Neil has obviously put in his 10,000 hours to sharpen his prose and also draws on a range of influences to illustrate his points, from the academic to the artistic, which makes the book extremely digestible.

This shouldn’t be underestimated, because it may be that the reasons we still have to debate the issue of workplace productivity are rooted in the deliberately arcane obscurantism of researchers, coupled with the misdirections of commercial influences. The Elemental Workplace swerves both.

As the linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker points out in his book The Sense of Style, writing is an inherently unnatural form of communication because it’s a monologue, and so for those suffering from what he calls ‘the curse of knowledge’, the author might presume knowledge and insight on behalf of an unknown reader who doesn’t possess them.

That doesn’t appear to be an issue with The Elemental Workplace, but then again, how could I really tell? I’m steeped in this stuff too. Which is why everybody writing extensively in the sector needs a muggle for an editor, or at least the sense of one.

It has to be said that most or all of the ideas are not new. The book’s greatest strength lies in Neil’s own experiences as a facilities manager at a number of major blue-chip organisations and most recently as workplace director at Sky. His swansong in the role was the creation of Sky Central, which you can read about here in Neil’s own words, but which embodies the ideas presented in the book.

This translates into a book which is intended to act as a guide for those who want to create a fantastic workplace. Neil describes this process as ‘simple’, which indeed it is and the underlying twelve elements of what makes a great workplace are equally straightforward. As the book makes clear though, the process of creation and management can be difficult.

The other major strength of the book likes in its absence of case study images. The only visual elements are the Breaking Bad like graphical theme and Simon Heath’s illustrations. This helps the book avoid the now routine ‘aestheticizing of workplace concepts’ as it’s referred to by Jeremy Myerson in his Foreword.

This has become endemic in recent years and it’s now common practice to see problems addressed with designed solutions when the answer might be equally or more about culture or management. Neil routinely rails against this kind of lazy thinking in his blog, along with other misdirections, clichés and myths, and which come in for short shrift here too.

On several occasions in the book Neil references the Yiddish word ‘tummeling’ which refers to the way somebody stirs things up to catalyse others into action. This is clearly a role he has taken as his own with regard to the creation of great places to work. His style can be confrontational and he has little or no time for lazy, uninformed thinking but that is a strength in the face of the endless wave of misinformation that maintains a debate that should have been over years ago. The grit in the oyster makes the pearl.

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