Perspective with Neil Usher

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Neil Usher is a leading Property and Workplace Leader, having worked for a number of blue chips, including Warner Bros, Honeywell, Rio Tinto and most recently Sky. Now undertaking a new freelance advisory role, we thought we’d ask Neil to give us an insight into his career – past, present and future.

Hi Neil. So what’s new? Are you getting a lie-in now?
With two young daughters I think I have been re-wired to have no idea what a lie-in is. I haven’t had one for 10 years. But then again, I rather love the morning and wouldn’t want to miss it. I did have a sneaky extra hour after the Mixology awards. Thanks for recognising Sky Central!

You’re very welcome. What’s next/now for you?
I’ve just started some freelance advisory work, and am really enjoying it. I’d like to spend my working time doing what I love, and seeing the inner machinations of as many organisations as possible. That’s going to need at least a day a week of research and thinking too, to keep up. I’m always amazed at how few people do that, or see it as valuable. I’m also writing a book, about the Elemental Workplace – my model of the 12 core components of fantastic space. I’m just over halfway through, but I haven’t re-read any of it – that part is agony. I know I’ll have to do it but I’m kind of hoping someone else might.

What is a Property & Workplace leader?
I could have said ‘Corporate Real Estate Executive’ like many do but I would probably have needed to ask Old Nick for my soul back. I can do the real estate strategy, transactions and FM but it’s the workplace that has always fascinated me, so I wanted to call that out specifically. People often overlook the fact that Sky was the first time in my career I have specialised in this area – most of my roles have been looking after the full property lifecycle. That gives me a useful perspective on workplace because I can reach into what comes before – and what happens afterwards. I do think that workplace is a discipline in its own right and it’s time it was recognised, so I’ll take any opportunity to draw attention to it.

Does it feel very different to be ‘out on your own’?
It’s very early days, but yes it does – very much so. I keep having to remember that I’m only accountable to myself. Of all things in corporate life, I certainly won’t miss setting objectives and the annual appraisal. That said, I have to bear in mind that I am my own harshest critic so I’m expecting a tough journey.

In a sentence (or two) tell us about your four-year long Sky experience.
It was amazing. It was a privilege to be involved in projects like Sky Central, the Hub and Leeds Dock, having the opportunity to push the boundaries of workplace design and thinking, and to experiment with a radically different approach to change. Sky moves at an incredible pace and with the degree of transformation we were undertaking, it was a phenomenal learning experience too.

What are you most proud of from those four years?
History and media attention will probably suggest that it’s Sky Central – and it would be tough to argue with that, but it was also punctuated with other minor successes that massively improved the environment for our colleagues across the portfolio – a café here and there, an upgrade of an old space on a budget. Sometimes it’s the smaller, underplayed changes that make the most satisfying difference.

You’ve clearly worked hard to change sky’s working culture. How did you approach that?
Sky is an amazingly integrated business, and so much of the focus was on making it possible for people to work together. This is perhaps an overplayed aim in a world demanding choice, so we balanced this with the opportunity to focus ‘on demand’. A major aim, however, was simplicity. People haven’t got time for working out how space is supposed to function for them. It has to be intuitive – soft visual cues. Too many designs I see are characterised by trying to be too clever for their own sake, just to be different. We also created change programmes that were open, honest and appealed to people’s good nature to allow them to go on their own journey. We didn’t do any etiquette training, or ever use the word ‘adoption’. That’s totally counter to what happens almost everywhere – and it worked beautifully.

Where is the workplace heading?
Into the ether. Workplace is becoming increasingly digital as well as physical. That means we exist in two spheres simultaneously. What may appear to be static, individual activity could be engaged, knowledge-sharing and social activity in a digital space. Organisations need to wake up to what the digital space can offer in connecting their experts and their expertise. The physical workplace will progressively develop to support our digital presence, which means our profession has to grow its awareness of what this means. We’re way short of what’s needed at the moment.

We love Workessence (Neil’s brilliant blog), but what’s with the poetry?
Thanks for the blog thumbs up! It’s 250 posts in, and every time I think I’ve exhausted the subject, something else crops up, because there is still so much to do. I used to watch the ‘punk poets’ like John Cooper Clark, Linton Kewsi Johnson and Atilla the Stockbroker. They would support bands in those days, and the audience would fall silent as they used just the spoken word. They were acid, funny, political, irreverent and razor sharp. I’ve been writing since those days but about six years ago decided to try writing about life at work within the constraints of Pecha Kucha, so it comes at you at quite a pace, just with a few less expletives than the punks gifted. It’s got to be better than bullet points and pie charts, don’t you think?