Why create a fantastic workplace?

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This extract comes from Neil Ushers new book ‘The Elemental Workplace’ and is published on 1 March.

This Ridiculous Book

The Elemental Workplace is intended for everyone, whether managing a property portfolio or a project, owning or running a business, or just interested in the workplace to which they are treated, or subject. It has had the corporate bullshit and buzzwords surgically removed. The Elemental Workplace is not a ‘business book’ – it is equally not a disruptor, and introduces only a simple, bite-sized and easily digestible concept. As long as physical workspace is required, this book will remain relevant. The Elements will apply, however automated our lives and buildings become – or, at least, until delivering on the contents of this book becomes automatic. It is also not a niche book for workplace professionals.

While some parts or ideas may seem obvious to those within the discipline, most organisations have someone responsible for the workplace, yet a lot of work still needs to be done. The Elemental Workplace is not, like many in the field, a travelogue decked out with rafts of enviable pictures of just-completed workspaces occupied by a few friends of the architectural photographer; it is independent of the aesthetic outcome. It deals with the components of the space and how they relate to one another and function, not how they might look.

What this book will not tell you:

How your culture will be impacted

The phrase ‘Culture eats design for breakfast’ is often heard in workplace circles, paraphrasing a regularly uttered statement about strategy attributed, rightly or wrongly, to Peter Drucker. Rarely does anyone know what it means; it just sounds lofty and complicates where it need not, by assuming that intangible notions will conspire against us. Most struggle to describe what culture means, too, and rarely are any two definitions alike; it’s the stuff of conversations after the bar has closed.

Very often, workplace transformation is seen as an investment that will help fix cultural problems. A new workplace will certainly influence local culture, yet the nature, degree and likelihood of positive impact are almost impossible to assess, being bound up with other internal and external influences in play at the time. To pin all hopes on workplace alone is unfair – it has to be partnered with an awareness of the issues and a willingness to change behaviours and processes from the top down. It is again a matter of balance: physical workplace in tandem with visible senior-level commitment. Behaviour is often modelled to a far greater extent than instructions are followed.

Most problems of – and therefore solutions to – organisational culture usually reside in management and leadership. Physical workplace changes supportive of resolving them are the taking down of physical barriers (walls, offices), increased visibility of leadership and a conscious reduction in management-by-presence. Conversely, poorly designed and with inappropriate or inadequate change enablement, these actions may exacerbate the issues. Culture may well eat design for breakfast, if we let it. Let’s not let it. Better that they have breakfast together.

The 12 Workplace Elements: Sense

A workplace plays to the senses. This is not something that can be avoided, and so needs to be understood and addressed. If we assume that taste is satisfied by the crushed avocado on sourdough toast with a poached egg at the reception café, it leaves a craving for stimulation of sight, sound, smell and touch. The original idea in the earliest post on the Elemental Workplace was simply colour, but the thinking has moved on to encompass the full sensory palette. Everywhere we turn, it is a bombardment. When we start to consider space in this manner, we open up a range of possibilities – and, once again, the possibility of getting it wrong.

We may never attain in the workplace the emotional impact of Stendhal’s Syndrome (hyperkulturemia), in which the great French writer fainted at the sheer multi-sensory splendour of Florence in the early 19th century, but we are innately drawn to beauty and are stimulated by it. Not absolutely everything needs to make a specific functional contribution; some things serve simply to prompt our imagination. It therefore needs to be recognised that, in their own way, such things are still functional.

Beyond the (occasional) wonder of the sweep and curve of the external building form, the architecture of interior spaces is a restricted playpen; yet, though scale limits form, it does not restrict impact. In response we must consider how we think about and use colour, texture, sound and scent.

From the former Workplace Director of the multi-award winning Sky Central offices, we learn about The Elemental Workplace from Neil Usher’s new book published on 1 March bu LID publishing