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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Creating a fantastic workplace

Everyone deserves a fantastic workplace, says Neil Usher. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s simple if we focus on the right things.

I’ve worked in some right-royally rubbish workplaces. I started out in one in 1985, having my youthful, optimistic just-out-of-university spirit crushed within weeks between ring binder and limed-oak, slab-end desk. I was transfixed by clerks hunched over desks drafting memos for the typing pool; it still took four weeks to process a reply to a letter. It was, as Roethke’s poem ran, the “inexorable sadness of pencils, dolour of pad and paperweight”.

They knocked the tomb-like office block down in 2003, and I hope someone performed a potent ceremony to rid the earth of the lingering darkness of the shadow it cast. That wasn’t the end of it though. You will all no doubt have your own tales of dolour—or anguish, as this rarely used word means—and a large proportion of them will be about the place you are reading this, right now.

On the one hand we have come a long way, and on the other we have not. In the UK, the most recognised survey of these matters, Leesman, continually tells us that only just over half of all respondents agree that their workplace enables them to work productively. While the potential contribution the workplace can make to an organisation is at last being recognised, and unconsciously the notion that the workplace is part of an organisation’s culture and not something external to it is being accepted, there remains a tendency to over-think what makes a great place to work and so do little as a result.

We seem to only want to start when we are entirely convinced of the benefit that will accrue. If we do start, we have an impatient habit of jumping straight to the outcome, pinterested as we are into near-oblivion, thinking that what we see is what we need. A workplace is not the end of a journey it is the journey, it exists in perpetual beta, it moves with the organisation it hosts.

A distinction is necessary between space and place. Space is empty, unoccupied. We strategise, design, construct and furnish it, we take razor sharp photos that ooze cool. It is our blank canvas. Place on the other hand, all too often used interchangeably with space, is occupied, it is where physical space and people create something entirely new.

In creating a workplace, we need to understand both. When we add the opportunities for us to connect and share in digital space, we genuinely create the social workplace.

That we need a fantastic workplace is, however, by no means a foregone conclusion. C Northcote Parkinson in his book Parkinson’s Law (famous for another statement, its opening gambit) states that “a perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the point of collapse.”

There are leaders who feel that their business, born in the dust of adversity may lose its essence, its hunger, if it considers the needs of itself above its purpose. They’re still happy in the dust. The case, therefore, still needs to be made.

A model usually helps. It is based on Frank Duffy’s original three “e”s of workplace strategy—efficiency in the form of responsible cost and spatial metrics, respecting the commercial considerations; the effectiveness to ensure that everything needed is provided and works, and people can be at their best every day; and the expression of the organisation’s DNA through its workplace creating advocacy and commitment.

To these I added three more “e”s: a focus on the environment such that we leave as light a footprint on the planet as possible and consider our social responsibilities; the digital representation of the organisation and its workplace in the ether, where in an age of instant accountability demonstrably living its values becomes essential; and an energy for our people, a deeper and more comprehensive idea of wellbeing.

Assessing their relative importance to an organisation enables us to map the present against a desired state. This is significantly upstream of unproven arguments about productivity, but we can realistically expect that if we create an environment in which people can flourish, they likely will and productivity will improve. If it doesn’t, it’s still been the right thing to do.

What a fantastic workplace comprises is based on an equal consideration of twelve core elements:

  • • 
    Daylight: nature’s antiseptic, the regulator of our circadian rhythm—not a “perk” as one website recently described it, but a fundamental need;
  • • 
    Connectivity: literally the fibre of the social workplace; always more than is needed, always on, always working;
  • • 
    Space: enough but not too much, so somewhere on a bell curve between 6–15m2 a person aggregated over the whole workplace;
  • • 
    Choice: a range of work settings and the permission to freely exercise the choice of when, where and how to work;
  • • 
    Influence: the ability for everyone to set their workplace up as they need, to have a relationship with it;
  • • 
    Control: the ability to set thermal conditions and noise levels as needed … or the ability and permission to choose a different setting;
  • • 
    Refresh: the availability of healthy food and drink, but as much for the social need as the physiological—it is in amenities such as cafes that silos dissolve;
  • • 
    Sense: a space that caters for all the senses (and some argue there are more than five), in particular those contributions least explored in the workplace including texture and scent;
  • • 
    Comfort: form must always follow function, a doctrine from Vitruviu’s work in the 1st Century BC but a struggle we still play out today;
  • • 
    Inclusion: everyone should have a fantastic workplace and no one should ever feel like a special case—regulations are a safety net, we need to set our targets far higher;
  • • 
    Wash: the quality of a washroom is a signifier of how an organisation values its people;
  • • 
    Storage: for all the stuff we now bring to a workplace, particularly where wellbeing programmes and amenities are available—and like every building should be designed from the inside out, every workplace should be designed from the inside of the locker out.

The approach is free of considerations of sector, location, workstyle or budget, a universally transferable model. Each element still needs a considerable amount of briefing and design to create, and a balance to be arrived at. Yet in being shown in a periodic table format it allows each organisation to determine the relative importance of the elements. It is not a hierarchy of needs, and there are no subsets of importance within the table.

We can start then to weave stories too and understand their relationship—for example, how the availability of choice and control over the most appropriate worksetting enabled a colleague with a particular physical condition to be feel included and cared for.

Yet knowing what we want and why we need it, how do we actually do this? That means the approach, method, mindset—not what it looks like and whether it has a climbing wall and table-tennis-meeting-table. It is all too often that an evaluation of how lurches straight to the aesthetic, and the pictorial nature of much of what we find online rarely helps us extricate ourselves from the goody bag. There is a process, and it is based on following a series of design principles, and devising an approach to change focused on the way people are rather than the way you want them to be.

The design principles, like the elements themselves, are transferable—gathering enough evidence while leaving the space to consider opportunity, remaining beta minded, being thorough with the development of a sound brief, keeping our language, intent and ideas simple, staying focused on people, staying relevant (and thus avoiding fads), keeping everything in balance and sweating the small stuff.

The Elemental Standard—outlined in The Elemental Workplace—is a simple self-assessment tool covering each of the elements. It is not an elite building standard such as BREEAM and WELL, but a mark that is deemed everyone should aspire to—and can reach. The ultimate goal is that the standard is no longer needed, that it has served its purpose and happily worked itself into obsolescence. There is also no consulting invoice at the end of the test, and no barrier to letting colleagues know that they have an elemental workplace. If your workplace hits the mark, it’s your story to tell.

The drive behind the creation of the Elemental Workplace is a belief that everyone deserves a fantastic workplace—that it is the right thing to do, that it is attainable, and that it is simple if we focus on the right things. Workplace dolour should be a thing of the past, for everyone. There are no more excuses, it’s time to get on with it.

NEIL USHER is executive consultant: property, workplace & change for Workessence, and executive consultant for Unispace. His new book, The Elemental Workplace, is available now in-store and online:

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