Harnessing Essential Workplace Elements
Neil Usher is an innovator in the field of facilities management with over 25 years of industry experience that’s seen him in various roles at established organizations such as Warner Bros. and Honeywell. Most recently, Neil served as the Workplace Director for Sky in London where he and his team were responsible for creating the BCO and Mixology Award-winning Sky Central and a slew of other projects that have made Sky a global leader in workplace design and functionality.
Neil is currently putting the finishing touches on a book, The Elemental Workplace, and remains a trusted voice in FM insight and theory through his acclaimed blog workessence.
On your blog, workessence, you’ve talked about the concept of the “elemental workplace.” What are some of the most important components you’ve identified in building a successful workplace environment?
Neil: That’s a very timely question. I’ve just finished the final draft of a book called The Elemental Workplace — the full statement of what started out in those blog posts. I’m passionately committed to the idea that everybody should have and can have a fantastic workplace and I think it’s a very simple proposition.
The idea was first written down in 2012 in a couple blog posts. In 2014, I put it into a post called the “Living Wage Workplace” with the idea that if we focus on ten core elements, creating a fantastic workplace is possible for everyone. Where that developed from there was that I did interactive sessions to test my ideas and theories with property and HR audiences and asked what they had as their key considerations in a workplace. We came out with similar results every time over a period of 12-24 months and that convinced me that there was a lot in this.
My position now is that if you focus on 12 core elements — daylight, connectivity, space, choice, control, comfort, refresh, influence, storage, colour, wash and inclusion — then you have every possibility of creating an effective workplace. By following that path, you can create a fantastic workplace of very little cost.
In an April 2017 post, you likened the workplace to a “permanent beta trial.” What are the most important things FMs need to understand about the fluid nature of the industry?
Neil: The organization that the workplace houses is constantly changing and evolving, consequently the space itself needs to constantly evolve. I’ve seen so many workplace schemes where when that huge investment in time, energy and money is finished then that product is then defended.
I think FMs should play the whole thing with a lot softer hands and be prepared to continually evolve that space and the thinking about that space. This isn’t necessarily a new idea, I think it’s just something we’ve, within facilities management and corporate real estate in general, struggled to understand and take on — the fact that something we’ve spent a lot of time, money and emotion creating might need continued evolution. The more that we continually evolve that space effectively, the less we lurch from major project to major project.
We should be in a situation where we’re moving in step with the organization, getting ahead of the game as much as possible and creating environments that can live, grow and change as the organization does. They’re not two entirely different things, the organization and the workplace have to operate and live in tandem which is why it has to be a perpetual beta trial.
You joined Sky as their Workplace Director in August 2013. What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in coordinating workplaces for such a large organisation?
Neil: Sky moves at a hell of a pace. It’s an incredibly energetic and fast-moving organization, so the workplace response to that has to be in step. It’s got a fairly significant diversity of work types from technical studio facilities to software engineering facilities to corporate facilities, there’s a variety of spaces within the organization that each require a slightly different treatment.
It had an amazing energy and willingness to embrace change and a real recognition that the workplace can make a fantastic contribution to the business. The raw ingredients and the motivation were there, it was just a case of making sure that it was framed given a conceptual basis and that we responded to the different needs of our colleagues.
Sky Central has won numerous awards for its one-of-a-kind workplace design. What do you think sets it apart from other workplaces in the broadcasting and telecommunications realm and how were you and your team able to implement all the necessary elements to make that vision come to life?
Neil: It was slightly counter-market in many ways. Sky is a very integrated business and we often used to say the ideal building would be just putting a huge roof over the whole organization. Every part of the business works with another part of the business.
It was a workplace built on the learning from all the other projects we completed before. I don’t think we ever offered Sky Central as being a panacea, what we said was it was right for the business in terms of what it wanted to achieve at that particular time. I think what is transferable is the process, the way we brought our learning from previous projects into the thinking and approach, the way we considered the design, the way we thought we wanted the workplace to work are highly transferable.
For virtually my whole career, I’ve been obsessed with large floor plates. Whatever anybody says about connecting staircases, it justs never seems to work nearly as well as as a large floor plate to me. You get as many people on the same level as possible and you start to create amazing possibilities for activity based space. The ability work with an 11,500 metre floor plate was quite something.
For FMs just getting started in the industry and trying to break through, what do you think are the essential skills they should be focused on mastering?
Neil: Facilities management is part of the whole property life cycle. I would always urge FMs to become much more corporate real estate proficient and understand all the different phases of the property cycle. Be very digitally proficient as well, understand what’s going on in the digital space and the digital workplace. Never stop researching, inquiring and learning. Don’t just become an expert in the organization you work for, become an expert in the discipline on a much wider basis. Learn about real estate, transactions, design, change and be able to connect the whole workplace life cycle from start to finish and around again — I think that’s incredibly important.