Neil Usher's Top 10 Tips
You have your building. You’ve assembled your team. You’ve secured the funds and know you can create your new workspace in time. It’s a hugely exciting moment. What can possibly go wrong?
While we like to think that problems we may encounter will all be the result of forces beyond our control, we’re just as likely to be the reason. The decisions we take, the things we do and the things we miss. For many of us, we don’t do these projects very often, so we need some helpful guidance.
We asked Neil Usher – Chief workplace & Change Strategist at GoSpace AI and author of The Elemental Workplace and Elemental Change – what he considered to be the 10 key things not to do in creating a new workplace. From brief to delivery, each week we will share with you his Top 10 Tips.
DON’T consider the present at the expense of the future – and the future at the expense of the present
It’s all about balance.
We’ve studied the trends, looked at what our competitors are doing, marvelled at what the seriously cool companies are doing. We like to think we’re as cool. Perhaps cooler. We want some of that, to be a leader, out there, shaping the future. Like our pre-lockdown favourite jeans, the present just doesn’t fit anymore.
We want to change. We have to change. But how much? We’ve studied and modelled how we work, with different groups and teams doing different things in different ways. We want to make sure we reflect their needs in the new workplace, and we want them on board with the outcome. But if we create a space for what we have today, what changes?
It’s easy to fall into either trap, but it’s about balance. The things in the present that are working that we can do more of, together with a crafted vision of the future incorporating the changes we want to prompt and enable.
Balance doesn’t come easy. It’s a skill. One we need to master.
DON’T let fad and fashion dictate the outcome
We want our fit-out to last (longer than flares)
Time can seem to move at two speeds. There’s the frenetic day-to-day we can barely keep up with, our packed schedules, projects, initiatives, ideas, all battling with the demands of our personal lives. In this channel live the forms and tastes of the moment. Including the dubious. The occasional re-emergence and rapid disappearance of bell-bottoms. Pushing up our jacket sleeves, turning over our collar. Workshop chic with its crumbling plaster, exposed brick, eye-straining filament lightbulbs and sagging felt.
Then there’s the slow wave beneath; reassuring, easy, reliable and assured. Here resides everything we consider to be classic, the aesthetic, features and elements that never tire. While they don’t set the pulse racing, they exude confidence.
We don’t want to be left behind, left out. We’re looking for the emerging talent, those in-tune with the zeitgeist, the innovators of today and leaders of tomorrow. Our workplace has to chime with their expectation of an organisation on a mission. The rejection of even the idea of ‘corporate’ is wholesale, so everything must be its antithesis.
But it has to last. We don’t do this every year, checking what’s hot and what’s not, we’re investing our organisation’s money and reputation in being both relevant and bold. Another delicate high-strung wire to tread.
DON’T drive down fees at all cost
The better the preparation and design, the better the outcome
Fees. They’re line items in a budget – often about a tenth of the whole spend. We can’t sit at them, write on them, share them. They don’t make an enviable Insta shot. Most of the time we don’t understand what’s actually being done, only we’re told the services are needed. When we see the output, we’re impressed but we don’t always understand it. So we challenge them, try and trim them, remove them if we can so we can spend the money on things we can actually see and touch.
Fees may look like an easy target but taking the red pen to them can be a false economy we’ll see and feel, every time we step into the completed space. The key to the success of the project is exceptional discovery, strategy and design. So that when we spend the other nine tenths of the budget, we’re getting the maximum return, the best-value and a fantastic outcome.
Why take the risk?
DON’T take orders
A successful outcome is co-created, not dictated.
“What do you want?” and “What do you need?” are two very different questions. We’re likely to pitch both to our colleagues during the process we call ‘consultation’. Quite possibly interchangeably. We can be forgiven for thinking it involves taking orders, pencil poised, notepad in hand. Sometimes our colleagues can be forgiven for thinking it’s about ordering too. They wait for the pad and pencil to appear.
Co-creation isn’t the same as everyone designing the workplace. We’d probably be talking about it until the lease expired. It’s about combining the aspirations, desired outcome and particular needs of the intended occupants, with the experience and insight of the strategy and design team. It will involve questions, challenges and inevitably a little emotion – because everyone cares about what’s being created.
And when everything that’s needed is understood, we’ll start looking at what’s wanted, accounting for preferences, tastes and the quirks that add identity, personality and a touch of uniqueness.
In this way everyone’s involved, and it’ll be owned and valued by all.
DON’T ignore the evidence
It may seem as though you can see what’s happening today – but discovery is vital.
The strategy and design process will involve the gathering of evidence needed to ensure the outcome is appropriate, relevant and credible. It will comprise two strands – data and story. We often gather heaps of data yet sift through it unable to extract insight or meaning. And we hear stories but dismiss them as personal, biased and lacking credibility.
Yet their power is when combined. Data gives story credibility, while story can make data interesting and meaningful. The science is in the collection, the art is in the weave. In this way we’re far more likely to pay attention to what the evidence reveals and use it for the benefit of the outcome. It may only be one or two strands, but they may be the difference between success and regret.
Science and poetry. In perfect harmony.
DON’T ditch what we have
Re-use is sustainable and responsible – and a great story to tell.
The philosopher Nietzsche talked about “greed for the new”. He probably wasn’t referring to high-backed sofas and meeting pods, but the sensory experience of newness is a wonder – the pristine finish, the smell we inhale deeply, the touch that is first ours. It places everything in a workplace scheme on a level, it hangs together in its pristine state, recognised by no-one yet a source of fascination for all.
For these reasons, the temptation to strip out and begin again is huge. Yet our consciousness of waste, of the weight of our environmental footfall, of the senseless of discarding what works is greater than ever. ‘Net zero’ is a stretch goal, ultimately achievable, but only through the sum of all the decisions we take.
And so we look at what is around us with new eyes. A worn seat pad may hide a functional frame and mechanism. A buff may save a table from a humiliating skip. Where once we reluctantly scoured what we had to resolve a budget overflow, as an emergency, we now start with what we can use again and build from there, an aspiration. A source of pride.
From which, our planet breathes a knowing sigh of relief.
DON’T underestimate arrangement
While most focus goes into design, the success of the outcome lies in how the work settings are arranged.
We’re massively focussed on what we have and what it looks like. All those new work settings heralding a whole new way of working. We’ve chosen finishes, textures, colours, technology. And finally, we’ve fitted all the component parts into the envelope. A game of space and shapes.
But somehow, it’s not working. Flows intersect. Spaces negate one another. Conversation barges into silence. The required precision of arrangement was hurried, and the components that seemed to work alone don’t when together. So they don’t get used.
Because the creation of effective workspace involves specification, design and arrangement - in equal measure and importance. So we can move freely and easily through the space, where each setting works alone and in relation to that which surrounds it.
Where everything is purposeful and useful, and nothing goes to waste.
DON’T focus on the big stuff (and forget to sweat the small stuff)
The scheme succeeds or fails on the detail – all the things that don’t seem important right now.
The new workplace: a big idea, a bold vision. We all signed up to it without hesitation. We wanted it. Our colleagues were on board, committed. As we moved from the macro to the micro, our energy was consumed and the pressure mounted – programme, budget, procurement, delivery, preparation, relocation. Time seemed to evaporate. So we skipped a few things that didn’t seem important, we just needed to get over the line.
Muhammed Ali said it wasn’t the mountains we had to climb but the stone in our shoe. Our working lives are hectic: responsibilities broad, expectations high, patience low. We need everything to work, and to be where we expect it. We haven’t got time to look or to ask, or to even fathom where to look or who to ask. The stones in our shoe are the little things that when we sense them are magnified beyond all proportion.
We’re occupants too and have to think like our colleagues. What we need to work, where things need to be. We have the answers, we have to make sure we act on them.
The small stuff is huge.
DON’T think Practical Completion means we’re finished
PC is just the end of construction – you’ll need to allow time to prepare, stock and dress your workplace for occupation – and then it begins.
There’s one date in our project that assumes more importance than all the others – Practical Completion, PC, the end of delivery. No more 5-point PPE, the sharp scent of wet paint, the click of our site boots on the carpet protection, the fine film of dust on the meniscus of our tea. The site office, packed and folded away into a briefcase. A slip of paper that says ‘it’s all over’. It was once a set of keys, too, proudly handed over.
It’s easy to see Practical Completion as the watershed, as we are given full control of our workspace. But there is much to do. ‘Readiness’ is a lost art, a discipline that exists in the grey space between the builder’s clean and the arrival of the stationery. No-one’s going to do it but us. It covers every discipline too – IT, branding, maintenance, cleaning, security, catering, front of house, safety, wellbeing, to name but a few. It also means starting early. Preparation waits for no-one.
Don’t believe the popular adage. We can think of everything.
DON’T spend it all at once
Some things will work, some won’t – you need money to evolve the solution.
However much we trust the science or our evidence, our vision or our hunches, some settings and installations will be greeted with extensive use and delight, others with silent disinterest. ‘Build it and they will come’ is an assumption that never fails to disappoint. It may be evident in that they don’t quite emerge from the shop drawings in the way we’d envisaged. Or it may be that we just can’t fathom it. Most will nestle somewhere in between.
Added to that, the organisation is evolving. It will have already evolved between design and occupation. What might have been needed or worked once, may not now and something needed may be missing entirely. We’ll need to save some cash for the changes we’ll inevitably need to make. It’s not a contingency – that’s for when things go wrong. It’s for when things go right – the way they should.
Nothing stands still. Our workplace shouldn’t either.