The world of Workplace is increasingly more fascinating and more complex. Through our years of practice designing and building workplaces for organizations, small, medium and large, in various industries and from around the world, we have gained a tremendous amount of knowledge and insights, all thanks to our clients.
Whether we work closely with the head of Human Resources (HR), the head of Facilities Management (FM) or the head of Corporate Real Estate (CRE), one thing is clear, these roles have been coming closer together and gaining more and more overlaps over the last number of years. A new role is even emerging that blurs the boundaries between HR, FM, CRE, and even IT and Corporate Communication to name a few. We call this role ‘Workplace Professional’.
Over the last few months, we have been interviewing leading Workplace Professionals in the best companies from around the world. In this series, we engage in conversations with those at the forefront of the world of workplace, to bring you their intriguing insights, best practices, and most successful case studies. Welcome to the Workplace Experts’ Interviews series!
GoSpace is a dynamic occupancy planning application that augments the human ability to allocate workspace to ensure the right people are working together at the right time. Its AI engine can produce actionable scenarios in under a minute.
Stephanie Akkaoui Hughes: Neil Usher, welcome! Wonderful that you can join us. Let’s start with a classic introduction, describing your role in one or two sentences.
Neil Usher: I’ve been a corporate real estate professional for almost 30 years. I started with a qualification in information technology. So I fell into this profession in a slightly accidental way. Most of my career has been spent looking at large organizational portfolios. In 2017, I wrote The Elemental Workplace and continued to consult while promoting the book. I joined GoSpace in February two years ago and last November I published Elemental Change, my second book.
Stephanie: Tell us more about the premise of the first and second books.
Neil: Having been a practitioner for about 25 years in corporate real estate, I realized that it was very difficult to find an overview of knowledge and best practices of the workplace profession. Since I had been doing this for 25 years, I felt it would be beneficial to write it all down and just give my perspective on it all, in as structured a way as possible. In my experience, I had longed for a degree of structure in this field, some sort of framework into which to put my thinking and my ideas, and I didn’t feel there was anything out there that was really helping. So I took on the task of creating it.
Talking to newcomers in this profession, they mentioned that it is hard for them to find credible succinct knowledge and an easy-to-understand summary to use as a guide. At the same time, talking to mature real estate professionals, I discovered they were also finding it difficult to extract themselves from the day-to-day detail and have a clear and concise big picture overview. I found it interesting that such a structured approach was needed for people who’ve been doing this for years, as much as it was for new entrants.
Stephanie: Exactly! It’s an absolutely brilliant book, and I love the framework it is structured in.
Neil: Thank you! I look at it now and think what would I do if I got a chance to revise it all? I think the nature of a lot of what I said would change as well, as the thinking is evolving. The strange thing about writing a book is that at some point in time, you must draw the line and say, it’s done. And once it’s published, you can’t change anything.
Stephanie: Indeed! In your view, how do you think, COVID is and will continue to affect our ways of working and our workplaces?
Neil: That’s the sort of question that everyone is trying to answer. At the moment, it is like we are in the initial period of the launch of a new currency, where people are using the old money and the new money at the same time, and they’re trying to work out whether a price in the new money is actually good value in the old money. We are trying to solve tomorrow’s problems with the knowledge of today’s workplace. Similarly, we are trying to understand the past in terms of the ideas of tomorrow.
I think the future workplace holds a huge amount of possibility and potential. I do think there is a slight disparity between people’s ideas of what the future workplace can be and the practical realities of making that work. The general idea is that somehow we are going to go into the office two or three days a week, and it is all going to be super collaborative, and everyone is going to have a fantastic time and then we’d go home and work on focused tasks. This is not as simple as it sounds. The actual practicalities of that reduced size office are significant.
How do you plan or balance the sort of zoning of a reduced size office? What becomes one of the most complex variables of all – time – in relation to people’s attendance, how do you then refocus the purpose of the workplace? Are we digital-first where we start with nothing and then build the requirements for an office from scratch? Or are we starting with analog first where we take what we have today and start peeling it back and reducing it? So I think there’s a huge number of challenges swirling. I feel we will remove a lot of the waste that we tolerated before. So I do see workplaces being smaller. I see us driving towards much higher levels of utilization of smaller spaces to get the most out of that space.
Then the question becomes: what is the contribution the office makes, as a sort of a performing asset? I don’t think we ever really measured the contribution an office made. We just thought we’ve got a hundred people. They all need 10 square meters plus some space for amenities. So we need 12,000 square meters and that’s the cost of it. But the problem is that most organizations are currently still in a crisis mode. They’re not in a mode of a hybrid operation ‘by design’, but in a sort of reactive mode, not knowing when this crisis will necessarily abate in any way. So most organizations are not really able to plan their way out of, or even prepare their way out of this crisis mode.
I think one of the things that will become refreshing in the future of the workplace is our openness to experiment. Now we have the opportunity to say “this is what I think we should do to start with”. Tweaking it and measuring it, moving with the organization, making the workplace a much more flexible asset than it has been. Rather than live in a sort of static reality that we put all this time, effort, and money into the building, and hope it’s going to last 10 years, we are going to be more open to experiment and adapt.
Stephanie: After surviving for a year without a physical office, now the office has to justify its existence as opposed to being a default of business. So we face the questioning of the asset that is the office and the uncertainty that comes with that.
Neil: As I make the point in the book Elemental Change, uncertainty is a good thing. Most organizations want certainty because it means they can invest appropriately and so they can create linear plans. But that is not realistic. Plus, uncertainty reveals gaps where opportunities open up, and that’s the same with the future workplace. And if we don’t take them, we will miss the single biggest opportunity to create a better world of work and a better world of the workplace that we’ve had in 30 years. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a genuine systemic change that we have to make sure we take.
Stephanie: Absolutely. Speaking of grabbing the opportunity to redefine the workplace, what is your vision on people and their wellbeing as an element to consider to ensure a successful recovery? And is there anything else that you think is required for the workplace, for the employees, for the organizations?
Neil: I think it’s absolutely vital to be listening. If I was to make a criticism of the workplace industry in the past, it would be that it doesn’t listen very well. It is instead very keen to tell people what they should be doing.
We will do a far better job if we listen to occupiers, not just in what they want, but actually, listen to the ways they work and the methods they think might work. The workplace exists in service of the organization, its aims, its mission objectives, values, and purpose. Therefore the workplace has to respond to that, to enable that organization.
Stephanie: That’s beautifully said. And I’ll take that opportunity to zoom out and look at the big picture here for a moment. What would your wish or ideal vision be for the future of work, personally?
Neil: My favorite catchphrase in terms of a better future of work comes from Bill and Ted, the 1989 film, which is ’be excellent to each other’.
I think just about every problem that we encounter within the workplace could be solved by people being better to each other. Most of it comes down to that. You already mentioned wellbeing in the workplace, Stephanie. And it is exactly that. Why do we lie awake at night? It is not because there aren’t enough breakout spaces in our office or because one’s desk is 20 centimeters too small. What keeps us awake is what someone said to us or didn’t say, or did or didn’t do. It is interactions that cause most of the stress we experience.
Stephanie: And it is interactions that can help the most too!
Neil: Exactly. You know, most companies advertise for team players but evaluate as individuals. So, in an organization, despite the talk about teams and collaboration, the system is still fundamentally based on the individual, which means whilst we bring people together and want them to work together, we are probably at times unintentionally setting them against each other. If we are just better to one another, if we are excellent to one another, we solve most problems in the workplace and we can create a better world of work.
Stephanie: Neil, this has been a fantastic conversation. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights.
Neil: Thank you.
To find out how optimising your workplace can help you retain your employees by fostering better social interactions, download here AKKA’s Innovative Workplace Expert guide, which contains the full version of one of our case studies and more practical examples of other projects that show you how AKKA has increased team engagement and boost productivity over and over again for small, medium and large organisations, in a variety of industries and countries from around the world.