…Well, I’m not sure I’m [an influencer] yet, but if the book (and hopefully those that may follow it) can galvanize people not to accept ineffective and mediocre workspace, and could have them thumping it down on the desks of their executives and those executives knowing exactly what that meant, we would be getting somewhere. The Elemental Workplace isn’t an elite standard, it’s something every workplace should achieve. It’s a new baseline that in the vast majority of cases we’re a long way from attaining. There is still much to be done.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Neil Usher, change management expert and author of The Elemental Workplace: The 12 Elements for Creating a Fantastic Workplace for Everyone (LID Publishing, 2018). With over 25 years in the industry as a property, workplace and change leader, Neil has delivered innovative environments for organizations in a variety of sectors all over the world, including Warner Bros., Honeywell, Rio Tinto, and Sky. Together, his practical experience, influential blog, regular conference talks and occasional performance poetry have made him a leading thinker in the profession.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
I had been writing a blog since 2011, and was beginning to think the motivation was waning — so I approached a few publishers and asked if they would publish the whole collection of about 250 posts so I could close the site and retain a written record for posterity. They all said no one would read it. However, one publisher said if I had a key idea in the blog or something I wanted to expand, then we would be on. With a natural break in corporate work approaching, there was never going to be any chance of not having a go, and there was one idea that had continued to surface over the years.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
Managing buildings, you collect a whole lot of unpublishable stories. People do the strangest stuff in the workplace. It was always funny to see a grown man (and it was always a man) on his hands and knees with a ruler measuring the size of his office, fearing that his neighbor’s was bigger. Size always mattered.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Before getting into property, I was a prosecutor of vehicle excise offenses on behalf of the UK government. On one occasion when the courtroom was empty, I used the telephone behind the magistrates’ bench, but when I heard the magistrates and staff returning I quickly ended the call and hung up. As I was hurriedly returning to my position I got my foot caught in the trailing cable and ended up spread-eagled on the courtroom floor as everyone filed in. It was impressive.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m loving the diversity of assignments, seeing as many organizations from the inside as possible, of all genres. In developing property and workplace strategy, I get to interview the organization’s senior leaders. When you are a property leader for an occupier organization, your chances to “get out and about” are limited. I’m just as happy with the detail as with the strategy, and I certainly believe it doesn’t hurt advisers to get stuck into a project at the sharp end from time to time.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
The study in 2011 of sentencing in Israeli courts, which found that the severity of sentencing increased the closer the judges got to a refreshment break. We have often referred to the session at a conference after lunch as the “graveyard” slot — perhaps we need to start thinking of the session before lunch as the “snippy slot” where patience is short and criticism at its harshest. If you’re going to read my book, I’d always recommend a cup of tea and a snack first.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
A fantastic workplace is simple (if you follow the approach) and universal (it can apply to any industry sector, any country and intended work style or any level of spend), and is thereby attainable. It’s not a pipe dream. Everyone deserves a fantastic workplace, and can have one now. It’s time to get on with it.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
I’m a massive history buff so it’s hard to separate particular individuals, but I always seem to gravitate towards the liberators, those who have set their people free. That could be Boudica and Aethelflaed in British history, through to the likes of Garibaldi and Bolivar in later times. It’s the single-minded sense of purpose that fascinates me — that something isn’t right and it needs to be, and everything possible will be done until it is right.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
We seem to have leapt many generations, from the incredible wisdom of the Ancient Greeks through to the airport newsstands rammed with self-improvement one-idea wonders. I tend therefore to trawl back through philosophy for my ideas, right back to Heraclitus, with a dash of 19th and 20th century literature from Dostoevsky and Zola. I’m an existentialist at heart so Nietzsche and Camus are in the mix. I love a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book every so often, when I want to be taken to a different world entirely. Every sentence he wrote was perfect; a woven tale in itself.
How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?
I always wanted to write something that might make a positive difference in people’s lives, so I hope that’s starting to happen. It’s fairly early, and doing something with your workplace takes time, so it may take a while for stories to percolate. That’s the aim though — that everyone can work in a better place.
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an author like you?
You need the time and headspace. “The zone” isn’t something you can flip in and out of. I was privileged in having a short career break to bury myself away for a few months. It’s emotional too, and you have to be prepared to deal with some pronounced fluctuations including a whole boatload of self-doubt.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Well, I’m not sure I’m that yet, but if the book (and hopefully those that may follow it) can galvanize people not to accept ineffective and mediocre workspace, and could have them thumping it down on the desks of their executives and those executives knowing exactly what that meant, we would be getting somewhere. The Elemental Workplace isn’t an elite standard, it’s something every workplace should achieve. It’s a new baseline that in the vast majority of cases we’re a long way from attaining. There is still much to be done.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. You’ll want to keep writing 24 hours a day, until your body just gives out and takes a rest for you — even then the voice in your head will tell you you’re wasting time. Keep going…
2. References are painful — do them early, and do them properly the first time.
3. Don’t bother trying to think of song lyrics to accompany anything you write — trying to get permission isn’t worth the time and energy.
4. There will be times when you hate your book and you think it’s all been for nothing and you’ll do the whole drama thing — that’s okay, it’s part of working it out.
5. For most of the time, you’re on your own. It’s lonely. But on the upside, you can sing whatever you want to yourself as you go.
6. Bonus point — trying to edit 50,000 words in one go is a nightmare, especially when you think about how much time you sometimes spend on one email.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I’d actually like to go to tea with the whole Obama family, at their house. I’d like to know what people with that degree of power, influence and experience talk about on a regular school evening. Later on, we’ll talk politics and changing the world. We may even talk about Heraclitus.
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Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!
If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series In Huffpost, Authority Magazine, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.