Welcome to another episode of Coworking Values Podcast and of course, we’re here to give you another fun podcast.
For this episode, we have Neil Usher, one of the most vibrant workplace consultants in London. He’s also the Chief Workplace and Change Strategist of GoSpace AI. And he also wrote Elemental Change and the Elemental Workplace.
We are going to be talking about his books, his process of writing them and the consulting business before and during COVID. Neil will be also delving on the book and the short chapter he did about safety — physical and psychological.
Did you plan to write a book about elemental change before, during, or after COVID?
Definitely a long way before the publication process is quite, it’s quite drawn out, I found that with the first book I thought I just expected that you sort of submitted a draft and someone had a little look through it and made a few changes and then you basically. So, some, some computers would do some stuff and then you press print and off you go.
But actually, both writing and publication is an incredibly manual process until the very last stages of it all resolved the editing process is experienced writers and editors work through your manuscript so it takes about nine months into it, or at least take me nine months and twinned from submission of a completed draft to the book coming out, was an extra couple of months in here for COVID because I actually finished a copy edit process, just as the lockdown happened.
And then they said look, no brush getting your comments back, because the books are not going to come out till two months later in the year now. I’d started this probably took me two years, really, to sort of end to end on this one, because, unlike the first book where I sat in monastic silence in my home office for about six weeks and literally just destroyed my keyboard right and writing it all off top my head.
This one’s taken a lot more sort of painstaking approach bits and pieces of research and reading here and there and just, you know, writing it sort of in whatever time I had available weekends. Some evenings. It’s really been much more of a perfect weather for this one.
Bernie J Mitchel 0:05
Hello, ladies, gentlemen, and welcome to this week’s edition of the Coworking Values podcast, the sweetest smelling podcast about coworking in the whole of Europe and all the way from Subotica.
Zeljko Crnjaković 0:16
Well, you keep hatching it away every episode.
Bernie J Mitchel 0:21
I thought that it was the town in age of Ultron, where he gets lifted out of ground, that’s the other reason I started hanging out with you.
Zeljko Crnjaković 0:33
Yeah, well, we are all Marvel fans, so you’re forgiven.
Bernie J Mitchel 0:40
So, today we have Sir Neil Usher, who’s the most vibrant workspace consultant in London. Is that fair?
Neil Usher 0:53
And well, first of all, I’m not knighted, and probably a long, long way from being knighted. I’m probably right at the back of the queue actually. But yeah, sort of London and anywhere that it takes me really, I’ve worked most parts of the world. But I’m based in London, and obviously right now, travel is pretty restricted, so, just sitting here in West London.
Bernie J Mitchel 1:16
We’re going to need to go and have a word from Cobot, who is our favourite coworking space software and see what the heck they have to say about supporting this podcast.
Zeljko Crnjaković 1:31
This episode is brought to you by Cobot, our leading management software for coworking spaces, office hubs and flexible workspaces around the world. You know, one of the best things about Cobot is that it is produced by people who manage a coworking space and know the ins and outs of the main problems and issues bugging coworking managers. So, if you want more time for your co-workers and community, check out Cobot at cobot.me and take your coworking management to the next level.
And that was a word from our sponsor. Okay, as so we’re back and talking to Neil. So, Neil, how is consulting business now? Did you take it remote or is it just based in London right now?
Neil Usher 2:27
I’m in sort of workplace consulting if there is such a definable thing. Part of that is conducted on site, and part of it is done remotely anyway. So you know, right now, most of it, if not all of it is being done remotely. When people aren’t in their actual workspaces, most of the work that’s being done is scenario planning. And we’re looking at various options for returning to the workplace or moving to more flexible space, so most of it is desktop planning anyway, at the moment.
Zeljko Crnjaković 3:06
Did the business boom in this situation? Or is it the vice versa?
Neil Usher 3:13
From my own point of view, in terms of what I’ve witnessed in conversations I’ve had, I think, for the first few months during the early lockdown, I think everything sort of almost froze. Because firstly, nobody had seen something like this before. We had no timeline; we had no idea of how this was going to play out at all. And of course, it wasn’t a gradual migration to a remote working sort of setup. It was all done overnight, virtually. So, I think for the first few months, it was a little bit sort of terror. Most of, what’s going to happen? What do we do? Where do we go? How do we even think about planning for this? And what started to happen, I think the sort of the boost of a potential vaccine was good news for many. And so, I think people have started to realize a lot of those scenarios that they’ve been working through may well become plans in the not-too-distant future. But, you know, there’s still a huge amount of uncertainty over all of this. And so, you know, still a lot of this work is being done from a more theoretical point of view. But I think we’ve noticed since that sort of little bit of the late summer, when people started to migrate back into the urban centres, I think we’ve seen the industry gather itself a little bit and start to really think about the scenarios that may actually play out in the end.
Bernie J Mitchel 4:35
So, Neil, like the last book you had was The Elements of Workspace and we podcasted around that. And then I’ve got to ask because I think I’m really funny. Did you plan to write a book about elemental change before, during or after COVID?
Neil Usher 4:52
Definitely a long way before. The publication process is quite drawn out. I found that with the first book, I thought I just expected that you submitted a draft, and someone had a little look through it made a few changes. And then some computers would do some stuff, and then you press print and off you go. But actually, book writing and publication is an incredibly manual process until the very last stages of it all. The editing process is all about experienced writers and editors working through your manuscript. So, it takes about nine months end to end, or at least it’s taken me nine months end to end, from submission of a completed draft to the book coming out. It was an extra couple of months in here for COVID, because I actually finished a copy edit process just as the lockdown happened. And then they said, look, no rush getting your comments back, because the book’s not going to come out till much later in the year now. It has probably taken me two years really to sort of end to end on this one. Because unlike the first book, where I sat in monastic silence in my home office for about six weeks, and literally just destroyed my keyboard, writing it all off top, my head, this one’s taken a lot more painstaking approach, bits and pieces of research and reading here and there. And just writing it in whatever time I had available, weekends, some evenings, it’s really been much more of a part timer for this one.
Bernie J Mitchel 6:16
I’m only a few pages in but I can feel that part timeness coming through already. You are one of the few people in the world whose books I actually read, because I just can’t read or listen to books all the time. And so, I’m still I’m still wading through my copy. But did all this happen, and you go, oh, my goodness, isn’t it so cool? I’ve written a book about change. Did the world pandemic support your book? Or did you have to go back and rethink large chunks of it?
Neil Usher 6:52
I’d probably rethought just two or three little bits of it, really. It was actually quite an interesting test. So, what I’ve created here, can it cope with a fairly seismic event, like a pandemic that we hadn’t expected to arrive? And is the structure and the framework and the models and things I’ve put into it robust enough to be able to deal with all of this? And I was, I guess, quite comfortable with the fact that it could cope with it. And I put a few references in, but I didn’t want it to become a COVID era book either. So, I didn’t want to get start weaving COVID right through it. So, I think I’ve probably specifically referenced it twice. One of those bits actually, probably the most interesting bit I found was, when I used to go for walks around here, I started noticing that these desire paths people talk about, the shortcuts that people take to get from one place to another, so what started to happen in my local area with the fields and things around the back was that the paths are actually getting more distant. So, they were actually the long way around. People weren’t taking shortcuts; they were making sure they could stay two meters apart and were avoiding each other. So, the chapter short chapter I’d written about desire paths, and people taking shortcuts and needing to almost make allowances for those shortcuts to happen and to follow them was sort of challenged by COVID. Really, because suddenly, they were becoming long cuts rather than shortcuts. So, those sorts of references I built into the book in terms of the COVID experience, but I didn’t really change much else.
Bernie J Mitchel 8:38
One thing I’m dying to get to, is what you said about our attitude to physical safety does not go far enough or psychological safety, sorry, does not go far enough. And you give this example between the me too movement, and the personal protection thing. Can you elaborate on that a bit because that really caught my ear?
Neil Usher 9:08
Yeah, psychological safety is quite a vogue term. I wrote a little bit about it yesterday and published it in terms of the fact that it’s sort of a vital term and a vouge term and there’s not a lot of expressions that are out there that that tick both of those boxes. They’re usually either important, or they’re in fashion. But very rarely both. So, there was a lot of talk about trust during COVID because it’s those sorts of visual similar signals that we get the word trusted and we trust in in a work environment when we’re not in each other’s physical presence are slightly challenged. So, in thinking about trust, and writing about trust, I started including work on psychological safety in the book because I’ve been fascinated by it for quite some time. And what we mean by it, if you haven’t come across it before is that it’s a space for safe conflict. People can actually challenge one another. They can speak their minds. They can freely express, criticize, whatever sort of thing they need to do, but they can do it without fear of judgment or approach.
We all trust one another at a group level as a team, and we can all speak freely. I think in most working environments I’ve been in enough, if not all of them, it’s been a sort of vital ingredient and an aim that we should all pursue. I kept being sort of concerned that all the research done suggested that physical safety was treated as someone else’s responsibility. And I give the three examples, one is the Me too movement, which we were long overdue, calling out of poor behaviour, and physically unsafe behaviour in the workplace. And sort of the, the rise, if you like, in the term personal protective equipment, which used to be something that was either only known to healthcare or facility management professionals, but now everybody knows what people use. And the third example being, and I’ve experienced this a few times in my career, where you’re working in fairly isolated communities where there’s one major employer, and if you’re actually trying to get something done in that employer’s business or in their premises, it can potentially have quite an impact or a big impact on just about everybody in that local community. And there were a couple of times when I was the carrier of the corporate message and the corporate intent in a fairly remote community feeling slightly uncomfortable about it, from a physical point of view. So, the idea was to say, Well, you know, is psychological safety enough.
The other thing about psychological safety is, we always have to explain what it means because nobody instinctively knows what it means. So, it’s actually quite a clumsy term, it’s not particularly helpful to us if we have to keep explaining it. So, I thought, well, it’s got to include the rational side of safety. It has got to include the emotional side of safety. So really, it should include the physical. And because both books were called elemental, something, it just seemed to make sense that we call it elemental safety, it feels like something that’s fundamental to being in a workplace that you have to have it. Why would you not have any of these three components of safety? So hence, I’ve given an expression that I hope will involve a lot less explanation, because it’s now comprehensive, rather than a subset of something.
Bernie J Mitchel 12:30
So, the bit that got my attention, because we all in the Coworking Assembly are very interested in an active inclusion, and equality, and accessibility and things like that, and how people can communicate fluidly that way around. But also, there’s a bit of me that thinks that the kind of top down, you must come to work because that’s what we do world has been toppled. And now everyone’s discovered that you don’t actually need to be in an office and all that conversation. How do you think that’s affected the power structure in most typical organizations, if you see what I mean?
Neil Usher 13:16
There’s been a lot of talk, I think in the last few months about has the balance of power shifted in favour of the employee. And I think it’s a bit unfortunate that we talk about a power balance. I would like to see a world of work, that sort of just meant that everybody shared common interests and was in it together really, rather than that kind of employee versus employer situation. But that said, I think that in these situations we’ve had in previous recessions where we think something has shifted, when those forces start to retreat, do we go back to the way things used to be? Do the old patterns emerge?
There was an article in City AM this morning that I think said that two thirds of employers plan to scrap working from home as soon as vaccines are distributed and COVID is a thing of the past. And there is every possibility that some of the hopes that a lot of people had for a new way of working and new work relationships, and this balance of power may well be literally steamrolled by a return to a way of working that we knew in the past. And I guess a lot of us don’t really know how this is going to pan out. So, I’m all-in favour of less talk of them and us, less talk of power and balances of power and more talk of from a DNI point of view of everybody sharing a common interest and a common goal really, which is to create a better world of work. And I think if we can somehow dismantle some of these ideas of them and us, then it’s going to be beneficial to everyone.
Bernie J Mitchel 15:02
And what could we do to dismantle those ideas? Because I always feel that when I talk t friends of mine that are managing directors in companies, there is one friend of mine who needs to get everyone back in the office as soon as possible. And I’ve kind of almost just stopped talking to them, because I know that you can work from anywhere, and he thinks everyone has to be where he can see them. I know in some aspects of it, that is absolutely right because there’s collaborative work that has to happen, that can only happen when everyone’s in the same room riffing off each other. But part of it is definitely like, I think this is what it’s supposed to be. What can we do to educate or inspire people in a different direction?
Neil Usher 15:50
Something that’s in favour of a more balanced and distributed way of working, is that we have at least proven now that most of what we need to get done, we can get done when we’re not in each other’s physical presence. That doesn’t mean to say that what we’re getting done and the ways we’re doing it is ideal. And it doesn’t mean to say that we should all just work in this distributed fashion. There are, without doubt, times and scenarios and challenges we face, where we are much better off being in each other’s physical presence without a doubt. But that doesn’t necessarily mean to say that it’s the panacea, but nor is fully distributed working the panacea, because all those firms who don’t have any office space do have to make a conscious and unwilling effort to get their people together face to face at various times of the year.
I know of virtually no examples where people just never see each other face to face, never meet. I don’t even know how that could even be possible, really, for the creation of culture, etc. But at least we’ve got past one major hurdle in all of this which is we do know that distributed work works. It might be that some people struggle to find space in their house or haven’t got the physical location to work in, that’s accepted. We do know that a lot is lost in online interaction and video calls, and those sorts of things, that they’re not quite the same. But the significant advantage of doing that as well in terms of reach, in terms of immediacy, in terms of talent sourcing, just learning the ways to work asynchronously rather than synchronously, all these things over the last nine months or so have become very apparent to us. So, there has been a shift. So, when organizations are saying, right, everyone back in the office, I need to see you. Everyone that’s coming back knows that there is a different way of working that works. And nine months ago, for most people, that was just a hunch, or just a belief, if we all just gave it a go, it might actually pan out. Can we have an experiment where we all work in a distributed fashion? No, I need to see here, we’re not going to do that. Now that we’ve actually been through that, we do know that it works. So, I think what we’re likely to see is that if there’s a rapid rollout of a vaccine, we’ll see quite a spike in return to office practices. But I think the likelihood that that sort of presence, and that sort of requirement to be in that space will decline thereafter is quite is quite high, because we know that the alternative works.
So, once we’ve been back, we’ve seen everybody, we spent time in each other’s company. We’ve told our stories about being in lockdown and shared all the funny anecdotes, all the rest of it, we’ll think right? Okay. So next week, what am I going to do next week? Well, don’t really need to be in five days next week? Well, probably not actually. Because I’ve got this piece of work, I’ve got that piece of work. And I could do that on a video call. That piece of work I’m working with people outside of the UK, so I don’t need to physically be in the office to talk to someone on a video call. We’ll start planning in that way. So, I think we’ll see this peak return to office space. But I think we’ve turned a corner really, there’s no going back now that we’ve proven that distributed work works. We’re not going to undo that knowledge and that experience.
Bernie J Mitchel 19:12
For someone who’s been around this for years, do you feel like that’s a huge hurdle?
Neil Usher 19:22
Yeah, I think it’s massive, and I think I was trying to look at it from the history of mankind really, in terms of what phases of evolution have we been through. And this is probably the first time we’ve faced a situation in our labour where we can effectively and successfully work whilst not in immediate physical presence of those people we’re working with. We think about all the other activities that we’ve ever been involved in, whether its hunter gathering or agriculture or artisan craftsmanship or through the Industrial Revolution. They all relied on physical presence, at least for some of the time even though artisans and craftsmen used to take their work home with them, and then bring it back, they would always spend time in the master craftsman’s workplace learning the trade and exchanging ideas. And it was vital. So, even when we’ve had remote and distributed work, we’ve always erred on the side of physical presence to get things done and to learn and to transfer knowledge. So, this might just be one of those major phases in our evolution, where the technology that’s available to us, and the means that are available to us have actually made it possible. We can actually work in a distributed fashion effectively, for the first time in our history.
Zeljko Crnjaković 20:45
There’s a nice little Segway there, because last time we podcasted, I was having a whine about people never endingly talking about the future, the work, and the office. And can you say a little bit about that? At that time, and maybe you’ve changed your opinion, about being present? Because I’ve been quoting you on that for a long time now.
Neal Usher 21:06
What have you been quoting me?
Bernie J Mitchel 21:10
I just want to rip my eyelids off and stick them in my ears when people go about future work. And in 2028, 63% of women and men with fingernails will work in offices, and the others will work from the sky. And like you said, we should think about being present. And instead of living in 2014.
Neil Usher 21:40
We’ve still got issues to solve in the present before we start navel gazing about the future. And I maintain that the office hasn’t really changed much in the whole time I’ve been working on it, and I’ve been working in office since, I hate to admit it, but since around about 1985, I think. Of one sort or another, I’ve essentially been in an office space, whether that’s home office or someone else’s office, primarily. I’m pretty adamant that if I picked up my kit, and there was a Wi-Fi connection in the first office I worked in, just about everything else around would be fairly familiar. Maybe not the pile of transit envelopes in the in-tray and the filing cabinets. But essentially, it’s a physical space with a desk and chairs and meeting spaces things. I mean, it’s not massively different from what we encountered decades ago.
So, navel gazing about the future of the office is kind of fun sometimes, just doing a little bit of imagining. But it’s not particularly helpful when we’ve got issues, we have to resolve today. If you look at a lot of the survey data that’s taken place over this lockdown period, the results are coming out that people feel they can work at home far more effectively than they can in their offices. There’s still a lot to be done in relation to the workplaces that we ask people to go to. We are still far from solving everyone’s problems and providing everything they need to be productive individually and as teams.
Bernie J Mitchel 23:12
So how far as a workspace professional, Mr. Usher, how far ahead do you think we should be thinking?
Neil Usher 23:23
I think the issue for our industry is that it’s still very linear, everything we do is, okay, let’s get the brief. Let’s talk to everybody, find out what everybody wants, let’s develop the strategy. That then becomes a design project. So, now we understand what the brief is, let’s design something that hopefully meets the brief, that doesn’t always happen, but hopefully meets the brief. And then let’s procure it, build it. That takes quite a bit of time and a lot of money, and then let’s furnish it, move people in, we’ll come back in about three months’ time check, everyone’s okay, do a little survey again, which hopefully will link through to the original strategy. And then the piece of work is finished. And that can take anything from six months to three years, depending on the scale and the location and a number of other factors. And we then expect that that is going to last us for the next five to 10 years before we do it all again.
But actually, I think in terms of future focusing, and where this is all going, we need to be much more able to make small changes. And to look at this as a as a life cycle. Not as these great huge events, conducted in very linear fashion that just sort of punk to the punch in every sort of, you know, decade or so in the calendar. Because what happens is the brief can only look a few months in advance really to be successful. Who knows what’s going to happen to an organization internal and now we’re very aware of external pressures on an organization as well?
The change that organization is going to be subjected to from inside and from outside the organization, whether it’s pandemics or the markets or supplies of raw materials, or whatever it is, cannot be forecast. And so consequently, our workplace needs to be responsive. I think the one winning idea of the pandemic is flexibility. A workplace has to be flexible enough to cope with whatever is thrown at it internally or externally. Because a lot is going to change, it’s going to be unpredictable. And we really don’t know what’s coming. And we don’t know what those influences will be. So, workplace has to be flexible, and it has to be able to cope with it. And we have to have the mechanisms and the processes in place to be able to make those adjustments and changes.
So, the future is going to be much more emergent than it is this sort of traditional way that the workplace industry works with huge projects. And if we think it’s like the software industry, just before the Agile Manifesto, all those huge software projects that repeatedly failed because they were all conducted on a huge scale, in a very linear fashion. And by the time they were delivered, they didn’t meet the requirements anymore, because the world had moved on. And that’s what the workplace has been doing for the last 20-30 years. So, we have to be much more agile, not just in terms of the workplace layouts, that’s not what I’m talking about here. When I use the word agile, I just mean agile in relation to expecting change to happen. But not necessarily knowing what that change is and being ready to deal with it and being ready to meet it. So, I’d rather see less of future navel gazing and trying to envision what the workplace of the future will look like, and a much greater preparedness to sort out today’s problems. And be prepared, not plan, but be prepared to meet all of the change that is about to come.
Bernie J Mitchel 26:51
That’s great. I’m going to put a link in the show notes to the Agile Manifesto. So, you can read Ken and Jeff’s work, because there are a lot of people running around using the word agile in a very incorrect way. I encourage you folks to go and I’m going put a link in the show notes to hunt down Neil on LinkedIn, and also his blog where he takes people out on a regular basis. And it really is some of the best writing I’ve heard around the workspace for years and years and years. I can’t member when we first met, but it was before you managed to write a book. And also, where do you want us to buy the book? From your website or?
Neil Usher 27:34
Whatever website you choose, that you feel happy with buying books from. I would say whatever works for you. But it’s published by lid, who got a good reach as a business book publisher. So, it should be available in most places that you might look.
Bernie J Mitchel 27:53
So, the Elemental Workplace is from 2017?
Neil Usher 27:57
It was published in 2018 around about February, I think 2018. This one comes out on Friday, officially, but it is up for pre order. And as you were chatting to me before we went on air, we’ve been doing a fair amount of sort of letting people know that it’s coming and introducing a few of the ideas from it.
Bernie J Mitchel 28:20
Shout out the name of your blog, so people know where to go. And we’ll put it in the show notes.
Neil Usher 28:23
Actually, what happened was I shut Work Essence down. So, I had this blog Work Essence running for about 10 years. And what I realized was after a little while, we’ve sort of shifted our focus, really. I would publish the blogs and I’d put them on Twitter and LinkedIn, all the usual places. And then it wasn’t really generating a lot of traffic. So, I tried posting through LinkedIn, that same sort of traffic. And then I switched the medium. So, I’ve got a few posts on medium. And I’m intending to use the Work Essence site on medium to put long form blogs on. I was having quite a lot of fun with the sort of 200-220-word posts on LinkedIn. So, if you follow me on LinkedIn, then you’ll get access to wherever I happen to be posting stuff. And I’ve just had some serious lessons in how to write blog posts and how to title them and things. And I realized that for 10 years, I’ve been doing it all wrong. And really just not in a note, no wonder I wasn’t getting the sort of traffic I wanted was because I was just making some fairly fundamental errors really with the way it was all set up. So, my intent in the future is to right those wrongs. And for the time being, medium will be the main place I’ll do a lot of posting.
Bernie J Mitchel 29:40
The only post I’m interested in really is the ones that referenced the clash and stuff like that. But then it was years ago when you were at the event about well-being in the workplace. And you wrote this scathing live blog about everyone running to the back of the room to eat chocolate biscuits when they were returning, find out about healthy living.
Neil Usher 30:05
Those contradictions are everywhere. Remember, once we’re at a workplace conference having a presentation from a company that made pies, and they were talking about all their well-being initiatives, which I thought were fantastic. But there was an obvious question as I’m sure you can work out rattling around in my head. And I thought, no one else is going to ask this, I guess I’m going to have to ask it. You know, how do you reconcile these things? And I was fairly surprised to find that there wasn’t a clear answer on that. But most things we do in the workplace will have an effect on other things. Some of those effects we will be expecting and a number of them we won’t so, we always have to keep our eyes and ears open.
Bernie J Mitchel 30:54
Thank you very much for your time today, Neil. Any words of wisdom before we shoot off, Zeljko?
Zeljko Crnjaković 30:58
No, I’m just catching notes and listening and thinking about the whole subject. We’ve been talking about remote work for a couple of episodes now. But I think Neil had given depth to the topic that so far, we haven’t had.
Bernie J Mitchel 31:19
I think you needed to hear that.
Neal Usher 31:21
Thank you very much. So, I’m pushing, and I’m delighted to be invited. It’s fun to talk to you both.
Bernie J Mitchel 31:27
Cheers. Ladies and gentlemen. If you go to coworkingassembly.eu and count eight seconds nowadays, a little box will pop up and you’ll be asked to put an email address in there and we will email you news or the content we have from people around the European Coworking scene every week and of course this podcast and when you hit reply that comes back to us with real life human beings. Stay safe and take care of each other. Thanks very much.