The Elemental Workplace -Neil Usher

Neil Usher’s ground-breaking new book, The Elemental WorkplaceOpens in a new tab., promises to help readers to create a fantastic workplace for everyone. And according to Usher, a fantastic workplace “can boost engagement, trust, energy, commitment, innovations, motivation, happiness, and productivity.”

And Neil Usher should know. After all, he’s spent the last 25 years creating people-centric workplaces all over the world, from Australia and Singapore to America, Canada, South Africa, and Europe. The Elemental Workplace is the result of that, bringing together Usher’s knowledge and experience of workplace design into a single book that has something for everyone, “wherever you are, whichever sector you work in, whatever budget you have and whichever style of working you prefer.”

In this article, we’ll be taking a closer look at the book and sharing the most important lessons for workplace professionals. Let’s jump right on in.

Watch the book review in animation here!!! Opens in a new tab.

Part One: Why

“Everyone deserves a fantastic workplace in which to live, learn, grow, share and contribute,” Usher explains. This is the heart of The Elemental Workplace, which is all about bettering the environments in which we work so that we can get the most from ourselves and our employees.

“The workplace,” he explains, “by which I mean the office, the factory of this century and the last, may be a large corporate building that forms part of a national or international network, a space in which the whole organization resides, or a space shared by many smaller organizations or individuals ‘co-working’. It may be anywhere in the world, be private or public or even its own sector, and may support any one of an increasing variety of organizational structures.”

Usher argues that as well as being something that we do, work is also a place that we go to and a product that we create. And while it’s true that the internet provides more opportunities for people to work from a location of their choice, the office isn’t dead. And as Usher points out, in some areas, the need for people to physically be together has never been greater.

Some companies struggle to implement change in the workplace because they want to see a tangible return on investment from their efforts. Usher’s take on it is a little different. “The Elemental Workforce assumes that its successful implementation contributes to productivity,” he explains, “but cannot quantify this contribution and so does not seek to make a claim. It just knows that happier, more energized people with better facilities to hand will likely work harder and be more committed, and even potentially more innovative. It is the right thing to do; the six ‘e’s tell us so.”


The Six ‘E’s

The six ‘e’s are designed to provide a rational framework for answering the vital question of ‘why’ and can come in useful when considering stakeholders to invest time and resources in revitalising the workplace. They’re also useful when coming up with a brief for your designer.

·       Efficiency: The general rule of thumb for organisations is that 85% of the cost base is people, 10% is property and 5% is IT infrastructure. By improving your workplace, you boost the efficiency of what you’re already spending 85% of your money on.


·       Effectiveness: By effectiveness, Usher is referring to “a number of things working in harmony, including the ability of people to work alone or together, to find colleagues and to have access to the right technology and systems.”


·       Expression: The workplace is a way for companies to express themselves. Usher says, “Very often the expression of an organization’s mission, culture, values, and purpose – its DNA – can be woven through the design of the space.”


·       Environment: People want to work in and be associated with environmentally responsible organizations. Procurement has an important role to play here.


·       Ether: Here, Usher is talking about the digital representations of your physical space, from employees’ Instagram snaps to what they write about on


·       Energy: Usher argues that all spaces either have positive or negative energy and that workplaces can have positive energy by focusing on the wellbeing of employees through providing fresh fruit, ergonomic chairs, and other wellbeing initiatives.


What you won’t learn

No book can cover everything and Usher knows that. “It would be a mistake to assume that if you just follow these guidelines, it will all work out beautifully,” he says. “It still requires a considerable degree of thought and application. In managing your expectations, perhaps, it is worth identifying a few things that this book will not tell you.”

Those topics include:

·       What your space should look like

·       What workstyle will be best for you

·       How to manage the project

·       How to plan change

·       How your culture will be impacted

·       What the future looks like

Part Two: How (First Fix)

This section of Usher’s book covers workplace design principles ahead of his introduction to the twelve elements. Each of the design principles shown below can be applied to each of the elements:

·       Be smart-ish: Gather evidence – but only just enough – and then focus on opportunities to allow people to choose to do things differently.

·       Be beta: Your workplace is a journey and not a destination, meaning you’re never finished.

·       Brief, not brief: Time must be spent on the brief. It’s the most important work you’ll undertake when improving your workplace.

·       Be clear: Don’t try to be too clever. If your office needs signposts and instructions, it’s not clear enough.

·       Balance like a ballerina: If something isn’t working, bounce back in the other direction.

·       Human first, aesthetic second: You’re not designing an art gallery.

·       Include: “As many people as possible must be able to experience and enjoy as much of every workplace as possible.”

·       Simplify: Usher points to a quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

·       Stay relevant: Don’t fall victim to fads and make upgrades when relevant.

·       Sweat the small stuff: Focus on the details and keep lists to make sure you get it done.

Part Three: What

Now that we know why we need to invest in the workplace and how we’re going to go about it, we need to take a look at what to focus on. Fortunately, Usher has made this easier for us by creating his own spin on the periodic table, listing the twelve elements that we need to focus on to make a better workplace.

The 12 Workplace Elements:

“While each Element is intended to be as stand-alone and portable as possible, there are relationships between them,” Usher explains. “Mostly positive but occasionally needing caution. It is recommended that the Elements be considered together as a whole, and that cross-references are taken account of.”

Daylight: Daylight should be plentiful and readily available, but not universally compulsory. Include blinds for when it’s too bright.


Connectivity: Give people the tech they need to get their jobs done. “We would not hire lumberjacks, give them a blunt saw and expect them to cut down trees,” Usher says.


Space: Too much space is inefficient and can lead to people feeling disconnected. Too little space is counterproductive and unpleasant for workers.


Choice: Usher says, “The most genuine expression of a trusting approach to work is an organization that allows its people to work when, where and how they choose.”


Influence: All employees should feel as though they have some influence over their workplace. According to Usher, “The exercise of influence is healthy: as workplace creators, we have to make it possible, and as workplace managers, we must permit and welcome it.”


Control: This covers everything from lighting to heating, noise levels and more. Employees should have the ability to control their working environment and to customize it to suit them.


Refresh: The elemental workplace should reinvigorate both the mind and body through the provision of relaxation areas, refreshments and more. When we’re refreshed, we think more clearly, are more social and make better decisions.


Sense: We’re sensual creatures, and we rely on our five senses – sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing – to navigate the world around us. The elemental office considers each of these senses and stimulates them as appropriate.


Comfort: Comfort means different things to different people, and so the thing to do here is to listen to what people are saying and to remember that form follows function. You don’t need to provide daily massages or buy expensive ergonomic chairs to provide a comfortable workplace.


Inclusion: “A fantastic workplace should be fantastic for everyone,” Usher says. “People should not have to declare their personal circumstances or preferences in order for the workplace itself to enable them to take a full and active part.” In other words, the workplace should be inclusive by default.


Wash: The washroom of your workplace is one of its most important areas. Other than your reception area and your meeting room, it’s likely the only part of the office that your visitors see. It’s also an area that every employee spends time in.


Storage: This means everything from storage lockers and filing cabinets to hat and coat stands. Usher cautions against using off-site storage, though, because it can quickly become just an easy place to dump stuff.

Part Four: How (Second Fix)

Usher explains that we need to consider the fundamental idea of change, which is the journey. Workplace change is a common journey (“we’re all in this together”), and the activities that we undertake throughout the change are designed to create a new way of living and working en masse. He suggests that to get employees involved with the workplace changes, they should be able to answer three basic questions:

·       What is happening and why, and what does it mean for you?

·       How do you feel about the changes and were you consulted?

·       What will you do to help to usher in the change?

Usher also highlights some of the most common self-inflicted problems so that we can take steps to avoid them. They include:

·       Forgetting about the small stuff

·       Acting as though it’s a battle

·       Not listening to employees

·       Telling people what to do instead of enabling them to do it themselves

·       Thinking that you’re alone

·       Believing that there’s such a thing as 100% complete


“Throughout the creation of a fantastic workplace,” Usher explains, “we will have forces working on our behalf, and several working against us.” Amongst the forces working for us, we have “Googlisation”, instant accountability, technology, connectivity, globalisation, design, workplace as a discipline, evidence and people-centricity. The forces working against us include management culture, gadgetisation, misguided ideals, generational, silos, compromise, over-complication, gimmification, mythification and bureaucracy.


By this point of the review, you should have a pretty good idea of the tools and techniques you need to create a truly elemental workplace. That said, Usher also has the reader covered with a fifth and final section which is jam-packed with resources, including everything from further reading to links where the reader can learn more.

In particular, it’s worth checking out The Elemental Standard, a series of questions and answers that help the reader to grade their current workplace based on its compliance with the twelve elements. This can be useful to do both as a benchmark before you get started and then as a regular check-in after improvements have been made.

Remember, technologies change over time and so should your workplace. It’s always a journey and never the destination, and there’s always something you can be doing to help to create your elemental workplace. But by applying the design principles to the twelve elements, you’ll be off to a good start.

Everyone deserves a fantastic workplace. Hopefully, this review has helped you to make some progress towards creating yours.


Watch the book review in animation here!!! 

Steve Todd

Steve Todd, founder of Open Sourced Workplace and is a recognized thought leader in workplace strategy and the future of work. With a passion for work from anywhere, Steve has successfully implemented transformative strategies that enhance productivity and employee satisfaction. Through Open Sourced Workplace, he fosters collaboration among HR, facilities management, technology, and real estate professionals, providing valuable insights and resources. As a speaker and contributor to various publications, Steve remains dedicated to staying at the forefront of workplace innovation, helping organizations thrive in today's dynamic work environment.

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