Creatif Talks: "The Elemental Workplace" with Neil Usher

Earlier this month, we hosted our latest ‘Creatif Talks' technical seminar with Neil Usher. Neil, a luminary of the workspace industry, respected author and a man described as being a ‘design maverick', discussed the foundations of his critically-acclaimed book, ‘The Elemental Workplace'.

Held in our London showroom (79 Clerkenwell Road), the event attracted attendees from throughout the design, architecture and fit out sectors, and guests were treated to an enthralling presentation that covered everything; from physical needs of individuals through to more ephemeral topics, such as space, influence and sense.

In the book's foreword, Jeremy Myerson, states that ‘The Elemental Workplace' is "timely and important, given its aim to demystify [its] subject, break it down to the essentials and disentangle workplace design from arguments about aesthetics and style."

As offices have become bigger, grander and more elaborate, Neil reminds us that all we need when planning workspaces is a simple, bite-sized framework based around an easily digestible concept.

He touched upon this, saying the elemental workplace is for everyone, and that designing a fantastic workplace should simply be a place in which to "live, learn, grow, share and contribute"

Before beginning a brief overview of the individual elements that form the basis of his book, Neil said to the attendees that "interior design is a journey – not a product". And to those starting out on the path to designing a new project, he suggested that everybody follows the 6 ‘E's, those being;

  • Efficiency
  • Effectiveness
  • Expression
  • Environment
  • Ether
  • Energy

Whilst Neil explored this is greater detail within the book, his point was that by having clear principles, we drastically reduce the chance that we might over-complicate the brief.

Neil then moved on to discuss his twelve fundamental elements of workspace design. These dozen parts come together to form ‘the elemental workplace', which he describes as:

"A fully inclusive, sufficiently spacious, stimulating and daylight-flooded workplace, providing super-connectivity and localised environmental control, while allowing individual influence over a choice of comfortable, considered settings, offering convenient and secure storage for personal and business effects, affordable and healthy refreshments, and clean, well-stocked washrooms."

Neil then went into detail, covering each of the dozen elements in depth, explaining why they were important and providing historical, factual and anecdotal evidence to support his thinking.

The twelve elements that Neil talked about were:


Neil made reference to a section within his book that claims "daylights is nature's antiseptic." Referring back to Florence Nightingale who, in her book ‘Notes on Nursing', identified that patients who had access to sunlight light tended to recover quicker than those who did not.

Linking well-being to nature is no new theory, as Neil himself admitted, but he reiterated that we need to "provide a permanent visual connection to the external environment."

Daylight and the ‘outside world', Neil concluded, is one of the easiest ways to do that.


Neil's next point was the salient point that companies must ‘fix' their technology and make it easily accessible.

Doing so, he argued, would cost comparatively little opposed to the benefits. But if neglected, a lack of connectivity could morph into one of the biggest frustrations for employees, clients and visitors of the office in question.

People, to realise their potential, should not have to bring their own devices into work.


In the Space element, Neil suggested that "if you were to swing a large toy cat with a reasonable amount of stuffed tail, it might create an area of approximately 6 square metres."

He continued: "This would be the minimum amount of space per person acceptable, based on the provision of a significant choice of setting and full permission for occupants to work when, where and how they choose."

During the seminar, Neil made it clear that space should always be considered as it impacts an employee in various different ways.

Too much space and you create silos, reduce communication and foster a feeling of isolation; too little space and people will feel suffocated, distracted by the close proximity of people and will, invariably, look for more suitable areas to work in.


Neil highlighted that "nothing speaks of trust quite like allowing people choice".

Instead of telling people this is a 'breakout area' or a 'focus zone', he said that it makes more sense to let the users of the space determine its ultimate use.

Doing so would allow people to naturally find a use for their environment, which encourages positive interaction as opposed to a dictatorial approach to workplace usage.

As a final statement, he reinforced the belief that people should be treated like adults and trusted accordingly.



Neil expanded on the topic of choice and moved onto the theme of ‘influence'. He recommended that it is better to plan zones with more than one specific usage in mind as this will encourage people to interact with the workplace and hold some form of influence over it.

He also spoke of how important it is to communicate with workers to explore the best way to improve their spaces, and how managers must listen and invite feedback on the design process.


Satisfying everyone's needs within an office can be difficult. But one workaround is by gifting people with the option to alter their own their thermal, light and noise levels. Doing so, you immediately make individuals feel catered and cared for, as they can control their own space and aren't restricted by the demands of the majority.


When considering a refreshment area, Neil pointed out that it allows people a brilliant opportunity to design an engaging space that encourages social interaction.

Everyone needs to revive themselves and take a break away from their screens, so a well-planned area, with high-quality facilities and healthy, delicious food will only add to the workplace being considered an attractive place to work. A simple topic, but a vital one to consider nonetheless.


Addressing the seminar attendees, Neil asked, "how many of you remember working in a great smelling workplace?"

Not a single hand was raised in response.

Neil proceeded to say how interesting it is that the olfactory sense is often neglected in the workspace and yet, it could significantly improve the overall environment.

Though whether through colour, texture, sound, scent or sensory inclusion, there are various under-utilised ways, Neil suggests. that employees' senses can be stimulated through a carefully considered approach to sensory design.


The conditions of comfort were also explored, assisting the element of Choice in which preferred ergonomics are taken into consideration. Neil stated that we need to listen to a workspace's occupants and study existing behaviour patterns. In doing so, we can then create a space that's comfortable; one that doesn't set out to necessarily reinvent the wheel or cause unwanted disruption.


Neil started this next topic by asking the attendees whether ‘inclusive design' should just be called ‘design'?

In his book, Neil states that "a fantastic workplace should be fantastic for everyone" and this means providing suitable access for anyone who might need it and conducting inclusivity reviews at every stage of the design process.


Similar to the Connectivity element, Neil said that people's approach to washrooms should be fixed immediately. Workers, clients, customers, guests – in fact, everybody who interacts with the workspace - is likely to visit the washroom at some point, yet these are often the last space to be designed.

In his book, Neil states that "there is sanity in paying attention to the sanitary", something we think we can all agree with.


In Neil's own words, "storage is having a renaissance". Speaking to the attendees, Neil commented on how more and more of us are bringing aspects of our lives to work.

Whether it's encouraged by the individual or the company, improving personal well-being in-and outside of work quite often involves additional equipment, such as a bike helmet, gym kit or simply a spare change of clothes.

By having somewhere safe and spacious to store these items is vital, can be done at a low cost and has high impact. Quoting from his book, Neil said: "It is easy to get it right, and just as easy to forget to think about it. There are no excuses for getting it wrong".

As you have may have gathered, one of the key themes running throughout his presentation – and indeed his book – was that everybody deserves a fantastic workplace.

That brief may seem grandiose, especially when catering to multi-national companies with thousands of employees. But as Neil, who has overseen workspaces for the likes of Sky and Rio Tinto explained, by following a simple framework, you can create an office that works for both the individual and the collective.

If you were unable to attend this superb event, you can learn more about Neil Usher by purchasing The Elemental Workplace.