When it comes to the world of innovative work environments, Neil Usher is one of the most well-known and highly respected voices. A Chief Workplace & Change Strategist at GoSpace AI, author of 'The Elemental Workplace' and 'Elemental Change', real estate industry expert with almost 30 years experience, workspace and change leader, blogger, and public speaker, he has helped countless enterprises, including celebs like Warner Bros., Honeywell, Rio Tinto and Sky, adapt and thrive in the ever-changing landscape of work.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Neil and pick his brain on everything from the future of coworking to how operators can create a fantastic workplace.
Read on for his insights – you might just learn something new!
Helga: You have been observing the development of the commercial real estate industry for 30 years already. From your point of view, what drastic changes should coworking space managers be on the lookout for in the next five years?
Neil: The broadening of the customer base and, therefore a much wider diversity of need. Corporate employees will be seeking workspace close to where they live and, in all probability, having their organization pay for it. Whether they understand the community that coworking seeks to build – and the interest in their contribution – or just see it as a place to work remains to be seen.
Secondly, increasingly unpredictable levels and patterns of attendance. This, of course, makes coworking space incredibly difficult to forecast, allocate and manage. There will be an increasing demand for intelligent AI-driven technology to help with all aspects of this. It’s getting way beyond human capability.
Helga: Being a workplace change leader, you helped famous corps such as Warner Bros. and Sky transform their work environments into innovative spaces. Do you have any bright examples of how you helped coworking space celebs to climb the industry Olympus?
Neil: Not specifically, unfortunately. It’s a missing piece of the jigsaw for me. But I’ve been fascinated by how corporates have learned from coworking spaces and coworking spaces have learned from corporates over the last ten years. The former has been overt, the latter very much under the radar. For the obvious reason that coworking is something of an escape from once drab and uninspiring reflections of power and control. Unabashed copying has never worked either way, though, as the purpose and ethos of the two genres of the workspace are so different. That’s a lesson often learned the hard way.
Helga: How does AI transforms flexible workspaces into futuristic hubs?
Neil: By managing unpredictable demand. It can take intention and adjacency data and create a daily optimized allocation of space, avoiding pockets of empty space throughout. Think of it as dynamically de-fragging your hard drive. So you get buzzing, energized, remarkably efficient, and commercially beneficial space. The company I work for, GoSpace, can do this. It’s genuine AI – quite rare, still.
Helga: In your book The Elemental Workplace, you reject corporate bullsht and state that everyone can attain a golden standard of a fantastic workspace. Speaking about coworking spaces, what are the major milestones for becoming a fantastic environment to work, learn, grow, share, contribute and be happy?*
Neil: The 12 elements of the physical space are the same: daylight, connectivity, space, choice, influence, control, refresh, sense, comfort, inclusion, wash, and storage. The pandemic hasn’t affected the elements.
The addition in coworking is purposeful and managed community. That’s something corporates have really struggled with, principally because everyone works for the same organization. That probably sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s the lack of incentive that creates this difficulty. Coworking spaces live or die on the strength of their community. It’s not a choice, it’s a necessity.
Helga: Speaking about change… Coworking industry is evolving, and operators have to leave some things in the past. In your opinion, what are those outdated things they need to leave behind to step into the future?
Neil: I think it depends entirely on the center and what works now. It’s easy to assume that stepping into the future entails jettisoning the present. But the community, as a strictly human pursuit, requires time and care in its development. In many respects, coworking can provide an environment that allows people to change while offering an assurance of continuity. That doesn’t mean ceasing to listen and adapt as members needs change, and it certainly doesn’t mean eschewing management technology that can automate essential functions, but it does mean resisting the urge to change for its own sake.
Helga: What changes in coworking space management do you predict in the near future? Are we moving towards total “self-service,” “contactless,” “touchless,” or even further?
Neil: I think coworking has to strike a delicate balance between the digital and analog. The digital should be doing the commercial and managerial stuff, automating the time-consuming non-member-facing activities.
Where members are concerned, it should still retain the human touch, even if it’s less efficient, as it’s where the emotional connection is forged. There’s enough in the world that’s transactional. Contactless and touchless is cold. It’s not just non-community; it’s verging on anti-community.
Helga: What are the top 3 things you would suggest a coworking space to change immediately to improve the bottom line?
Neil: It’s easy for me to say – I’m not running a center. But three things that strike me as helping might be, relating to changes we’ve seen since the pandemic. Firstly, be able to manage highly unpredictable demand – smart tech can help. Then, offer flexible membership to meet this unpredictable demand. No one wants to pay for space they’re not in. Finally, offer the services people need, but without trying to do everything for everyone. Be outstanding at (and be known for) what matters and let the other stuff go.
Helga: I know you have another book coming. Maybe you will let us behind the scenes of the “Unfcking Work”? Who is it for, and what is the main idea behind the thing?*
Neil: It’s for everyone who ever did a day’s work. Not just in offices. Nothing to do with the hybrid. There are no models, paradigms, theories, or silver bullets. No tedious future of work predictions. And barely a mention of the workplace. Nor does it hold anyone responsible for how fucked work is – we’re all part of the problem and, as such, can all be part of the solution. You’ll probably see a reflection of your own working life, and it won’t be comfortable. In content style and form, it’s the non-business business book- which hopefully makes it readable!
It dismantles 12 commonly heard statements that together have codified and solidified the f*cked state of work, creating a suffocating mesh that stifles our freedom and creativity, eats away at our humanity, alienates us from one another, and erodes our sense of purpose. They appear harmless enough on the face of it, but they’re the very embodiment of fucked work, the foundation. Yet, in dismantling them, our role isn’t to walk away from the rubble we leave behind in the process; it’s to re-create them as positive and meaningful building blocks of a world of work we actually want to be part of.
So I’m hoping it becomes the coworking anthem. The book you’ll find in every coworking space. Because it shows how we can create a better world of work – and coworking is very much of that aim, too.
Helga: What are your plans for the future? Any cool mind-changing stories coming?
Neil: The book is out on September 30 (it’s available to pre-order now), so there will be some events and promotional work. I’d love some more, so if anyone has any ideas, I’d be delighted to talk them through and see what we can do! I’m happy to come to your coworking center and do a talk or reading, answer questions, and be challenged.
Meanwhile, I’m stacked out with advisory assignments on work and the workplace, and GoSpace has a significant product launch this year, too. After all that, I reckon it should be 2023. Who can plan any further than that?