From Where I Sit: Where's The Sense Of Place In Workplaces? - Facility Executive Magazine - Creating Intelligent Buildings

In this expanded version of Springer
In this expanded version of Springer

From Where I Sit: Where’s The Sense Of Place In Workplaces?

From Where I Sit: Where's The Sense Of Place In Workplaces? - Facility Executive Magazine - Creating Intelligent Buildings

By Tim Springer
Published in the April 2007 issue of
Today’s Facility Manager

Recently,I was fortunate enough to attend a function at the Rockefeller Chapelon the University of Chicago campus. I’m sure Bertram Goodhue,architect of the Rockefeller Chapel, didn’t feel the need to educatehis clients. Those of us attending and participating in the function inthis marvelous environment were visibly and notably moved, and wedidn’t need to be educated in order to “get it.”

Returning tomy office later, I reflected on other places that possess what my latefriend Mike Brill referred to as a transcendent “charge”—the ability ofa particular place to communicate and move people as they use andexperience it. This is also referred to as a sense of place. I alsowondered why some places have it while others do not.

Thereare several examples of built places that evoke a strong charge: TheU.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC; the Gardens of the Alhambra inGrenada, Spain; the cave paintings of Lascaux, France. More personally,each of us has experienced this transcendent charge related to specificplaces: a childhood bedroom; a grandmother’s kitchen; a favoritelibrary; a tree house; or a summer cabin.

Still, some worrymodern culture (and specifically the USA) is losing its sense of place.Across the country, thriving, historic town centers are being replaced(and killed) by cookie cutter shopping malls, Wal-Marts, and stripdevelopments. Too often, in too many communities, there is a numbingubiquitous pattern of sameness or lack of sense of place—a feeling ofno “there” there.

Like most things that are hard to quantify,sense of place often only can be recognized when it is no longer there.Perhaps the most vivid recent example is the Post-Katrina Gulf Coastand particularly the City of New Orleans. For many, the recentcelebration of Mardi Gras in the French Quarter was a positive sign ofthe rebirth of the city. Yet to those of us who truly known and loveher, New Orleans is so much more than the French Quarter and MardiGras. The place that was New Orleans is a long way away fromreturning—if she ever will. Those unique characteristics andcombinations of quirky elements that made New Orleans the Big Easy arestill absent. What’s missing? The sights, smells, tastes and sounds,and experiences that were unique to this place. More importantly, thepeople have been displaced – removed from their homes, schools,churches, parks, streets, jazz clubs, and other places in the city thatformed the foundation—the heart and soul—of New Orleans’ sassy, fun,sensuous, dangerous, mysterious, and unique culture. Sadly, NewOrleans, once one of the most distinctive places in North America, isnow a tragic example of “placelessness.”

What does this haveto do with facilities and workplaces? Think for a moment. When youconsider the workplaces you know, do you experience a sense of place?Is there something about them that elicits a strong, positive responsefrom people who work in them?

In most cases, the answer is no. To which I ask, “Why not?”

Author,poet, and ecologist Wendell Barry has observed, “If you don’t knowwhere you are, you don’t know who you are.” Nowhere is that truer thanin workplaces.

In fact, most workplaces are carefully crafted to exude a sense of placelessness. There’s no “there” there by design.

Theseworkplaces exhibit a numbing sameness, with floor plans resemblingwallpaper rolled out in repeating patterns of four, six, or eightgroups of workplace modules. Often, the only reason visitors can findimportant features (like bathrooms) is because they are in the sameplace on every floor.

Without a doubt, uniformity andstandards make the job of planning and managing space easier. Inventorycontrol is more efficient. Time and expense for changes are lower.Considered in these terms, placelessness is not a bad thing. But it isa good thing? Does it provide the best alternative for the people whowork there? I think not.

Mobility and temporal fluiditycharacterize—and are celebrated as—aspects of modern workplaces. Workhappens anywhere and all the time. What, then, is a workplace and whatis its meaning? When it seems the only constant in the world of work ischange, one might argue the need for a sense of place has never beenmore important.

Most people spend the majority of theirwaking hours at work. Shouldn’t those environments exhibit somepersonality? Workplaces undoubtedly evoke emotional reactions from thepeople who use them. But far too often, those emotions are negative,characterized by pejoratives like “rat maze” and “Dilbertville.”


Shouldwe not strive to develop and deliver workplaces that evoke positivefeelings among workers? I not only think we can; I think we must.


Modernmanagement and work processes focus on teams, team building, andcommunities of practice. Community is built on common ground: places,events, and experiences that are shared. Workplaces offer an untappedresource for building and strengthening the sense of community soimportant for effective work groups and teams.

How canworkplaces be instilled with a sense of place? What makes a place aplace? To begin with, it must have an identity. Fortunately, facilitiescan be the single biggest physical manifestation of an organization’simage and identity—and it doesn’t have to be hard or expensive. I knowof several workplaces that project both an organizational identity andthe group identity of the people who work there.

Often it isa simple thing like a bragging wall where group members display bothindividual accomplishments and team successes. Other times it’s acoordinated effort to integrate an organizational brand into theelements of the workplace. In yet other instances, workers are free touse color, signage, icons, and artwork to develop a spatial identity—ashared concept of who and what their workplaces are.

Evidenceshows those things that contribute to making the workplace more of“their” space are important and valuable. It is also true the impact ofsuch places on the workers goes beyond positive reactions to positiveperformance.

To whom does the responsibility belong for tryingto instill a sense of place? I believe the primary duty lies with thoseprofessionals responsible for the physical workplace—facilitiesmanagers (fms)—working in concert with the workers who occupy and usethe space. In other words, if not you, then who?

It may seeman odd notion to add such a “soft and fuzzy” issue to all the otherconcerns of fms as they plan, deliver, and manage places where peoplework. But what more important duty do fms have than to ensure the mostpositive impact of facilities on the people who use them? That’s theway I see it from where I sit. Of course, I could be wrong.

Springer ispresident and founder of Geneva, IL-based HERO, inc. andfrequently writes and speaks on a wide variety of issues affectingorganizations, work, and workplaces. For past columns from Springer, go to From Where I Sit and for future musings from Springer, visit his Web site.

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