“I want a great place to work.”
It’s such a simple statement and one that we hear all the time. Most likely you’ve expressed this desire yourself at some point. Rarely, however, do we carefully consider what we are asking for. Is it the work we do? The people we work with? The physical location? Or perhaps it’s some combination of these factors that make up our intuition of what a great place to work is.
Events of the last few decades have shown us the importance of this sense of place. The rise of globalisation and technology in the 1990’s saw the nature of work change such that it now can be done across geographies and time zones. Project teams can work 24/7 as the work follows the sun. Scholars labelled those working outside the traditional boundaries of time and geography as having ‘boundaryless careers’. Not only were they working across time and place, but they were also working for multiple organisations doing different things (called a portfolio career).
We celebrated the freedom this gave us but then the consequences started to catch up. Feelings of isolation emerged as boundaryless working meant less opportunity for deep relationships. Professional stagnation became rife as the task-orientated demands of work did not allow time for learning new technical skills or advancing our human skills.
Within organisations the importance of place continues to be eroded. For example, the move to hot desking resulted in some curious behaviours. People would try and get to the office as early as possible just so that they could sit in the same desk by the same window every day. Organisations applauded the cost savings. Staff felt disconnected. A feeling that will only be heightened in the years ahead as the 2020 coronavirus pandemic caused a seismic shift in where we work. Working from home will remain a standard feature of our society rather than the occasional anomaly it was.
These events have drawn our attention to what the word “place” means. Work is both a verb (I am working) and a noun (I am going to work). It is simultaneously both an action and a place of action.
Historically ‘work’ has been seen more as a place (“I am at work”). However, recent events have decoupled the activities of working from the place of work and the pendulum has swung toward work meaning the activities rather than the place.
As a consequence our society is experiencing a malaise of disconnection.
What is Place?
More broadly, a sense of place is central to what it means to be a human. Indigenous cultures around the world share a unique bond to the physical environment in which they live and live from. The Inuit First Peoples of North America give thanks to the ocean for providing after a successful hunt. The nomadic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia move around so that the place where they have taken food can rejuvenate and provide for the next group.
All these cultures have special and deeply sacred places that are part of how they define themselves. These places provide an energy and sense of connection that is difficult to describe. Think about those special places you have visited in your life: the immense sand dunes near an ocean; the top of a rocky mountain; towering trees in a rainforest. I can think of so many that I’ve had the privilege of visiting that the act of writing them here bring a visceral memory. The 2000-year-old ferns on Fraser Island, the deep stillness of Carnarvon Gorge, the sheer magnitude of Mt Everest, the solitude of a Bhutanese monastery.
In all these places you feel a strange recipe of humility and self-belief, rejuvenation and connection.
Our experience of being a human is an embodied one. We experience the world through our five senses and what we experience is what is around us. Our environment – our place – is central to what we do and how we experience life. A sense of place is more than just the physical place rather it is a combination of factors that provide a sense of connectedness.
Human fascination with place has a long history through sociology, anthropology and philosophy. The French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, describes how societies are constructed of the actions people take and the places where they undertake them. These include the organisations, educational, cultural, religious or leisure activities that people are involved in. Called ‘fields’ each society contains norms of behaviour that guide the actions of those involved. A person may behave differently because of norms associated with the particular field they are in, such as when with old school friends, in a mosque, at a university or at work.
In essence, what Bourdieu and other sociologists argue is that the context where a person works creates a particular sense of place because of the inherent norms and assumptions that the context provides.
Organisations as a sense of place
Organisations are uniquely suited to create a sense of place. The activities that we do at work will become increasingly fragmented and uncertain as technology rapidly evolves, business models change and consumer trends twist and turn. Organisations can provide a place where we feel safe to adapt to these changes.
Leaders will make or break this sense of place. The art of leadership is creating a space where people can flourish. This space is ambiguous and uncertain, yet leadership is about holding the space so that people feel connected and safe. In doing so, they produce great work.