How Culture Can Turn Your Work Space into a Place
This is an abridged version of a Premium article that was published by  Work Design Magazine  in their May 2017 issue.

This is an abridged version of a Premium article that was published by Work Design Magazine in their May 2017 issue.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast and operations excellence for lunch and everything else for dinner.“ ~ Bill Aulet, MIT 2013


Many design articles call for “Engaging workplace design that doesn’t stop with a response to technological and real estate needs. It must go further, supporting the creation and integration of a company’s culture, brand identity, and overall community.”

We’ve taken up that challenge. We want to draw out the distinction between “space”, which is the physical part of the workplace, and “place”, the social aspects of a work environment.

Genesis of the concept

It all begins with “purpose”. What is the purpose of the workplace? What is the purpose of those who perform their work in that place? And how do those two relate to each other? It is our contention that we are currently experiencing a shift in cultural narrative/story from the “Old Story” to a new one.

The purpose of work and where it gets done is changing quickly. We are talking about purpose in the context of work, where many of us find our highest purpose. However, we live in an increasingly purposeless world filled with purposeless work. The Old Story and its attendant social institutions were designed to promote continuous growth. These institutions are no longer life affirming, nor supportive of personal well-being (integration of body, mind, and spirit), let alone human wholeness (integration of individuals into a greater whole).


  • Culture

A culture may be defined as the set of beliefs, values, and behaviors, generally shared by the members of a society or population. If only one person believes in or engages in a certain behavior, that belief or action is a personal habit, not a pattern of culture. For something to be considered cultural, it must be generally shared by some population or group of individuals. Another defining feature of culture is that it is learned. The way we communicate with each other, the procedures used to perform certain actions, and the behaviors we consider inappropriate are learned. Signs of organizational culture can be seen in the way people interact in meetings; who attends, where they sit, how many voice an opinion?

Problems arise when there is a mismatch between an organization's culture and the environment in which it operates.
  • Space

Spaces are physical locations where interactions occur and things happen, value is exchanged, and people collaborate in forming shared purpose. Our purpose, our story, and all that comes with it are more than neurons ring away in our brains. They encompass everything that reminds us that we’re are living, feeling beings that exist in this space, here and now. But, as you will see, a space on its own is not enough—it must become a place.

  • Place

Place goes beyond the three physical dimensions of our built environment. Place adds a social dimension. A place is a fourth dimension where space takes on personal meaning. It’s about taking meaning from direct and sometimes indirect experiences. Recently, people who build the spaces we live and work in have come to realize that the physical characteristics of space do indeed shape our thoughts, emotions, and even our actions. Listen to Winifred Gallagher, author of The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions:

“The basic principle that links our places and (emotional) states is simple: a good or bad environment promotes good or bad memories, which inspire a good or bad mood, which inclines us toward good or bad behavior. We needn’t even be consciously aware of a pleasant or unpleasant environmental stimulus for it to shape our states.“

We take meaning from spaces by interacting with others in these spaces, and that meaning is influenced by our ideas, beliefs, and attitudes towards those spaces.

Why place is so important?

Think about the differences between space and place. A house is just a house—cement, wood, plaster, wiring, plumbing, windows, doors, floors, etc.—and nothing else without people. As important as houses and buildings are, they are not nearly as important as people. We have lived in trees, caves, mountaintops, and jungles without real houses. But we cannot live without others, as we are, above all, social beings. A home is the house plus people plus purpose. So space is important, but place is of utmost importance. We are all related, and relationships are what truly keep us alive. How do we turn space into place? We know that it's important and why it's important, but just as no person is an island, purpose—the sharing of one's gift, and being of service to others—can only happen with and by the grace of others; in other words, in a place.

A home = house + people + purpose.

Practical design guidelines

Are you in the right place? One of our recurring themes is that if your purpose is not in harmony with what you do at work, then work literally won’t work for you. This also holds true for the community where you live. You experience much stress when there is a barrier to living your purpose and sharing it with others. We’ve all been there. “This place just doesn’t feel right.” You feel out of place. So, how to you build place? What are the building blocks?       

Building blocks

We have talked about culture and how it gets learned through the use of symbols, myths of behavior, and normative rituals. Culture, in the large, is what gives us meaning, gets translated in attitudes, and finally drives behavior. By translating the cultural idea of “conceptions/meaning” and “activities/behavior” we have a picture of the building blocks.

Now, it becomes the task of the workplace designer to equally consider place, attitudes, and behaviors. Designers have to be informed by social psychology and anthropology.

Does the built environment influence attitudes? Yes, of course, because the physical artifact sends signals about embedded cultural values. What kind of attitude would be brought out in a casino setting? A cathedral? A prison cell? What does your office inspire in you? And behavior follows directly from attitudes.

The task of the designer is different today than it was even 30 years ago. In the words of Peter Block from his book The Answer To How Is Yes:

“The task of the social architect is to design and bring into being organizations that serve both the marketplace and the soul of the people who work within them. Where the architect designs physical space, the social architect designs social space.”

Future forward

If your purpose is your “why of whys”, then what’s the why of place? There is an old saying in architecture: “form follows function”. What are the implications if a core function of a space is to communicate something symbolically? What form will that space take? The answer reveals what we call the brand of a place, which is what we will explore in an upcoming article.

Three interrelated things are going on here concerning turning space into place. First, there is the physical, practical part. Place is a crucible for interaction with others. Humans need somewhere to interact. We design and construct places to encourage and support purposeful engagement.

Second, places give you meaning. The German sociologist Georg Simmel said it best in the late 19th century. He suggested that human society was an intricate web of multiple relations between individuals in constant interaction with one another. These interactions are grounded in time and space—not just some hazy mental activity.

Last, places are important in a symbolic sense. Places are where we can recognize our interconnectedness, our mutuality, and our shared values. They are the where of moving from the me to the we. They are where relatedness and relationships become noticeable. Think of the family holiday dinner; the summer celebrations in the town square or green; the communion of church. If it doesn’t have meaning and cultural relevance it doesn’t contribute to our purpose. Does a typical Old Story conference room imbue people with a sense of meaning and cultural relevance?

After all, brand is culture inside out and culture is brand outside in —the two can't be separated.

After all, brand is culture inside out and culture is brand outside in —the two can't be separated.