Creating Community

The most expensive part of a workplace is the salary of the person who occupies it.

(Kevin Kampschroer, Director, Office of Federal High-Performance Green Buildings, General Services Administration)

Woman at desk

I am optimistic that the facilities world is gradually getting beyond purely physical measurements of workplace efficiency (eg, cost per square foot, square feet per occupant); we are in the early stages of learning to look at the relationship between workplace design and the employee experience, which is what ultimately drives organizational effectiveness.

At IFMA’s World Workplace conference in New Orleans in September I was pleased to hear David Karpook, Nancy Johnson Sanquist, and Joe Harris of Manhattan Software/Trimble discuss their research on “Workplace as Experience.” Drawing on The Experience Economy: Work is Theater and Every Business a Stage by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, David, Nancy, and Joe educated all of us in attendance about just how powerful an impact place has on people.

And then my appreciation of how important that impact is rose several more notches when I heard Kristine Woolsey of Carrier-Johnson+Culture talk about the connection between workplaces and communities at the recent WorkTech14 summit in San Francisco. I was so impressed with Kristine’s insights that I invited her to meet and share her perspectives with my Talking About Tomorrow conversation group a few weeks later.

(“Talking About Tomorrow” is a global membership program I host that meets once a month to explore a wide range of topics about the changing nature of work, the workplace, technology, and the workforce. Contact me personally if you want to learn more about the program).

Here is a very brief summary what we learned from Kristine. defines community as:

…a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society in which it exists.

I’ve written many times about the importance of employee engagement in driving organizational effectiveness; Kristine believes the appallingly low levels of engagement in many organizcan be traced directly to lack of community in the workplace.

Kristine cites a Stanford University sociologist, Robb Willer, whose research shows that people who see themselves as a member of a community are more likely to contribute, more likely to help one another, and much more likely to be actively engaged.

Kristine believes there are four requirements for creating a sense of community:

  1. Membership
  2. Mutual Dependency
  3. Reinforcement
  4. Shared Experiences

Team MeetingMembership simply means having a clear sense of being part of a particular group. In the workforce, membership can be signaled by something as simple as a building pass that gets you past security, or by having a company email account and telephone number (to say nothing of a regular paycheck). Company shirts, hats, and office supplies imprinted with the company logo all help strengthen that sense of belonging. But as Kristine reminded us, that can be difficult when employees work in different cities, or even in different buildings or on different floors.

Almost anything that can be done to remind employees of who their colleagues are, and what their community means, can strengthen that sense of membership. One company Kristine worked with actually installed always-on video cameras and monitors at several of the coffee stations in different buildings so employees can see their distant colleagues and even engage in spontaneous video conversations.

Mutual Dependency means “We need each other.” I am better off because of you, and you are more likely to succeed because of me. Making employees aware of each other via common areas, hallway posters, and team meetings devoted to reporting on major projects and accomplishments are all effective means of highlighting mutual dependency.

Reinforcement. To strengthen the sense of community, be certain your employees know what their colleagues are doing; newsletters, images, websites, and common lounge areas all serve to remind employees that they are part of something bigger than any of them individually.

Shared Experiences. Membership in any community has meaning primarily because people remember their common history and anticipate future shared experiences. Displaying pictures from the company’s history, or incorporating images or graphic design elements reflecting that history into the workplace can help, again, to remind members of who they are and what their community stands for.

We all belong to many communities – at work, at home, at the church or synagogue, from our school days, social clubs, professional groups. Some are stronger, and more meaningful, than others.

But we know instinctively how important those memberships are in defining our sense of identity and self-worth. I’m convinced that paying more attention to what some may see as the “softer” side of workplace design will pay huge dividends as it helps to elevate employees’ engagement and wellbeing – and ultimately their productivity.