👩‍💻 chrisman.github.io

place attachment

a practical framework for loving where you work

2020-09-02

Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Activities, Aesthetics, Acceptance
  3. Place Attachment Behaviors
    1. Walk more
    2. Buy local
    3. Get to know my neighbors
    4. Do fun stuff
    5. Explore nature
    6. Volunteer
    7. Eat local
    8. Become more political
    9. Create something new
    10. Stay loyal through hard times
  4. Love where you live principles
  5. Conclusion
  6. Resources

Introduction

I just finished reading This Is Where You Belong by Melody Warnick.

It’s about place attachment and its benefit to the individual (health, happiness), to the community (strength, resilience), and to the city (economic).

I thought it would be interesting to apply this idea, and the author’s framework, to the workplace instead of to towns and cities and see if it sticks.

The questions to be answered are:

  1. Can individuals improve their happiness at work by consciously selecting for and building place attachment?

  2. Can companies improve performance and retention by doing the same?

Activities, Aesthetics, Acceptance

This was an amazing takeaway from the introductory chapters. There are three things, more than even cost of living or job opportunities, that motivate people to move to a city and stay there:

  1. Social offerings - Activities: opportunities for social interaction and citizen caring

  2. Aesthetics - physical beauty and green spaces

  3. Openness/welcomeness - Acceptance: how welcoming the community is to different people

(I chose to change the terms to all start with the same letter to help me remember them.)

The three qualities with the strongest correlation to place satisfaction and place attachment were social offerings, aesthetics, and openness. When residents felt like their city offered a lot to do, looked nice, and welcomed all kinds of people, they felt most attached to it. Serious factors like good schools, affordable housing, and local police—the kinds of things that every day guide Americans’ decisions about where to live—didn’t register nearly as strongly.

Knight Soul of the Community study: https://knightfoundation.org/sotc/

These all map directly to workplace attachment. If your workplace offers activities and “employee caring”, if your physical work space is pretty and aesthetically pleasing, if your workplace is inclusive, welcoming, and diverse, then people will want to work there and stay there.

I don’t know whether these “big three” factors continue to dominate other workplace factors (e.g. compensation, challenging/satisfying work, opportunities for advancement) in the same way they dominate other city factors. But I can certainly imagine a hypothetical in which I accept a slightly smaller salary to work at a place with a stupendous company culture. Or one in which I remain at such a company longer than I otherwise would have.

In closing out this section, I want to say it again more plainly: if this pattern holds true then one of the most significant things you can do as a company to create place attachment among your employees is to develop diversity and inclusion.

Place Attachment Behaviors

Warnick identifies ten place attachment behaviors and then tries out a couple activities focused on each one in order to convince herself to like the town she just moved to.

The place attachment behaviors are:

  1. Walk more.
  2. Buy local.
  3. Get to know my neighbors.
  4. Do fun stuff.
  5. Explore nature.
  6. Volunteer.
  7. Eat local.
  8. Become more political.
  9. Create something new.
  10. Stay loyal through hard times.

Some of these are as applicable to learning to love your workplace as they are to learning to love your city. Others are less directly applicable and require a little bit of metaphor to make work. And some don’t really apply at all.

I’ll elaborate on each one below. This will make up the majority of the content of this article.

Walk more

This one requires a little bit of metaphor. We can talk about Walk Scores and mental models here.

Just like your neighborhood’s Walk Score is a measure of convenient and immediate access to resources, your company’s Walk Score could measure the discoverability and ease of access to resources. For example, your company may provide an Employee Assistance Program, but do people know what it actually is and how to use it?

One of the most fun tasks suggested in this chapter is to draw a physical map of your neighborhood/city from memory to test how many details you are able to recall, and to reveal what is actually important to you. Which details are significant enough to make them from your mind on to your page.

You can adapt this exercise to your workplace in a couple of different ways. You can draw a map of your physical workspace, or of where your coworkers are located. You can try to draw from memory your organization chart, capturing not just names and titles, but logical business divisions and how they relate to and interact with each other. And you could draw an abstract map of different non-business entities like the Diversity and Inclusion Committee and the company bookclub.

Holes in your knowledge of your company may be revealed while drawing these maps. These gaps become opportunities both for improving your institutional knowledge and potentially for “wayfinding” projects where you create documentation for how to locate and discovery certain resources. I’m thinking of examples from “Who do I contact if I need a new desk?” to “I wonder what opportunities there are to do community volunteer work.”

Buy local

This one is a bit of reach. But buying local is investing in your local workplace economy. Here, what drives your local economy are all the individuals who are creating value and delivering features. So to “buy local” is to invest in your people. Provide ways for them to get better at what they do by institutionalizing learning and growth. Provide a learning budget and then, crucially, provide space and opportunity for it to be spent.

A second application of this concept is to “buy” the talent of your product team to create internal tooling or, if you can, to eat your own dog food and rely on your own product for business critical functions. This creates a sense of ownership, pride, and responsibility.

Get to know my neighbors

No metaphor required for this one. Get to know your coworkers. Suggested activities include throwing a block party or sharing a meal. Company happy hours and outings are the norm now.

For distributed teams, there are tools like donut.com and hallway.chat which are designed for people to hang out and get to know each other.

Warnick provides a short survey to measure your feelings about your community. The more positive responses you have, the tighter your community. I have substituted “community” for “neighborhood” and “coworkers” for “neighbors” to make this work for our context.

Do fun stuff

A natural follow-up to some of the team building activities suggested in the previous chapter in order to get to know your neighbors/coworkers.

This chapter was about a community that had convinced itself that they live in “boring town” while there was in fact an abundance of engaging things to do. So it was about changing your perspective, and recognizing what your town is actually good at. A suggested activity is creating a list of things or places you would show a friend if they come to visit. This translates to me to creating a similar tour of things you would talk about or show off to a prospective new hire during an interview or during a new hire orientation. The Project for Public Spaces recommends a list of ten.

Explore nature

Don’t know how this one maps. Make your work spaces more green?

It does however tie back into the principle of aesthetics from the Knight Foundation survey.

Volunteer

This matter is very plain and doesn’t require any elaboration or illustration. Get your company involved in giving back to the community. You can raise money for a local cause or charity, or donate time by mentoring and coaching.

Eat local

Same as Buy Local: continue investing in your people.

Become more political

This chapter is about culture fit and getting involved.

The Big 5/OCEAN personality test came up in this chapter in the context of profiling entire cities to see whether you’d find like minded people if you moved there.

It’s an interesting idea to try to assign your company an OCEAN profile. But it’s probably more useful and more easy to consider the company’s core values, and then to consider whether they align with your own. This of course requires the upfront work of determining your own values. And it supposes that you have an accurate assessment of the company’s true values, including any unwritten ones that aren’t posted on the company website.

And then there’s getting involved in the political process. Joining or forming committees. Advocating for people and practices. Or, lacking your actual direct involvement, at least get to know the people who are making decisions and getting stuff done. Get to know what they’re doing and what their objectives are.

Warnick points out that the process of getting to know the humans involved in local politics results in a humanization of the political process, and a lessening of the feeling that politics is inhuman. The same must be true of the workplace politics of business. Once you can understand the humans and also the core values behind what otherwise may be inscrutable policies and procedures, then those things become not hindrances or obstacles, but instead documentation of company values, culture, and of the ways we like to treat each other and get work done.

Create something new

This is about supporting creativity. Creating space and permission for people to follow their passion and their curiosity. Google’s 20% innovation time comes to mind. Allow people to satisfy their curiosity. If you’re not learning, you’re falling behind.

As part of the process of assessing a company’s values from Become More Political, you may consider whether the company considers learning and growth and improvement a core value.

Stay loyal through hard times

This chapter is about the resilience of a community and surviving events like natural disasters. About how tight bonds and identity form in times of adversity.

This is definitely applicable to a certain type of adversity in the workplace. Such as the “in the foxhole” kind of feeling that comes from working hard, long hours trying to ship v1.0 of a product. This builds identity and team unity. Maybe mergers and acquisitions eventually fall into this category.

Given enough time, maybe even layoffs, though traumatic in the short and medium term, may create a sort of survivors’ bond in the community.

The risk in overdeveloping a sense of loyalty–and of place attachment itself–is the intrinsically imbalanced nature of the employer/employee relationship. Given a large amount of place attachment, it is possible you will grow to value your company and its culture differently and more deeply than your company will value you as an individual. I would be careful not to develop in oneself a feeling of obligation to weather out hard times unnecessarily.

Love where you live principles

At the end of the book, Warnick summarizes the lessons learned from all her Love Where You Live experiments.

  1. Our towns are what we think they are.
  2. Emotion follows behavior; feelings follow action.
  3. If you want to love your town, act like someone who loves your town would act.
  4. When you’re happy (and healthy), then you’re happy (and healthy) where you live.
  5. If you love your city, you should do what’s good for it. (Corollary: What’s good for your community is usually good for you.)
  6. Relationships with people are what make you feel most at home.
  7. Every town is good at something. Do what your town is good at.
  8. Put pins in the map. Happy memories create place attachment.
  9. When you invest, you feel invested.
  10. There is no right town for everyone, just the right town for you right now.
  11. Experience joy for as long as you’re there.

If you substitute “company” for “town,” they all make pretty good sense in the context of learning to love where you work.

Of particular interest is number 11, “experience joy for as long as you’re there.” This summarizes the final chapter of the book in which, after all her work and experiments and after admittedly falling in love with her town, Warnick still considers moving again. Your place attachment may be through the roof, and still there may come a time when you decide to move on. Relationships, especially professional ones, are often temporary. And just because one ends doesn’t mean it was a failure.

Conclusion

In broad strokes, one can use this framework to learn to love where they work in the same way they can learn to love where they live.

There are some complicating factors in situations where everyone / most people work from home. In fact, in almost every Place Attachment Behaviors section, I resisted the urge to write something along the lines of “Of course, in this time of coronavirus…” So many of the principles apply to shared physical spaces. But, we’re all also learning to adapt principles of shared physical space to shared virtual and distributed spaces. And the same can be done here with a little bit of care and thought.

Resources