In her book This is Where You Belong, Melody Warnick tells the story of Jay Leeson, a student at Asbury Theological Seminary, and his efforts to rally a community behind Leonard Fitch and his local grocery store. The store had been in the family for fifty years and served as an institution in Wilmore, Kentucky. Hit hard by the economic downturn, Fitch couldn’t keep his doors open. When Leeson heard, he organized a group of volunteers from the community to repaint and refresh the store. They called themselves “Fitch’s neighbors,” and in repainting that store, they revitalized Fitch: “New paint has given me new life!” he said.
Last week, we introduced an important topic from How to Be Present in an Absent World: the difference between topos and chora. Where topos is a “mere” location, a place in space, chora names the stories and experiences that layer on to our little corners of the world. Big festivals and celebrations can help us become aware of chora, the way Carnivales galvanizes the people of Panama. But we achieve chora on a smaller scale, too; Leeson decided to transform his topos into a chora. More accurately, he reinvigorated the chora that already existed by inviting his neighbors–choreographing them–to restore an institution they all knew and loved.
On the other end of the spectrum, we feel displaced when we fail to invest this energy in our places, or recognize it as a priority. Displacement, as we use it in the book, is a broad term that describes the lived tension between physical presence and spiritual, emotional, and psychological absence. Displacement looks like loving your home but hating your neighborhood. It’s in the conviction that you’re doing everything right, but these people and these places aren’t cooperating. It makes us look up from our phones to realize our partners have just asked us the same question three times.
Displacement is the ongoing struggle to be where we are. The antidote, I believe, lies in recovering a robust sense of place here and now–not just when the carnival’s in town. Today, we’re talking about some ways you can cultivate chora in the world you live in every day.
Unwreck Your Home
Placefulness starts at home. When we feel displaced, we doubt our safety and our ability to live up to our potential. Without feeling present in our places, we can’t truly be part of them. Catalyze presence in your living-space through mindful practices. Consider your five senses; not only how you interact with your place, but how you can build a place that gives back:
- Sight: Design impacts our well-being. The colors we paint, the furniture we buy, the kitsch we put on the walls. You don’t have to be a designer, but time spent intentionally designing your place will pay psychological dividends in no time.
- Sound: Whether it’s the pitter patter of little feet or the Arcade Fire blaring out the other side of your teenager’s earbuds, ambient noise can make or break an environment. Take charge of your soundscape by springing for a Bluetooth speaker and making music a regular feature of life in your home.
- Smell: Before people got wise to this trick, real estate agents would pop a tray of cookies in the oven before every open house. Why? Because nothing says “home” better than the smell of fresh-baked cookies. In case you’re not sold, take a whiff of your coffee tomorrow morning and see what happens. Scents have a powerful effect on mood and performance. Don’t neglect the way your home smells.
- Space: How do you use your space? Do you have an inner sanctum—a place where you can escape? An office with a door that locks, a comfortable chair, a reading nook—these are the inner spaces that each person in your home needs in order to retreat, recharge, and re-engage life at their highest level.
- Sanity: 24-7 connection means you can expect the entire world to try and rob you of presence at home. What will you do to protect yourself from the pull of digitization, distraction, and diffusion?
Improve Your Workplace
Being mindful about your home life equips you to bring the same insights to your workplace. It may fly in the face of common sense, but functionality and efficiency are not the preconditions for make a chora of your workplace. Rather, placefulness in your work is a precondition of performance.
- Increase flexibility. Give employees the physical, mental, and temporal space to do the work the way it needs to be done—not the way it’s always been done.
- Improve productivity. Output is no longer measured by the hour or the square foot. Develop spaces around maximizing people first, and productivity will follow.
- Encourage collaboration. Compartmentalized workspaces can breed toxic forms of competition, while more flexible spaces invite healthy collaboration.
- Stimulate creativity. A strategic blend between open space for collaboration and private space for reflection is crucial to enabling your employees to tap into their best creative energy.
- Express the brand. Branding is storytelling, and the place you make at work is just one more opportunity to embody your corporate story. Look for ways to exhibit that story in physical ways in the office
- Attract and retain. Office environment is a key factor in attracting and retaining the best workers. Cultivate an environment that equips employees with the resources they need to do their best and most fulfilling work.
- Support cultural change. Place-making is about living out your values in space. The place you make at work will make the people who dwell in it. Use place to effect positive change.
- Steward environmental impact. Generally, consider energy conservation and waste management (i.e., good environmental citizenship). Doing so opens a broader vista into the connection between your company and its geographical context (i.e., corporate citizenship).
- Reduce costs. Dehumanized workspaces come at a price: if your workforce is disengaged and you haven’t put any effort into placefulness, then very limit of the blame rests on them. Your baseline objective should be to create a place where employees can be fully human. Great engagement and productivity will naturally follow.
Make Your Place More Human
Principle: Displacement lurks in the space between official and shadow cultures. Placefulness at work and in the community bridges that gap. It enables us and others to live, lead, and work at our highest levels.
Practice: Gather your senior leadership. Put up a whiteboard and brainstorm your ideal work environment. Prompt your team with positive descriptors: high-energy, collaboration, productivity, and so on. Dream up a space that embodies those characteristics. Plot out what it’ll take to move from your current space to that ideal environment and commit to incremental action. Do you lead a distributed workforce? If so, encourage each employee to envision his or her own space. How can they cultivate placefulness where they are? You can do the same exercises with your family. (Just remember they aren’t your employees, and home is not your workplace!)
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