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Deconstructing the Genius Loci: How “Spirit of Place” Influences Productivity

On the northwest coast of Turkey, my extended family has an olive farm. I try to travel there at least once a year to take part in the harvest.

To most people, the farm probably looks like rows of trees, occasional piles of rocks, and mountains in the background. On a material level, that pretty much sums it up. But to me, it’s so much more — it’s a place that tells my family’s history, about where we’re from and who we are: generations of farmers who lived off of the Turkish land.

Being at the farm has a particular effect on me. I wake up while the sun is still rising and take a walk around the land — no checking my email or scrolling Twitter. After working on the harvest, we cook big meals using products from our farm and our neighbors’. We gather around the table for long, slow lunches. And at the end of the day, I turn off the lights and fall asleep, happy and exhausted — no streaming a series on Netflix or firing off late-night emails.

You see, the spirit of a place, or “genius loci,” is more than just the stones and dirt, or the bricks and mortar. It’s also the narrative, the eco-system, the tradition, and the people. It’s both the tangible and intangible qualities. As my farm example implies, the genius loci can affect our behavior when we inhabit a place, including at the office.

As CEO of Jotform, I don’t believe in productivity for productivity’s sake — ticking off as many items as possible on an endless to-do list with no intentionality. But I think often about creating the ideal circumstances for innovation and making progress on meaningful projects, or as I like to call them, the “big stuff.” Genius loci is an important consideration.

Here, a closer look at how the spirit of your work environment can have an impact on productivity and creativity.

1. An ever-present narrative

Laurence Durrell once wrote for the New York Times, “As we get to know Europe slowly, tasting the wines, cheeses, and characters of different countries you begin to realize that the important determinant of any culture is after all the spirit of place. Just as one particular vineyard will always give you a special wine with discernible characteristics so a Spain, an Italy, a Greece will always give you the same type of culture — will express itself through the human beings just as it does through its wild flowers.”

If you taste an olive from my family’s farm, it expresses a spirit of place — where it was grown, who grew it, and how it was cultivated. In the same way, your office should be infused with a narrative about the people, the place, and your story — in modern-day parlance, we usually call these things the company’s mission statement and culture.

Having your company’s identity at the forefront of the workspace keeps everyone on the same page. It also helps productivity, as each person remains aware that their individual role and contribution form part of the greater mission. But it’s a challenge — according to Gallup research, only 41% of employees strongly agree that they know what their company stands for and “what makes it different from competitors.”

To improve your employees’ understanding of their organization, the purpose and mission should be regular topics of discussion. As Gallup suggests, managers can proactively help employees understand why their work matters and how it contributes to the larger purpose — draw lines between performance and outcomes like growth and revenue.

Making your identity and narrative ever-present will also give your team a sense of agency. The people who make the spirit of a place are not just retelling your brand’s story, they’re actively writing it.

2. Enhancing unique aspects

Enlightment-era poet Alexander Pope once wrote that, “instanced in architecture and gardening… all must be adapted to the genius of the place, and… beauties not forced into it, but resulting from it.”

Echoing Pope, the Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture explains that every place has its own unique qualities, not only in terms of its physical makeup but how it’s perceived. Design choices should enhance those unique qualities, not destroy them.

What does that mean for your workspace?

I think it’s to consider what makes your space unique, in terms of geographic location and the physical space itself, and to lean into those qualities. Let them be the jumping off point for intentional design choices. 

Take Jotform’s San Francisco headquarters. When we were first choosing a location, I knew I wanted the office to be near the water, because it reminded me of my early days in the city and felt quintessentially SF. Later, we chose a space with floor-to-ceiling windows in order to let our natural surroundings meld with the workspace. What’s more, the design — a mix of open, communal and private workspaces — mirrors the way that we work. In that sense, it feels like a natural extension of our culture.

A workspace that reflects who and where we are helps our team to enjoy coming to the office. And keep in mind: a pleasant workspace can enhance creativity and productivity.

I know it has that effect on me, especially when I consider the indistinct, cubicle-filled offices of jobs past. I’m convinced that the genius loci of my office today helps us to work better.

3. Safety first

In classical Roman religion, the genius loci was the protective spirit of a place. While the concept of genius loci has evolved — genius loci isn’t so much a guardian spirit anymore — it’s still important to make your office space feel like a protected environment in order to foster innovation.

How do you make your office feel like a safe space?

It starts with hiring. At Jotform, when we interview candidates, I look for the right skillset, a positive attitude, and stellar communication skills. I’m interested in whether a potential hire can effectively convey their ideas and collaborate to solve problems; and that they have empathy and humility.

Leaders can also take steps to establish trust among employees by setting ground rules for acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. For example, asking questions, highlighting project weaknesses, and playing “devil’s advocate” should be encouraged. Gossip and mean-spirited digs, on the other hand, are always a no-go.

As leaders, we can also do less speaking, more listening. Model curiosity. Ask employees about their ideas. Solicit their feedback. Let them know that their critical eye matters to the company.

If we encourage open dialogue by hiring strong communicators and building trust, productive conflict and innovation flourish.

Identifying the spirit of your company can help you to ensure that the physical structure mirrors who you are. The genius loci can be an asset, to enhance productivity and creativity, and ensure that your company’s essence is infused in everything you do.

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