Purpose in the Workplace: Why What and How

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Charlie Grantham
Charlie Grantham
Dr. Charles Grantham is co-founder of WORK THE FUTURE! TODAY, and has a rich multi-disciplinary background, and pursues his passion for helping leaders, organizations, and communities realize their true potential for effective performance, governance, and sustainability. Dr. Grantham has served in the Special Forces and enjoyed a career in academia and as Executive Director of R&D for several multi-national technology companies. He received his Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Maryland and is the author of nine books and several dozen technical papers. Most recently, he published “ForeSight 2025,” a practical guide on how to navigate the change process to prosper in the coming decade. Dr. Grantham is a featured author of many articles on The Future of Work Place Design website.


If you are clear on your purpose and are living that out in coherence with your work, your state of well-being will be enhanced.

Continuing the Story

My last Work Design article examined how ‘culture’ and ‘purpose’ were connected through designing work ‘places’ not just ‘spaces. In the second article of this short series we are looking at the relationships among purpose, culture, brand and workplace design.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast and operations excellence for lunch and everything else for dinner.” —Bill Aulet, Managing Director, The Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship & Professor of the Practice, MIT Sloan School

Places are physical; places are social. Wellbeing and its’ precursor purpose are as much social as they are physical. So, we shift the focus a bit here and dig into how a person’s (employee) purpose needs to link to their organizational purpose. Why is that important for the design world? And, then, how do you do that through design practice?

The Idea in Brief

  • The closer an employees’ life purpose matches the purpose of the company they work for the more engaged and productive they will be.
  • People experience brand, culture, and purpose in the work PLACE as an integrated message.
  • People perceive a company’s purpose through the brand message it broadcasts.
  • The workplace can be designed to increase the received strength of that message.

After discussing these four major points, I will offer some discrete design guidelines. Guidelines which normally are not seen as being within the purview of the interior designer, architect or facilities manager. My intent here is to push our collective thinking beyond traditional boundaries.

Why is this integration of purpose and workplace design important?

First, is to minimize the risks you take by investing time, money, and energy designing and deploying workplaces. Second, we think shifting your perspective, your worldview, helps you get a grounded perspective. You move from being reactive to events around you to a stance where you are in control. With that sense of control comes a heightened sense of well-being for everyone on the work team. Lastly, my suggested viewpoint and design guidelines will give you greater resilience to change because you will have consciously constructed a wider range of interconnections with others and resources.

Linking personal purpose to organizational purpose

Why does this even matter? Lack of purpose alignment between people and their workplace has a negative impact on the bottom line. Let’s look at some numbers pulled together by YScouts.

Image courtesy of author.

The Gap Between You and Your Work

Most people don’t think about the about how their work helps them live out their purpose in life. Why is this? Because the very nature of ‘work’ as we have known it for several hundred years is changing, we just have assumed the linkage is there. However, when personal purpose and organizational purpose are not aligned and supportive of one another; doubt, despair, and dysfunction begin to set in.

For younger workers, this is especially true. Recent research reported by “The Guardian” newspaper found that “millennials want purpose over paychecks.” However, and to my point here, is that they are not finding that in the workplace.

Second, there is still work to be done on aligning a mutually beneficial relationship between employers and employees. If a company can help individuals better find purpose at work, then the organization will benefit from having more productive and successful employees.

But it is deeper than that. It gets right down into our psyche. If you agree with our contention that we are shifting from the world of ‘profit’ to the world of ’planet’ and ‘people,’ as we discussed in our last article, it may be this Purpose gap is a leading indicator of things to come.

Image courtesy of author.

Purpose, Attitudes, and Behavior Explained 

A mental conflict is created when the purpose of a person and their ‘work’ don’t align. But it doesn’t stop there; it eats up a tremendous amount of mental and emotional energy struggling with this inner conflict. People try to resolve this conflict by focusing on their power, their status, or their income. And we respond by designing workplaces reflecting power, status, and wealth.

Where the psychology gets interesting is when you get different reactions depending on whether people see the differences as being the fault of themselves, or others. For example, if you think your Purpose is right and noble, but your workplace is not, it can result in aggression or delusion. And if you come to believe you are at fault, it goes inward, and self-destructive things start to happen.

The result is that when there is not a close alignment of purpose, cognitive dissonance and anxiety results. When this occurs, it is not a good environment for employee wellness and well-being, let alone complete wholeness.

Brand, Culture, Purpose

People experience all these with their relationship to PLACE.

Space + Brand = Place

When you enter a place (be it a work place or a community place) the organizational brand message is instantaneously broadcast. And that’s why we see place is such an important expression of brand purpose. Just like the old saying, “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression,” a brand-new impression is very hard to change. There is a strong linkage between company brand and workplace culture.

“The Brand” is culture inside out, and culture is “The Brand” outside in—the two can’t be separated.
 That is a company’s culture gets broadcast externally through its brand message. And conversely, the brand message comes back inside and is experienced as a culture.

Image courtesy of author.

Let me give you an example. Say you work for a company whose brand position in the market is the low-cost provider of products. One could assume that strategic position the accompanying culture would be somewhat thrifty because they are trying to preserve margin. The brand message coming back would be reflected. The physical manifestation of this frugality would be on the worn carpet, used office furnishings and long periods of time between paint refresh cycles. I know some of you are smiling because you have been there. How long did you stay?

Space, where the culture lives, is physical, but place is where the brand/culture is housed emotionally and intellectually—for all stakeholders inside and out the space.

To offer a slightly different viewpoint on space and place, we suggest that the blending of pure physical space into a more social place is where the transition from me to we can occur. It’s where individual purpose becomes shared purpose with your workmates and by extension your company.

“A great workplace is about more than real estate. It’s about empowering people and making them feel connected to the company – to OUR BRAND AND CULTURE” (emphasis added)

Workplace Brand and Design

The workplace of the future will require all of us to be competent in being proactive about where we can best authentically live our purpose. The ability to “find our tribe” will be a mandatory skill as the concept of someone else providing us with a “job” is rapidly going away. The ability to “go where you are invited” will be the new and emergent protocol, engaged through intuition and awareness, to land within a group of kindred spirits who can honor your gifts and passion to co-create in authentic community.

Image courtesy of the author.

OK, well how do you do that? If you are working on designing these purpose oriented workplaces what are some design guidelines you can use?

Proactively manage social networks. First, you need to realize that people derive meaning and sense purpose, from being enmeshed in social networks. The workplace is a major ‘place’ where networks operate – think of the good old water cooler. So, guideline #1 would be­­­ let workplaces facilitate networking. Think of having deliberately delineated places for networking. Think ‘campfires,’ community benches, neighborhood ‘parklets.’ It works in urban design, so bring it inside.

Purpose needs a place to be acted out. Design guideline #2 is to view the workplace as a stage where purpose gets played out. You are a stage set designer. You want your ‘set’ to very visibly broadcast your brand. Storytelling displays of company history, videos of customer testimonials.

One of the strongest ways to ‘set the stage’ is the idea of a wall of fame, celebrating people, history and dedicated to brand message. Below is an example of perhaps the most compelling example of this idea that we could find. Brand message to support purpose doesn’t get any more effective than this.

Image courtesy of the author.

Use embedded technology to guide purpose finding. As technology marches on it will become more and more embedded into the workplace – not a separate add on feature. Design guideline #3 is to develop, design and deploy a ‘personal purpose dashboard.’ The basic elements already exist but haven’t been integrated yet.

Cloud based apps which function like ‘fitness trackers’ can support purpose finding. That facilitation can be supported at the work team level to garner social support from a more intimate social network. Think about an app that monitored your stress levels, inventoried your coping resources and offered a graphical display of your well-being state. The idea would be to have this embedded in the work place with HiDef wall mount screens; input connections between wearable sensors and mobile platforms. For example,

Just as in a game points could be accrued by improving wellness, staying focused on purpose and degree of engagement with the work environment. Rewards could link to company wellness programs such as personal time off days, vacations or whatever was consistent with the company culture. Tools like this could create a mutually reinforcing socio-technical system.

One fascinating thing that seems to be missing in the research is an exploration of the relationship of different cultural milieus’ to the employee and organizational purpose. Most of these examples used here are from the United States. Is this relationship different in Scandinavia? China? Eastern Europe? The Middle East? A topic for a later discussion I guess.

Purpose in Practice

A couple of concluding thoughts on how to live workplace design and practice out. First, it is the company’s responsibility to provide the place that promotes linking of individual and company purpose. The very act of taking on that responsibility itself communicates a brand message of empathy with the person.

Also, the design and execution must be authentic. People can sense that. A common phrase in today’s workplace is ‘fake it until you make it’ as kind of a badge of lack of engagement. Remember my first infographic? Only 30% of the workforce work with a felt sense of purpose. Do you want to run a company where only 30% of the people are engaged? If your brand message and your public face of purpose are contrived, or fake, people will sense that and immediately check out.

Finally, this all comes down to promoting the well-being of people in the workplace. For those of you who follow my articles, you know I always have sort of a Zen twist to things. So, let me close this discussion of purpose in the workplace with a quote from one of my favorite authors Kathryn Best:

“Alan Watts said that ‘intelligence is the capacity to perceive the essential, the what is; and to awaken this capacity in oneself and others is education.’ If we all awaken to what is essential in life (well-being for all) and what is essential within ourselves (learning about our well-being) then we are both intelligent and educated.”

Don’t wait for the purpose to find you, find it yourself and live it out in your workplace.

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