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Finding a place where everyone knows your name

Often, we think of beloved places as geographical locations—a city we grew up in, a café we frequent, maybe even somewhere we work. But, as Lawrence and Dover write, “Place is more than geography: it has been defined as the intersection of a geographic location, a set of meanings and values, and a material form (Gieryn, 2000, Cresswell, 2004).” We might think of having a sense of place as a particular experience of belonging—“That’s my place” or “I feel like I belong here.” Places can provide a sense of comfort, in part, because we can return to them. They are consistent. They continue in our absence.

Places can be associated with a journey. The journey might be a physical one to a specific location and/or a temporal one to a past (or even a future) time. Returning allows us to remember a part of our selves. We might return to a place hoping to find familiar things, familiar people—a set of friends from childhood, a favorite bartender, our colleagues—a soothing feeling of consistency. Some of these journeys might be longer, while others are shorter, both geographically and temporally. We return to our work. We return to our home.

Some organizations are formed with the express purpose of creating a sense of place. Co-working facilities provide a place for people to go and find community, even when people work primarily alone. Some of these organizations begin to blur the lines between work life and personal life. Hall, a space in Boston which is now retooling its mission, started as a “subscription-based eat-play-work venue” around the question “how do you build a place that feels like home?” There are places that are both co-working and co-living spaces designed for entrepreneurs or other “like-minded people.” But, being a part of these places comes at a price.

What happens to people who can’t afford to buy into this kind of community to connect? What other kind of places can people find?

Chris Arnade, a former Wall Street trader, crafted a book for which he interviewed and photographed people of “back-row” America, “those who lack the credentials and advantages of the so-called meritocratic upper class,” “the people who couldn’t or didn’t want to leave their town or their family to get an education” (p. 46). One of the things he, a self-described front-row person, discovered was the centrality of McDonald’s in communities. At McDonald’s, people said they felt like they could be themselves without judgement. Other organizations, like nonprofits, were experienced as casting judgment. Arnade writes:

In [the Bronx’s Hunts Point neighborhood], I found myself going to McDonald’s every day because everyone did. It was an essential part of my new friends’ lives. Without a stable home, they needed clean water, a place to charge a phone, a place to get free wifi. McDonald’s had all of those, and it also had good cheap food (p. 38).

[In Gary, Indiana,] it isn’t just the morning groups that fill the McDonald’s. In the downtown McDonald’s, there are people playing dominoes (“Been getting together for a few afternoons each week for a while”), people sitting quietly reading the Bible, younger people on their phones watching videos, or playing online video games with their headsets on, or reading Harry Potter, or just sitting for hours at a time listening to music and watching the world go by. It isn’t just Gary’s community center; it is Gary’s town square (p. 57).

McDonald’s offers familiar things, familiar people, and consistency that can provide a sense of place.

Living in the same town in central Illinois for nearly his entire 97-year life, my grandfather regularly went to McDonald’s. It was a beloved place for him. He and my grandmother even celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary there (an event which I attended). So, Arnade’s work reminds me of some of my back-row roots, roots that feel in sharp contrast with my experience in front-row academia, living in Cambridge, Massachusetts (a place where there are far more co-working spaces than McDonald’s).

For many people, McDonald’s has a negative connotation. As a management researcher viewing Arnade’s work, I wondered how this function of McDonald’s as a place of belonging and dignity related to its mission. Was this like Pratt’s and Dutton’s work on the issue of homelessness in public libraries? In their study, they found that library workers did not believe that the issue (that increasing numbers of homeless seek shelter in public libraries) was connected with the organization’s ideal identity. And, while some people felt ambivalence about addressing the issue, others felt it was beyond the purview of the organization’s mission.

Actually, for McDonald’s, being a place where people gather for a sense of belonging seems to fall squarely in line with their mission: “to be our customer’s favorite place and way to eat and drink.” It isn’t clear, though, how the employees feel about enacting this mission daily.

If co-working spaces are places for the front-row, McDonald’s are places for the back-row. This contrast raises a number of questions. Where might we find places that join back-row and front-row? How do we design places where people are treated with dignity and a lack of judgment? More broadly, what is the role of organizations in establishing these types of places of connection? Should organizations strive to provide a home for their employees and/or the people they serve? Should organizations always be a place to which people want to return?

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