Spatial relations

Seated beside a pingpong table in the common area of the WeWork offices (a provider of shared workspace) in Lower Manhattan, Claire Rowell ’12 is unphased by the competitive doubles game going on beside her as she discusses her Wheaton roots.

It makes sense: Her job as a workplace anthropologist for New York-based startup PLASTARC—which happens to rent office space just a few floors away from the ping-pong table—means she spends her days helping corporate clients ranging from tech startups to international organizations assess and fine tune their office environments in order to enhance the employee experience and attract and retain talent long term.

“Think of the workplace as a ‘container’ or physical manifestation of the company’s organizational culture and business,” Rowell explains. “Its design, furnishing, lighting, technology, amenities, even restrooms, send messages to employees and visitors.”

So, the pingpong table? “It communicates social protocol and gives permission for certain behaviors,” Rowell says. “As a result, employees feel more comfortable using these spaces to socialize in and for nonwork-related activities and, eventually, life and work become more intertwined.”

In other words, the modern office space is evolving. And it’s Rowell’s job to help PLASTARC’S growing list of clients keep up.

“The workplace is now, more than ever, as much a place for doing work as it is for connecting with others, engaging with the organization and creating a community around your job and life,” she says. “Company culture is a really hot topic right now, but my job is really to help clients think, ‘OK, what do those words actually mean for us? How do we qualify or quantify these concepts?’”

A recent example: When a rapidly growing high-tech startup on the West Coast called, they requested PLASTARC’s help scaling not just the organization, but also the people, culture and real estate.

“By observing and interviewing employees, we helped leadership to better understand that spatial decisions (where people sit, how they communicate, their physical distance from one another) were going to be essential to speedy growth in the market and their business performance,” she explains.

The bottom line: Space matters—but that’s something Rowell has known since her days as an anthropology major at Wheaton.

“So much of what makes Wheaton great is how the environment lends itself to social experience,” Rowell says. “It’s those shared social interactions—you’ve both spent hours dining at Emerson or watched the sunrise from the library at 4 a.m.—that foster a connection and create a lifelong bond.”

In fact, Rowell—a Davis Fellow who spent a semester abroad studying physical space and micro-cultures in India—credits that bond with helping her shape her current career path. After all, it was a fateful introduction to Binh Nguyen ’99 by Professor Donna Kerner that helped her discover a business application of her major.

“Binh [who worked at InterSystems] came to speak on a panel to anthropology majors and ended up offering me an interdisciplinary internship in the human resources department of the Boston-based headquarters that evolved into an internship in the company’s UK branch,” Rowell says.

“The role gave me a chance to learn about organizational operations, and instilling and communicating company values when you have offices around the globe. It also taught me something bigger: The business world needs anthropology because there’s a growing desire to apply a social research lens to corporate problems and to pair qualitative and quantitative data together.”

And Rowell—who’s just two years into her PLASTARC role—is only getting started. “I’m so thrilled to have found a position with a blended job title that gives me a chance to apply the interdisciplinary skills I picked up at Wheaton,” she says.

Photo by Pete Byron