2016-06-30
In 2002, when most dotcoms crashed, Beliefnet survived by the sheer perseverance of its employees and the loyalty of its users. The company went from 69 employees to eight, (today it's grown again to a hearty 29). With salaries cut back and no time to spare for thinking about decorating the newly condensed office space, the staff was slaving away in an unappealing, poorly lit, impersonal office suite -- without complaint. So odd was the office's configuration that when visitors came to Beliefnet's front door, they often believed they'd gotten off on the wrong floor.

BEFORE: Beliefnet's lobby entrance seemed little more than a humble mail room.

AFTER: Our new lobby is not yet a showplace, but it's the talk of our building!

When I arrived to help edit the website in mid-2003 -- coming in as a veteran magazine writer and wife of co-founder/CEO Steven Waldman -- the office still bore visible scars of the company's near-demise. Meetings were held in a conference room with dirty white walls, stained orange chairs, and a frayed green and black rug. Mismatched desks and chairs, abandoned computer monitors, and a broken Xerox machine occupied one corridor like hulking buffalo on a ravaged plain. You could almost hear the cruel wind howling.

I found myself drifting into worried thoughts. Could we truly succeed in this place? I forced the mantra: "It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter." I brought in a little Indian lamp from home, placed it on my desk and tried to carry on.

But it did matter. I knew that the look, feel, organization, and yes, "energy" of an office can radically affect mood, health, and success. As the newest editor in the office, I didn't have a lot of say but since I'd been hired for my knowledge of the 'spirituality' beat, it seemed to me that Beliefnet, back on its feet, needed an energy-boosting office redesign. I turned to Nancy SantoPietro, an internationally known Tibetan Black Hat Feng Shui expert. After some negotiation (she waived her $1800 day rate with the understanding that we'd publish an article -- this one -- about the experience), she agreed to help us out.

Feng Shui (which literally translates to "wind" and "water,") is the hot interior design method derived from ancient Chinese spiritual principles that govern the flow of energy, prosperity, and happiness. In recent years the ancient art has caught on like wild fire, fueling hundreds of small design firms, and becoming the subject of workshops the world over.

I have to admit that I feared my fascination with this kind of thing would get me labeled by my coworkers as the sort of flaky lady who blows in wearing big sunglasses, or walking a poodle on a rhinestone leash (actually, we have a cockapoo and he doesn't sport rhinestones). "Hello, people. I'm your new spirituality editor. Meet my Feng Shui designer."

So I was relieved when Nancy and her assistant Diane Hoffmann showed up, both nice-looking women wearing vibrantly colored clothes and discreet necklaces of crystal beads. Nancy herself sported a streetwise swagger and a slight Brooklyn accent.

But that's where Nancy's common touch ended. In my lifetime, I have met people I felt had direct pipelines to the divine. But whoa, Nancy! It was like she had a beautiful crystal chandelier rotating inside her. Raised a Roman Catholic, she had been a student of Buddhism for many years when in 1989 she became one of the first few female Westerners trained by H.H. Professor Thomas Lin Yun Rinpoche, GrandMaster and Spiritual Leader of the Tibetan Tantric School of Buddhist Black Hat Sect Feng Shui. While honoring the Rinpoche's traditional teachings, she blends in skills gained from her earlier 10-year career as a psychotherapist. Every summer, students flock to Brooklyn to train in her "Accelerated Path" method of Feng Shui and Chakra Energy systems. She is also the author of two popular Feng Shui books.

When Nancy wanted to talk awhile before touring the office, I assumed she meant discussing what furniture we were going to move where. Instead, she asked each member of Beliefnet's management team to speak about their role with the company. Acting more like a spiritually hip corporate shrink than an interior designer, she then gave a penetrating analysis of their talents, health status, and energy levels. Our jaws dropped at her ability to say things about us that had taken us years to figure out. She divined these insights, I've since learned, by analyzing our faces and our chakras -- those seven rotating energy centers within the physical body. The main problem, it seemed, was in the area of our corporate solar plexis which had been depleted from overwork.

I embrace this stuff lock, stock, and barrel -- or maybe bell, book, and candle. But after gutting out a tough year, the management team can't be blamed for receiving all this with some skepticism. To their credit, they remained open to Nancy's blunt insights. Our office's "chi" or life force was very low, she said, and the staff was receiving little sustenance from its work environment. Chi energy, by Eastern tradition, is the vital essence of divine life, the energy one feels on a beautiful beach. Before moving through the office, Nancy did give us one bit of good news: The 14 hideously orange chairs, retained mostly because no one would buy them during the company's bankruptcy, actually helped us survive. Orange is the color of family, Nancy explained. "The orange chairs saved you."

Nancy SantoPietro indicates where she wants plants suspended at the window.
After lunch, Nancy and Diane whirled like dervishes through the office, room by room, pointing out what was wrong and dispensing fixes, beginning at the entranceway pictured above. Nancy interviewed staff members with great tenderness about how it felt to work at their desks. Her universal advice was simply to clean up: get clutter and wobbly pieces of furniture out of aisles, and bring in artwork that the staff found personally meaningful. Here's a more detailed description of several changes she found important.

1. PUT ENERGY INTO THE ENTRANCE. According to Feng Shui principles, the entrance to a space is "the mouth of the chi," where exterior chi is first shaped and eventually funneled into quality interior chi. It also acts as a transitional area where employees greet their work space and shift into their "work persona" every morning, and where outsiders form their first impression. In our case, the entrance was a drab and lifeless elevator lobby. Nancy told us to paint the wall facing us as we stepped off the elevators a deep, rich, burgundy red. The surrounding walls, she said, should be a soft yellow. The correct shade of red can energize a space as well as create a sense of groundedness and strength. With the complementary soft yellow, the employees could get their day off to an energizing start.

The walls throughout the rest of office -- all white -- remain a problem. The color white doesn't "hold chi" very well, so with all that white our energy would tend to bounce about aimlessly. In a perfect world, Nancy recommended painting all the white surfaces pale yellow. She also suggested that a wall that runs the length of our office be painted the same deep burgundy red as the entrance hall. This would activate the areas of Feng Shui that oversee our success, visability, finances, and staff relationships. This, she said, would be the most energizing change we could make to the entire workspace. Sadly, while Nancy was admirably frugal in her suggestions generally, that wall must be 70 feet long and the burgundy takes four coats, so as of this writing, we're still saving our pennies and looking at white.

Nancy told us to furnish the newly painted entrance with two extra orange chairs we had lazing around, and advised us to bring a small recirculating fountain from inside the office out to the foyer, since water provides a favorable, lively element that builds chi and increases financial energy. Also, at her instruction, we bought a $65 sacred flute made out of a single piece of bamboo, festooned in tassels and ribbons, symbolic of a sentry standing guard over us while also raising the positive energy flow of all who enter. She also recommended hanging wind chimes throughout our space -- not to make soothing music, but to hang silently, unblocking energy and redirecting its flow into a more conducive pattern like an acupuncturist's needle.

To involve all our senses, Nancy sent us to an essential oil expert who mixed up a "Beliefnet Blend" of therapeutic-grade energizing citrus oils. We also bought a professional-grade scent-diffusing machine. This has been mostly wonderful but we do have to trade off being "mindful" and remembering to turn the darned thing off at night. Aromatherapy fosters better team work, I guess.

2. LIVEN UP THE MONEY WALLS. According to the Feng Shui bagua (an eight-sided map, based on the Chinese oracle of the I-Ching, with which the consultant maps out spiritually satisfying spaces), the left hand wall of any space as you enter governs finances. A mirror placed on a left hand wall opens up this financial realm. From a Feng Shui perspective, Beliefnet's foyer made us especially inhospitable to greater financing since that left hand wall jutted out quite rudely. A-ha! A rounded wood molding to soften the jutting corner and a large gilt-frame mirror on that wall will make us appear more welcoming to visitors and those bearing gifts. Also, left hand walls in the individual offices of those handling money -- like our Finance Director, for instance -- were given mirrors to keep financial chi contained and directed.

3. FACE THE DAY AND EVERYTHING ELSE. It's basic feng shui wisdom that desks should never be aligned directly with a door, and workers should always be facing the door as visitors enter. At Beliefnet, the most obvious desk in an unfavorable position belonged to the co-founder and CEO, whose back faced the door, just asking to be stabbed, spiritually speaking. She advised us to move his desk so he'd face the door, but she also cautioned that desk position changes can have profound repercussions and that Steve should move his desk only when he felt ready. She told us to place plants in strategic positions - a tall corn plant would be excellent, to give his "woody" temperament some support. Also, she suggested painting the wall behind Steve the bold burgundy red of the entrance hall (another task we haven't yet managed).

Steve moved his desk into the preferred position right away, had disagreements with colleagues the next day, then came down with a terrible, awful hacking cold that lasted three weeks. A cleansing? A release? There's no telling. He seems fine now -- and more formidable than ever.

BEFORE: Steve Waldman's office looked like the messy domain of a typical journalist.

AFTER: Though the back wall is supposed to be painted burgundy red, Steve's new desk position alone puts him in a "power" position.

4. GET PROTECTION FROM THE EMFs. The florescent light boxes suspended over the editorial team's heads are at best, unpleasant to work under, and at worst, really bad for our bodies long-term. They are hung much closer to our bodies than most florescent fixtures and, according to Nancy's handy-dandy Electro-Magnetic Field (EMF) monitor, emit dangerously bad vibes. Nancy suggested turning them off as much as possible, and to consider getting rid of them.

Chinese masters of yore, of course, never stewed about EMFs as we know them, but modern day Feng Shui experts take into account anything that could conceivably deplete the happy flow of favorable chi. Views on the health implications of EMFs are decidedly mixed. Some claim that even the exceedingly high EMFs emitted from radio towers won't hurt us, but no one, it seems, chooses to live next door to them. Staffers seated closest to our vast computer server get hit by high EMF readings from the side as well as above. Nancy showed us where to order "EMF-reducing" necklaces, and ceramic "tabs" for the computer monitors. I got the tab for my home monitor and I'm wearing a necklace now. Call me an idiot. I swear they are helping.

So remedial was our feng shui that Nancy ended up donating a second day of her time, but once she departed, we immediately made the easiest changes, and received rave reviews from a grateful staff. Then came the longer slog, and the realization that it would take more time and more money to complete the whole redesign. President Sujay Jhaveri and Finance Director Toni DeMarco were wonderfully supportive of the project until we received a painting bid of $12,000, when their enthusiasm waned.

Cost was not the only consideration in how -- or whether -- to implement all of Nancy's changes. Beliefnet's staff, like our website audience, is composed of people of many backgrounds and faiths, and some might feel -- incorrectly, I think -- that Feng Shui's precepts clash with their own. There is also the matter of taste. Nancy's decorative touches -- like the four-inch-high Chinese "double happiness" signs -- are decidedly Asian, and perhaps not everyone's cup of tea. Everyone likes the idea of there being more artwork, but which particular style to choose? Would posters with Eastern spiritual themes alienate traditional Christians? Would classical religious art disturb our "spiritual but not religious" visitors? And of course some staffers have trouble taking the whole thing seriously -- like the wise-guys in the tech department who keep doodling a happy face on the little rearview mirror I added to the computer monitor of a woman whose back faces her door.

The hardest sell remains my husband the CEO. "I can't let you hang that over my head!" he said as I stood before him with a golf ball-sized crystal in hand. "What if some potential investor sees it?"

"Hush up," said I as I stood on a chair. "No one will notice."

Enter Executive Editor Elizabeth Sams. "Ouuuuu, nice crystal," she said.

"Shhhhhh!" I hissed, failing to silence Steve's groans.

The crystal's still up there. But the company "altar" -- a wicker tray Nancy told us to place near the entrance where employees have left small shells, stones, flowers, figurines, and written hopes or prayers in envelopes -- has a sweet presence, and I daresay, it must touch even the people who haven't left anything on it. It's a reminder that we are not run-of-the-mill business folk and cynical journalists.
This crystal lotus radiates good feelings from the center of our conference table.
Choosing paint colors, hanging mirrors, suspending crystals from red silk strings cut at precise three-, six-, nine-, or twelve-inch lengths while standing on a high ladder required a kind of poise and attentiveness that eluded me sometimes. But that's the point. You have to put your full mind to it. And I found that when you're using Feng Shui, aligning yourself with the invisible forces of energy in nature, the whole world reverberates. I feel internally altered. I've ordered wind chimes for my children's rooms and home office. I've gone on home cleaning frenzies, started meditating with Nancy's "Praying in Color" CDs, and cruised Feng Shui merchandise websites late into the night.
In the process, I have confronted my own tendency to charge forward blindly, without negotiating. And I've made my mistakes. I didn't tie a heavy 50-millimeter crystal well from the ceiling above Elizabeth Sams' head, and it fell. (She was, thankfully, not in that day.) I will say this: Something is different. When the entranceway was painted, employees walked off the elevators and at first didn't know where they were. "It's insane!" I heard one person exclaim. Several of us just stood out there and laughed. Burgundy red and yellow walls? We're definitely not in Kansas any more. But I have come to adore the process of refining the job so much that at times, it's all I can think about, and I was deeply gratified the other day when a stranger said to me on the elevator, "Hey! I heard you had your office Feng Shui-ed!" What about the bottom line? New advertisers and ever-more prestigious columnists are entering the life of the company. Our newsletters go out daily to millions. And in March we were nominated for a National Magazine Award in the category of website general excellence against sites several orders of magnitude bigger than ours. I know in my heart that the bamboo flute above the doorway has something to do with all this. I also pray it doesn't fall down on somebody as they're coming in to work.
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