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The Evolution of the Third Place

More than two years removed from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there continue to be questions about the value of an office. Are people more or less productive working from home? How do junior team members and new employees fare when there’s less face-to-face interaction and mentorship? Is corporate culture possible to replicate in a virtual world? Many people believe that the future workforce will be largely focused on a balance between in-office and remote working, which creates a new, hybrid work model.

The shift in the way we work has cemented the need for a new type of “in-between space,” one where people aren’t at home and aren’t in a traditional office. Enter the concept of the “third” place. The concept of a third place was created by Ray Oldenburg, a world-renowned sociologist who wrote The Great Good Place in 1989. His research was a direct response to the privatization of domestic life, which grew from the increase in urban sprawl and suburban development. Oldenburg claimed that our homes are our “first” places, and our offices or workspaces are “second” places, leaving everywhere we visit in between to be our “third” places. This includes restaurants and bars where we gather after work, the stores where we run errands, and even the modes of public transit we use to get from place to place. The common theme between these spaces is that they are easily accessible, serve as social anchors, and have become the “living rooms” of society.

Ever since the start of the pandemic, the desire for these spaces has significantly increased, as many navigate a world where they can work from anywhere. These workers continue to seek out varying places to do both short-term and long-term work. At places like local coffee shops, this might just be reading emails on your phone while waiting for a drink, or it could mean sitting at a table for hours of work at a time. Enabled by WiFi connectivity, ample and comfortable seating, access to food and drink, and a relaxing ambiance, these spaces use design elements to create a specific identity that gives users a positive feeling about their surroundings.

What makes these third places successful? Third places are able to provide value to users by providing comforts of home like comfortable seating and ambient music, productivity elements of an office like internet access and easy access to food and drink, and a sense of the unknown that comes with sharing a space with new people every visit. Where homes and offices can feel rather static, with little changing from day to day, third places are dynamic. No two visits to a third place are the same, which gives people a reason to come back. The good news for landlords is that the concept that a third place must be entirely separate from a traditional office environment is fading away. 

Companies are now recognizing the need to include spaces that offer respite and amenities that create fun, interactive moments. Many tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, have become known for their nap pods, coffee bars, elaborate cafeterias, and game rooms, which bring the third place into their workspace. Outside of private tenant spaces, building owners and landlords are bringing the third place into common spaces. Not only does this break down a barrier between public space and private amenities, but it can also attract new tenants, increase property values, and enhance a property’s overall reputation to be more innovative and dynamic. These types of spaces include coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and fitness centers. They also take on a much smaller scale, as lounges in a ground floor lobby, transforming what was once a purely transient space into an area that invites people in and makes them want to connect in a casual and social way. Lounge furniture, like L-shaped sofas with coffee tables and chairs, supports interaction and creates an inviting atmosphere. 

One of the difficulties of creating these publicly accessible third spaces is mitigating the liability that comes with allowing non-occupants to spend time in a building. While this risk might be uncomfortable for building owners, it can be minimized with the right precautions. The best way to stop any unwanted loitering is to have staff dedicated to overseeing the space. Many offices are already adding office managers to add an element of hospitality to their workplaces, this would just be a further extension of their roles. With proper signage, well-established decorum, and regular monitoring, there is no reason that offices can’t accommodate the public, much like retail establishments do already. 

It’s also important to consider which type of third place is right for your building. Understanding a tenant, their company culture, their habits, and their overall needs can help ensure success when deciding what your third place might look like. Is there no coffee shop in a five-block radius? Then adding one in might be beneficial. Does one of your tenants tend to have employees who work late nights? Then a 24-hour grab-n-go food area and lounge might appeal to them. Third spaces should serve as an extension of company culture and a building’s brand. 

In the near future, companies may decide that the future of work is not about spending 40 hours a week working from your desk, but also not spending 40 hours a week working from home. It’s about creating the balance that removes the “H” in WFH (work from home) and turning it into the ability to work from anywhere – the park outside of your office, the coffee shop on the ground floor, or the co-working space in the lobby area that makes it easy to quickly touchdown. These public services and infrastructure have always existed, but now they’re being thought of in a new way that supports an evolving workforce that wants more choice and a shifting real estate market that can support that.

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