The way we work is changing. Over the past year we were part of a global experiment involving working from home. During this time, we all began to understand what we need to do our best work. We learned what can be done out of the office and why we need the office. One outcome of this understanding is the movement toward a hybrid work model that will be supported by a Work from Anywhere ecosystem—an ecosystem that consists of office, home, and often-overlooked third places.
Third places, those spaces to work in addition to the office and home, aren’t new. What’s new is that employers are now giving them more attention. They’re recognizing that valuable benefits are reaped when individuals work in third places.
What Makes a Third Place
One key attribute of third places is that there’s no ownership by either the employer or the employee. They’re neutral—and often inspiring—places where distractions of the office and home are removed. Think cafés, lobbies, community spaces, parks, and some coworking spaces.
Why Workers Seek Them
A primary reason individuals seek third places is to get away from distractions. Access to a space without disturbances—like coworkers, family members, reminders of other projects, or the activities of others—can make a huge difference in worker productivity.
Also, being away from the office provides opportunities for workers to connect with other like-minded individuals in a social setting. For example, an employee might head over to a coffee shop on Thursdays when a group of gamers gets together because they like to associate with them and is inspired by their presence.
Groups often use third places for tackling a specific problem. The benefits of working away from the interference and interruptions of the office are twofold for teamwork.
First, teams can can focus on a problem with sustained attention, which paves the way for more divergent thinking. Think about your own experience: Have you seen more good ideas first sketched out on a paper napkin or a conference room whiteboard? Third places can provide the right stimuli for the activity—such as brainstorming or noodling on an idea.
What Third Places Afford Workers
So, what is it about third places that makes them them desirable places to work some of the time? Several things, actually; in scientific terms they’re called affordances. An affordance is a characteristic of a space that encourages a particular action.
Let’s look at the cognitive affordances, starting with insulation—the way we manage both irrelevant and meaningful stimuli. Third places allow people to get away from the visual reminders of other work so they can focus on one key task. They insulate workers by helping them tune out non-relevant information. When working in a coffee shop where there’s steady buzz of activity, the brain knows that what’s going on in the background isn’t important. A person can get comfortable in a third place while their brain tunes out the buzz and they put their attention to the task at hand.
Another cognitive affordance of third places is the access they provide for more private conversations, as well as meeting with others who are not normally in the office.
Third places also enhance worker well-being. They afford people the ability to be outdoors and experience nature; to find inspiration in new surroundings; and to choose where to work. Additionally, third places help create affinity between coworkers and strengthen connections that support well-being.
Be Mindful of Third Places in Space Design
Third places are here to stay as part of the Work from Anywhere ecosystem. Any organization that overlooks them when choosing an office location or designing an office misses a prime opportunity to support current—and future—employees' cognitive performance and well-being.
Discover more about the Work from Anywhere ecosystem and download the executive summary.