Can you count all the people who are working in this airport lounge?
Many of our current workplaces are designed around connection, an important shift that unfolded over the past two decades. As leadership moved from command and control to a more collaborative model, our work became increasingly defined by team goals and projects. We needed that contact to make our work relevant and ensure our individual tasks remained on course with a larger purpose. But design for connection, aided by mobile technology, pushed a lot of the focus work out. It had to go somewhere, so it started invading our personal lives, our personal spaces and our cities.
That invasion has collateral damage. The victim, as I see it, is the “third places” that make our neighborhoods and cities vibrant, pleasant, and engaging places to live. These places, originally defined by Ray Oldenberg as places that are non-work and non-home, allow us to maintain time and space (both mentally and physically) outside the formal responsibilities of our daily lives. These are the spaces that let our minds wander and push us to develop productive social connections. Those abilities should be seen as more than just leisure – they are crucial to our continued ability to make our work and home lives work.
If focus is the backbone of an effective workplace, reflection may be the backbone of an effective life. A recent New York Times editorial describes losing a battle to a "busy trap" in which self-imposed business and work at once justify and poison our lives in pursuit of our endless ambitions. Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor, worries that pervasive communication technology has taken away our ability to spend time just thinking.
Reflection and focus are both essential for creativity and innovation. Focus is how we get the work done. But a reflective mind adds unexpected connections that often drive us in new directions, a “creative pause” that’s key to the innovative process. And research also suggests that reflective time provides a necessary recharge that resupplies the mental ability for “directed attention,” or focus.
More people are choosing to work in coffee shops and other public spaces that in past years were devoted to more leisure activities. Photo courtesy of Kevin H.
In “Alone Together,” Turkle tells the story of a group of lawyers who insist mobile devices boost their productivity while also lamenting having lost time to just think. They’re replacing reflective time with catch-up time for activities pushed out of work. But, as Turkle points out, that reflective time “may be the time that we need (physiologically and emotionally) to maintain our ability to focus.”
The irony is that time that supports both creativity and mental health is under attack by focused work that’s been pushed out of the office at the hands of spaces that prioritize collaboration. We work from coffee shops and park benches that were once places we went to socialize or reflect. We work from home if we can – though for the young and urban home-space may be even harder to come by than office-space. Not a good sign for our long-term mental health (or our physical health, considering the less-than-ideal postures people working in “mobile” settings tend to adopt).
These strategies, once supplemental or defensive for the worker trying to squeeze out some needed focus time, are becoming part of the discourse of the modern workplace. Once good-enough solutions are being celebrated as attractive and effective places to work. And that celebration is behind recent questioning of the value of the workplace, or whether we even need them at all.
These discussions often stress the power and availability of “third places,” citing the wide variety of working environments our tech-enabled mobility and cities afford us. But we can’t have it both ways. They can't be escapes from work if they become workspaces. Work is invading the third places that used to define and enhance our communities and urban spaces, and at the same invading the time for personal reflection that we should be devoting to solitude.
So perhaps what we need is another kind of place. Economist Richard Florida cites “the emergence of the Fourth Place” to satisfy our need to work outside the office – WiFi-enabled coffee shops, business lounges, co-working or on-demand work environments, for example. But this turns out to be more a semantic than substantive development, preserving the concept of third places but not the places themselves. If a coffee shop is a “fourth place,” we’ve lost a “third.” Co-working or on-demand office spaces seem more appropriate, but in practice they tend to be used by traveling employees or those without primary office space, not by those escaping an unproductive work setting and looking for another. For those users, this is a “second place” – their primary place for work.
While these emerging places (whatever their name) will play their role, the simpler answer is a reinvestment in the workplace. Whether physical or mental, holding places that aren’t for work allows us to recharge and restore the energy, drive and creativity that we need to employ at work. Paradoxically, we can make ourselves more effective by keeping work at bay in our third places, and keeping it at the office as much as possible. And ultimately, that's not just a boon to work but a boon to our cities, communities and personal lives. Because what we are freeing up is places, opportunities, and thoughts to devote to other connections and experiences that will enrich our lives.
I, for one, love being mobile for the flexibility and the freedom it affords. And I don’t want to give it up. But I also don’t want to give up my desk. In general, I'm happy to keep work at work and want the space and freedom to do that as well. If that freedom doesn’t include the opportunity to keep work in the office, then it's a false freedom. And there are consequences.
Tim Pittman is a member of Gensler’s research team and holds a master's degree in City Design and Social Science from the London School of Economics. His passion for cities stems from the belief that great design has a positive impact on the human experience and that the way we design our cities today will have a profound impact on how we inhabit and experience them tomorrow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.