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Hey…Leave my third place alone!

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
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 tim_pittman@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (8)

I heartily agree with this conversation, very well written as well! I read Oldenburg's book as a part of my master's degree research, it continues to be a great read and more and more relevant as people rave about the "open office," wanting it to feel like the third place. One interesting perspective I took from this conversation is whether a place defines use (ie, a third place = don't do work here) or if people should always have the right to bring their use with them (bring work wherever) I'm sure every person and every company has their own take on it...I find the recent trend in eco/off-the-grid hotels as an interesting counterpoint, where guests attempt to conform to the limits of the place they willingly go to. The same goes for honeymoons, movies, plays, etc - heavily defined use-places delegating a preferred use to the people within them... i agree that coffee shops should have the same voice relative to encouraging the benefits of the third place.

Perhaps boutique shops could develop "off-wifi" hours to encourage socialization, almost like a peak hour concept - maybe encourage people to read books and magazines too, heh. I am glad the hallowed grounds of the pub/bar haven't fully been as intruded on as the coffee shop... something about doing work with a beer not being as a good as a cup of coffee... :-)
07.26.2012 | Unregistered CommenterBen Shealy
Thanks Ben! I've also seen discussions around off the grid hotels that I found really interesting. The idea that it's becoming a luxury to be disconnected shows how much self control is required to keep some spaces or time that are truly separate from work.

I was at a WorkTech conference recently where a topic similar to your comment about use defined by place vs. people came up. They discussed a trend in which our technology is shifting from being connected to space (land lines, desktop computers) to connected to people (smart phones, laptops, tablets). That shift is what's making these discussions so relevant.
07.26.2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim Pittman
I love this idea, Tim. I recently invaded a place when I stayed at a bed and breakfast inn, meant for vacationers, for a business trip and complained that my room didn't have a desk. Working amid chatty relaxed people felt wrong -- I was the one being anti-social at breakfast and demanding an extra chair and wondering why there weren't enough outlets. But it also felt so right. The interaction hadn't gone only one way -- me invading their space. They had invaded mine, and that was awesome. And it wasn't just people and attitudes but the design of the space itself that forced me to relax, even if I was doing that while I was also working. Could this be a kind of compromise option? Non-work time by coercion? A weak example might be a coffee shop where cell phone conversations are explicitly prohibited. A stronger example would be a space that made conversations implicitly, rather than explicitly, discouraged.
07.26.2012 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth
Thanks Elizabeth! You and Ben (comment above yours) are hitting at something really interesting - how a space expresses a "preferred use" (his words) or creates "non-work time by coercion" (yours). If third places want to retain their power as escapes from the realms of work and home, they need to express that actively through how they are designed and managed.
07.26.2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim Pittman
Have a read of the book "Imagine, How Creativity Works", by Jonah Lehrer. He documents how these "third places" actually help our brain make conenctions between unrelated bits of information, creating sparks of imagination. An interesting bit of work!
07.27.2012 | Unregistered CommenterRob Boell
Interesting piece that definitely resonates... on my daily commutes to/from the city, I can't help but notice all the people on their smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc. and marvel at the "alone together" phenomenon I'm witnessing. I'm of an age where my early work years were entirely internet and device-free and my daily commutes were spent people watching, reading the paper (physically) and occasionally striking up a conversation with my neighbor and learning/sharing some piece of human interest with a stranger. Your observations are right on the mark, Tim, and I agree with the comments about the loss of sense of place (not to mention decorum, but that's another whole discussion).

But I wonder how much of this phenonmenon is due to cultural changes as much as the pervasiveness of technology? It's not just "work" that's pervaded our spaces but the shift towards connection and collaboration that you mentioned at the very beginning of the article. And it's affecting all age groups. I have three children, ranging in age from 10 to 19, and I see how they are affected by not just technology, but this culture of constant stimulation and almost frenetic fear of missing out on something. The endless stream of tweets, IMs, status updates, RSS feeds, etc. has made us, young and old alike, hostage to our devices--no wonder there is no time for reflection or introspection! Though I like the idea, I'm not hugely optimistic on the "non-work time by coercion" given what I see as a cultural shift. I can't tell you how many people obliviously talk on their phones or check messages in restaurants, movie theatres, etc. despite the dirty looks of those nearby. Will there be a backlash and a pendulum swing towards more "quiet zones", unwired retreats, authoritative banning of mobile devices in public places, etc., or an inevitable decline towards the planet being one big "hot spot" with nowhere to hide?

And, do we design to influence behavior or let behavior influence how we design? Though it's always been an artful balance of the two, perhaps it's a trending towards the latter that has conspired with technology to allow this loss of "third" places; how might we use design with more thought and intention to prescribe better outcomes and avoid any further"collateral damage"?
07.27.2012 | Unregistered CommenterJane Greenthal
Paradoxically, I think the rise of third-place-as-work place comes about because the work place can be too distracting. In earlier office designs one could shut the door and concentrate to finish a deadline-oriented task. As evidenced by a San Francisco office study (done with samples last year) occupants of open plan offices occassionally need a time where they cannot be interrupted. I've found during my own deadlines that I can put "busy do not disturb" on Shoretel and outlook but then I get questions from people who walk by my desk or send me intra-office instant messages. oddly enougn, I might be more productive if I just went to the restaurant across the street. (assuming I coudl take all the information I needed with me. our projects have become more complicated, which both requires more concentration and also ties one to a computer more closely. )

Archtiects tend to emphasize the collaborative nature of their tasks, but we all have some tasks that require focused concentration and most office environments don't really have a place that makes that easy to do. I think we've all seen people who just decide to work at home to get the privacy they need (which sort of obliviates the collatorative process) and the neutral "third place" becomes another candidate. And, I might also mention that for people who spend all day -- long days -- at their desks, sometimes its nice just to be somewhere else for an hour or two.
07.27.2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Whitacre
Rob - thanks for the book suggestion!

Jane - You raise some reall good points, particularly your question of whether we design to influence behavior or vice versa. As you say it's obviously a balance, but I do think we've recently taken our increasingly mobile and connected behavior as a given and asked how we can tailor our spaces to that change. In some cases we might benefit from flipping the question. If instead we took a need for reflective, non-work space as a given what would that imply for how we work and connect? Maybe something quite different.

Anne - I agree that distracting work environments are a big factor pushing people to work elsewhere. What we need to do is figure out how to focus effectively at the office, which includes the ability to be there and not be disturbed. I also agree that it's sometimes nice just to have a change of scenery. Working elsewhere for a change of pace is probably quite healthy. Doing it because you can't work in your primary space is unfortunate.
07.28.2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim Pittman

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