The great return to work has stalled because it never built up enough traction. In September, a poll showed that 40% of UK employees were sticking with working from home.
It’s not just about the health risks. The widespread adoption of working from home is now questioning the whole ethos of commuting to work and spending much of our working lives in an office environment.
However, other research suggests that working from home will hit the economy hard, knocking some £15.3bn off GDP. So this change in working patterns comes at a cost.
There are various pros and cons to the whole office versus home argument, but people tend to see it as a binary issue when in fact we should really be asking how workplaces can evolve to meet changing work demands and patterns.
If they can evolve, then the transformation need not have such a dramatic impact on the economy that has built up around traditional notions of commuting and workspaces.
One alternative which could present a suitable solution is the third space.
What is the Third Space?
The third space is a third place where people work, after home and the typical workplace.
It is a location that is independent of either home or the office, which provides a functional space where people can work, network and interact.
Of course, many third spaces already exist, but they aren’t formally defined as such.
It could be a branch of Starbucks, for example. Many coffee shops, both independent and franchised, have large tables where people can set-up with laptops and other devices.
The third space has a definite social character, a communal area that is distinct from the home, but also from work.
As an evolving concept of the workspace, the Third Space has developed three distinct strains:
- Virtual third space
- In-work third space
- Satellite third space
The Virtual Third Space
One concept is to take the mixed-communal nature of the third space and remove it from the physical realm altogether.
This builds on the virtual co-working possibilities of apps such as Zoom and suggests that digital third spaces offer a bright future where national and cultural boundaries break down to enable collaborative work that is truly global.
If you look beyond the utopian rhetoric, there is something of value here, and it is a theme that runs counter to the idea of closed borders and the new nationalisms propagated by populist leaders.
But the virtual third space doesn’t really address the very real concerns of an office sector and an economy that is grappling with a population that has largely vanished from traditional centres of work.
This brings us to the dedicated, in-work third space.
The In-work Third Space
The precursor of the in-work third space is the breakout area.
Many of the characteristics of the breakout area have become familiar in co-working spaces:
- Meeting areas
- Informal layout
- A combined work and social space.
What the in-work third space seems to be attempting is to take the informality and dynamism of an actual third space, that sits outside the work area, and bring it into the workplace’s sphere of influence.
While it’s true that breakout areas can prove popular in modern office settings, the case for rebranding them as third spaces is unproven.
What the third space should be is a genuine attempt at revolutionising how people work, bridging the gap between the commute to the office and working from home.
But if a normal workplace simply annexes the concept, how does this change anything?
What of the third possibility, the one which offers the most promise as a true break with convention and a reinvention of the office: the satellite third space?
The Satellite Third Space
Ideally, third spaces are:
But they should also offer an alternative to a centralised, regimented workplace, which can both reset the work-life balance AND provide the sense of collaboration and team-working many organisations require.
What if the in-between concept of the third space was genuinely and physically situated between the two worlds of home and work.
The traditional idea of the satellite town relegates these places to the role of supporting players, with the implication that the real action is taking place in urban centres.
To quote the Sex Pistols’ “Satellite”:
“I bet you’re only happy in suburbian (sic) dreams. But I’m only laughing cos you ain’t in my scheme”
For all the sneering rhetoric, the underlying message is a very conventional one: the suburbs are for a bland, comfortable existence, while the city is the vibrant centre of culture and commerce.
But now social distancing has led many of us to question the whole point of the commute, and the value of a centralised work culture.
Before the pandemic, typical UK commuter times were getting longer, eating into the working day, but also hitting people’s pockets and disrupting their work-life balance.
The UK Civil Service introduced its own idea of commuter hubs a long time before Covid. But this principle could extend beyond the public sector and apply to the growth of third spaces as satellite work centres.
Instead of people commuting all the way into town, they can use a local third space, which provides them with the resources and networking opportunities they need. They can combine this type of arrangement with working from home, since home will be that much closer.
What the third space should represent is a blending of three elements:
- Real space
- Virtual space
- The user.
This trilateral relationship bridges the gap between being physically in or at work, and using technology to connect to work remotely.
It redefines the user as a more active agent in making choices about work, and it redefines the suburbs as important centres of activity in their own right.
But what happens to what’s left behind? How should our traditional centres of work respond?
Economic change comes at a cost, and if the work patterns we are seeing during the pandemic remain a feature of the business landscape, then a seismic shift is underway.
But this doesn’t mean that city and town centres cannot adapt.
The third space concept would fit in with the concept of the 15 minute city, where everyone can meet their needs with a short journey from their home.
If satellite third spaces work for the suburbs, what would prevent them working for city centre dwellers?
What this type of change requires is a willingness on the part of planners and developers to be flexible, to adapt and, ultimately, to embrace a boldness of vision.
A Partisan Approach
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