What Can the Office Learn From the Third Place? | Oktra
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  • What Can the Office Learn From the Third Place?

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  • The perks and benefits that once attracted staff into the office are now ineffective and falling flat against employee expectations. Freebies and activities are all well and good but as more companies return to work, businesses are seeing the value in having long-term solutions that will keep enticing people to come to the office.

    Despite its popularity, hybrid working can only do so much. It’s a working model and if it isn’t enabled through design, technology and leadership, then it doesn’t offer much. Staff are taken by the idea of improved flexibility and a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario but if these solutions are to be effective, it is the functionality and aesthetic of the office environment that needs to be addressed.

    Companies are looking to make time in the office more functional and as convenient as possible. This has resulted in many organisations landing at what is known as ‘the third place’ to bridge the gap between home and the office. While this has been the case for a few years, it now feels like the opportune moment to take inspiration from the defining characteristics of the third place and look at how they can be integrated into the workplace to create an attractive destination office. By borrowing the successful elements of the third place, the office may find itself adopting a revised look to adhere to the current demands of the workforce.

  • What is the third place?

    The third place represents a social environment outside of the home, the first place, and work, the second place. These third places will vary within different cultures but typical examples include coffee shops, barbershops and libraries.

    It is important to establish that the third place is more than just a coffee shop – it is a sociological concept coined by Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book, The Great Good Place. Oldenburg stated that the third place ‘was the heart of the community’s social vitality.’ It is a place focused on community, offers social equity and supports diversity.

    Over time, the term has been adopted by businesses and brought into the workplace. Taking this ‘new definition’ of the third place, it is now used within the built environment to describe the spaces that drive innovation, conversation and socialising.

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  • What are the characteristics of the third place?

    The third place is said to have eight key characteristics and these have been summarised as below, based on Oldenburg’s definitions. These characteristics are the rules that govern the third place and determine whether a certain space is indeed a third place or not:

    • Neutral ground leveller
    • Conversation as the main activity
    • Accessibility and accommodation
    • The regulars
    • A low profile
    • The mood is playful
    • A home away from home
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  • The way public spaces are designed and occupied have given life to these characteristics of the third place. These characteristics have been translated into the workplace to create comfortable, community spaces within an office. There is an expectation for the social and behavioural activity that happens within the third place and businesses are seeking to replicate these characteristics through their office design.

  • What are the challenges of creating the third place in the office?

    While there are certainly positives to trying to design the office to be more like the third place, there is a very real risk of losing the identity of the office altogether. By trying to force the office to become too many things at the same time, businesses may find that what was once a highly organised environment starts to become a bit-part environment. Nathan Hurley, Research & Insight Manager for Orangebox, believes that we do have to be careful to not overstep the mark.

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  • ‘At what point do we start designing nightclubs instead of offices? Community and socialising are undeniably essential to the fabric of a business but if we go too far, we will find ourselves sitting at desks in an environment that doesn’t know what it is meant to be.’


    While the workplace can support other activities, it must still fundamentally support work and follow certain guidelines. There is a potential that this concept can be pushed too far and turn into something wildly different which is no longer fit for purpose.

    It is important to remember that the workplace already operates as ‘the second place’, it already has its own identity from a sociological viewpoint. The third place exists as its own entity away from the home and the office and blurring these boundaries too much creates far more problems than it solves. What we’re trying to avoid is creating ambiguity in the office by trying to make it into too many different things. During a time when the office needs to be a well-oiled machine and provide purpose to people, it needs to function at full capacity, not spread itself too thin.

  • What are the benefits of creating the third place in the office?

    The concept of the third place has been taken by businesses and adapted to mean a space that people can use to socialise, relax and work away from traditional work settings while still being in the office. Being able to offer this to staff could play a role in helping attract staff back into the office, as well as helping boost productivity. Having dedicated spaces that enable staff to get away from their desk and work alongside colleagues in a less formal setting gives people more choice within the office.

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  • With new working trends and the changing workplace dynamics, people will expect to be given more freedom over their working environments. Whether this choice is based on productivity or the need for face-to-face human contact, there is an opportunity to elevate the workplace to become an environment that offers more than just a place to work.

    Findings from a 2021 Indeed survey showed that 73% of people missed socialising in person while working from home. This is one of the fundamental areas that the office can improve for workers. Returning to the office following the pandemic may be more difficult for some so creating a designated third place within the workplace might help bridge the gap between home and the office.

    The workplace narrative is currently driven by what offices can do for people. Current market trends suggest that office space is being viewed as a community-focused environment. A report produced by Poly, with data from over 2,500 global decision-makers showed that “77% of companies are redesigning their office with more open plan areas, collaboration spaces, quiet zones, and areas to socialise.” This demonstrates a shift towards improving employee experience within the office and that businesses are starting to see that the office no longer operates exclusively as a place to do work.

  • What can office design learn from the third place?

    With new ways of working and refreshed expectations of what the working week looks like, office design needs to respond to the needs of employees. By taking some of the characteristics of the third place and developing these ideas into design concepts, the office can give people the things they need in terms of social interaction, human connection and productivity.

  • Designing the office as a home away from home

    With more movement between home, remote and office-based working, the office should make people feel comfortable and relaxed. The third place is somewhere that makes you feel at home and this can translate into the office. If the workplace can remove the barriers of rigidity and build a connection between people, then people will find it less daunting to visit the office and will want to spend more time there.

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  • The way people occupy the office is changing and a sense of comfort and belonging is going to be increasingly important. Alan Whitelaw, Property Director at the Government Property Agency has stated that we are moving towards ‘a post-Covid attendee-ism’. He believes that organisations are going to be more prepared to trust people and empower them to use the office for specific tasks or purposes, rather than expecting them to be in 5-days per week, 9-5. This shift in trust will help to create a less rigid environment and allow people to feel more comfortable at work.

  • Creating accommodating workplaces

    The third place is somewhere that should be easily accessible and accommodating and while this won’t be necessarily straightforward due to individual commute times, there are still ways of making the office an accommodating place.

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  • With hybrid working in effect, people need to be able to plug in anywhere and hold their meeting or connect to the VPN instantly. Technology plays a significant role in making sure remote workers aren’t excluded in meetings when they’re not in the office. This also applies to employees in the office – people should be able to move around the office without having to compromise on access to a screen or power socket.

    The office should provide spaces for people to eat together and take coffee breaks together away from the main body of the office. This is to give people that sense of retreat while still being in the office and aligns with the characteristics of the third place.

  • Design space to detach from work

    Another element that can be brought back into the workplace is office small talk. The third place acts as a space to have conversations, share ideas and joke with others. While some people will see this as noise and distraction, it has become a fundamental part of the workday – one employee survey showed that as much as 43% of workers miss water cooler chats with colleagues.

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  • If the workplace is going to be redesigned to give people the things they miss when working remotely, creating an environment where this can happen is essential. Water cooler moments are one of the workplace elements that have declined in the virtual workplace, with sequential video calls preventing those serendipitous chats between meeting rooms. This kind of interaction will not be appropriate for all parts of the office but they will be in casual meeting spaces or around the lunch table. Bringing people back together in the office cannot solely be driven around collaboration on tasks, there is also the other side of the coin which makes people want to spend time in the office and benefit from a positive atmosphere.

  • Can the office become the third place?

    The office is undoubtedly experiencing turbulence because of the pandemic. With many workers only returning to their offices in the early part of 2022, employee preferences and requirements are more sporadic than in the past. This variation of ideals means that the office is on the verge of needing to feel less like work and more like a casual space but it still needs to be equipped to facilitate both work and play.

    When we’re looking at the third place and the office, the office cannot also be a third place and vice versa. The workplace cannot completely ignore its purpose and transform into a social space due to a need for increased collaboration. A recent Leesman survey showed that ‘individual work’ was still the top priority for many workers, so much as collaboration and socialising has been cited as a popular reason for returning to the office, the office must remain fit for purpose.

    However there is a need for the office to be more of a blend of both home and office and for the office to become the go-to place, it must adjust. If designed correctly, the office can bring people together for more than just task-based work. By leaning on the characteristics of the third place, there is a wonderful opportunity to blend the two environments to create a destination that supports both the functional and social needs of employees.

  • The Guide to the Hybrid Workplace

    For businesses still assessing how to entice more people back to the office, our Guide to the Hybrid Workplace will give you an insight into some of the ways of improving your office space in line with new ways of working.

    download now
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