Flexible Working & The Third Place – R.I.P. The Traditional Workplace

The cloud and mobile computing has given workers unprecedented control and choice over where and how they work. Combing the influence of coffee culture, thanks to that wi-fi connection in Costa, souring fuel and property costs, a big emphasis on the environment and a strong demand for flexible working – and you have the perfect storm ripping through the traditional workplace, we call it the The Third Place and there maybe even a Fourth Place…

Whatever they’re called or where they’re located, they’re the workplace equivalent of the Zipcar – spaces that are shared, swapped, reserved, rented or simply claimed for a time, versus individually “owned.” Like the Zipcar, these new workplaces offer a trio of advantages: financial, cultural and environmental. No wonder flexible working is fast becoming an important component of the  new norm for progressive companies all over the world.

Free-address workplaces. Collaboration hubs. Third places, and now even fourth places. Alternative workplaces. Co-working spaces. Serviced offices. Truly flexible working is transforming our workplace performance, and the quality of our (work) lives forever.

The timing is right – some say overdue – for an extreme makeover of the traditional workplace. Shared spaces give owners a way to shrink real estate or optimize what they have to accommodate more people, which translates quickly into cost savings. At the same time, shared spaces are more appealing to build community and give workers choice and control over where they work, depending on the task at hand. And, as a form of collaborative consumption, they’re an Earth-friendly way use fewer resources while still having everything that’s needed for productive work in an interconnected world. to

No wonder a growing number of organisations recognise that non-traditional workplace strategies and spaces can contribute to their overall business effectiveness and efficiency. By increasing shared space and decreasing assigned space, organisations can quickly and dramatically improve their real estate ROI.

A turnaround on the way to the next skinny latte.

The phenomenon of alternative work settings started more than a decade ago, as mobile technologies led to an eureka: knowledge work can happen almost anywhere – at home, in coffee shops, at the library, in a park or even, if you believe the ads, by the pool or at the beach. In those early dot-com days, workers were lured away from the office and owners were lured by the potential to reorganise their workforce and spend less. A new term, “alternative work strategies,” (flexible working) was born.  It means allowing or even encouraging people to work anywhere they want.

Findings from a recent survey  confirm that now most companies have formalised an alternative work strategy. Only 14 percent said they don’t have an alternative work strategy and aren’t planning to implement one this year. When alternative work was still a new trend, people speculated that workplaces could eventually disappear because everyone would instead be working at home or in “third places,” a term defined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg as “great good places” where people can gather and interact, in contrast to a first place (home) and second place (work). Oldenburg identified eight essential characteristics that define third places, together, these characteristics create a de-stressing destination providing a sense of ease and warmth – a cozy feeling known in Germany as gemütlich.

Because coffee shops were among the first public places to serve up wireless along with a gemütlich vibe, they became popular third places for work. That is, until reality started colliding with dream. “Everyone thinks working away from the office is ideal until you do it,” is a sentiment expressed often by today’s mobile workers.

The survey confirmed that, while most companies have alternative and flexible working strategies in place, most workers are still coming into the office anyway. Nearly 50 percent of respondents said they have 10 percent or fewer employees covered under their alternative flexible working strategy. Most workers are still coming to the workplace because they believe it’s the best place to get work done. Specifically, more than 70 percent of respondents said the office is the best place to interact with colleagues, and 40 percent said the office provides access to needed tools and technology.

But that doesn’t mean they’re satisfied with the workplaces they have. They’re working in new and unconventional ways, and their needs are different and more complex than ever. Despite this reality, two out of every three workers feel that their current space is not flexible and  supportive of a variety of activities, according to Workplace Satisfaction Surveys.

Especially because more is being asked of workers today, they want the best of all worlds: the right tools, a range of comfortable and welcoming settings and, more important, the ability to collaborate easily with other people. Increasingly, says author and social theorist Richard Florida, there’s a need for what he calls fourth places – “where we can informally connect and engage and dialogue, but also where we can work.”

More choices for where to work

A growing number of organisations now recognise that non-traditional workplace strategies and spaces can contribute to their overall business effectiveness and efficiency. Researchers have categorised the various places where work gets done, and focused on alternative workspaces that extend a company’s real estate or are within existing facilities.

The lingo is evolving almost as fast as the spaces, but in general here’s what the terms usually mean:

  • Co-working facilities are an alternative to working at home with an emphasis on creating community, usually for self-employed individuals and small start-ups
  • Serviced offices provide convening spaces for groups that need to work together for a specific number of days; used concurrently or sequentially by multiple groups or companies; also sometimes called collaboration hubs.
  • Co-owned/leased facilities put multiple companies into one workplace on a long-term basis, usually with separate spaces assigned to each company and some shared.
  • Satellite offices provide corporate hoteling options for a company’s mobile employees.
  • Hybrid facilities combine resident and mobile employees in a single corporate space.
  • In-house third spaces provide a casual, coffee-shop atmosphere for work within a corporate space.

These types of spaces, especially co-working facilities, are emerging in major urban centers around the globe. According to one estimate, the number of co-working facilities has doubled in the past 18 months, now up to about 1,000 worldwide. Co-working spaces and satellite offices are proliferating especially fast in much of Europe. Looking at regional, cultural and social trends, it’s clear that there’s negative stigma attached to working at home throughout most of Europe. No doubt a contributing factor: Many residences in Europe are smaller compared to North American standards, and there’s typically not extra space for a separate home office.

Another reason European companies and municipalities are aggressively supporting co-working & flexible working is to reduce the negative environmental impacts of car commutes. For example, in France every day 50,000 people come into Strasbourg for work, 87 percent of them by car. The city hopes to create six co-working centers to help facilitate flexible working practises in the next three years to reduce the distances that people commute for a least a few days a week.

In India, streets are congested and commutes are long even on mass transit. Working from home typically isn’t possible, due to a joint family system and the size of homes. As a result, India could quickly gravitate to the emerging trend of satellite offices. This could have a favorable effect on a company’s ability to attract and retain the best talent, a big issue in India’s economic climate of galloping opportunity. Moreover such places could act as a leveler for people coming from diverse social, financial, educational and religious backgrounds, and therefore become highly desirable.

No matter where they’re located, as alternative workplaces are created, they’re bringing people, space and technology together in new ways. Social networking is a big part of the draw of co-working spaces, like betahaus in Berlin – shared team spaces make it easy to mingle and exchange ideas.

Coworking: betahaus Berlin

“The co-working concept is perfect for the daily working life of our generation,” says Tonia Welter, co-founder of betahaus in Berlin, a co-working facility that caters to a growing number of freelancers and small start-ups. “It’s the materialisation of Facebook, social networking in real life.”

Workers rent space by the day or month, and share all the resources there, including wireless connectivity, laser printers, open areas for conversation and brainstorming, meeting rooms for collaborative brainstorming or customer presentations, a kitchen and what’s called the “Open Design City,” an experimental studio to create mock-ups of new product ideas.

Designed by Klemens Vogel from Vogel/Wang Architektur, the ambience is a cross between a café house in Vienna and an internet café in Silicon Valley, providing social contact within a supportive workplace.

Co-working facilities provide a better balance in what Welter describes as “the small frontiers between work and life.”

“Everyone needs an efficient work environment that provides all the necessary technical equipment and also supports wellbeing,” she says.

At betahaus, there’s good food in the café, indoor plants and access to an outdoor garden and multiple environments to suit a mood or task. Sited close to public transportation and restaurants, the facility makes it easy for people to leave their cars at home. The median age of users is 25–35, and most of them come by bike.

The café is the entry point where people can meet and mingle. A weekly breakfast forum is opportunity for people to present themselves and share ideas. One floor above the cafeteria are open spaces for people working on their own. Another floor up is for start-up companies, with team spaces for 4–8 people furnished with mobile tables. At the centre, separate teams can come together to exchange, collaborate and co-create.

The entire facility was intentionally designed to be a platform for networking. “Some users have cooperated to create new start-up companies, win a new customer or simply consult with each other. Users are very open and see ways to improve by tapping into coworkers’ expertise,” says Welter. Opened in 2009, betahaus Berlin now attracts about 120 users on a regular basis. The founders have recently opened a betahaus in Hamburg and are planning for facilities in Lisbon, Cologne and Zürich.

The demand for co-working facilities is increasing rapidly in Europe. Although the movement started primarily to meet the needs of freelancers and small companies, a spill-over effect is underway as corporations and cities see the attraction these spaces have for employees and the potential they create for better, faster innovation facilitated through flexible working practises. Perhaps a sign of what’s to come: “Is a co-working ecosystem the future of innovation in corporations?” was a topic covered in the “Co-working Europe 2011” conference.

“Co-working opens up new possibilities,” says one co-worker. “Imagine you can be in Lisbon in the summer surfing and in the winter in Zürich skiing in the Alps. Work wherever you want!”

Putting work in its place

With more and more mobility, work is becoming what you do, versus where you go. Ironically, the freedom to choose where to work is raising the bar for workplaces everywhere, not making them redundant. “Good enough” spaces are only good enough if you’re required to be there or have nowhere else to go.

However,  everyone knows the legend that innovation starts in a garage, but sooner or later we all grow up and need a place to work. The same can be said of coffee shops, libraries, park benches, pools and most other casual third-place destinations: sooner or later, they’re just not good enough places to do really good work – but then nor is the traditional office. That’s where the fourth place comes in.

There are real opportunities for firms that embrace the new ways of flexible working, reducing real estate costs, happier employees, lower environmental impact, attracting and retaining key talent. It will be interesting to see how the next decade plays out – but one thing is for sure the traditional office will never be the same again.


Open chat