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What's new in third places?

The way we plan for the use of third spaces continues to change rapidly as their potential to influence space management in the years ahead increases. Ziona Strelitz explains.
Third spaces 3

31 October 2013 


Almost two years ago, I produced a report on third-place working with the title, Why Place Still Matters in the Digital Age.


The report was based on research undertaken to learn why people working in elective places other than home or the office chose to do so. Popular alternative locations include libraries, coffee shops, business centres and lounge settings.

On presenting the findings in the conferences and webinars that followed, it was always necessary to firstly explain what third places were, and to cite evidence to establish that folk were really out there working in them.

The study was international in its scope – comprising online responses from over 60 countries and interviews with individuals in third places in London, New York, Paris, Hong Kong and Mumbai. But at a big conference in Atlanta, where I launched the results in November 2011, I found myself challenging a keynote speaker who had called for more widespread adoption of working at home as the alternative to poorly utilised office space and wasteful commuting.

He didn’t know that many people don’t like working at home, or can’t stay motivated or even get started, when they try to work there. In fact, he was generally unaware of third places as a workplace typology at all.

It’s doubtful that anyone involved in the knowledge workplace sector would have a similar blind spot now – third-place working is evident everywhere. The number of venues now marketed as workspace for “on demand” and “on the move” work has mushroomed. Two or three years ago I used to photograph the people I observed working in non-office environments to provide evidence – visual proof – of the “work is where we are” phenomenon. This is now no longer necessary.


The rise of formalised third places
What I call “incidental third-place working” – writing a proposal while on the train, making calls from hotel lobbies – is certainly alive. Many people, however, continue to use the café model – logging on, connecting, and working in places where the primary product line is coffee. Public buildings, too, offer valuable work settings; the British Library, Royal Festival Hall and The Barbican have excelled in evolving their provisions, with open areas for free third-place working. In its recent report on the future of London’s town centres, the Greater London Authority’s planning committee recognises the positive role third places play.

More unusual as a model is Kings Place in London, a privately owned and managed building where people can drop in to the light-filled atrium, and use the wi-fi and varied settings, to work alone or in groups, for minutes or hours at a stretch – without charge.

The generosity of this open access is remarkable. It demonstrates what it is possible for a developer or building owner to give away within the context of a successful commercial proposition, with the buzz that shared use generates enhancing both the ambience of the space and its appeal to tenants.

But in addition to these, more bespoke third places have been proliferating faster than the now ubiquitous pop-ups. A whole range of spaces come to mind. New signage has recently appeared in ZZA’s office building near King’s Cross, offering “Co-Working, pay-as-you-go, cool, urban workspace for freelancers, email business owners and start-ups.”

An attention-grabbing sign announcing “A new way to meet and work” appears in London’s West End, offering “clubrooms, drop-in workspaces and lounges”, “meetings, conferences and interviews”. Both these examples typify supply chain recognition of changes in work mode that have become more mainstream, with some of the reduced demand for fixed office space re-emerging as a market for workspace venues that are available on looser, less formal terms.

 
Third spaces 2


Impact Hub
And every day people seem to ask about The Hub, recently renamed Impact Hub. In fact, Impact Hub Westminster is now such a “go to see” phenomenon that the team is having to charge for large group tours and in-depth presentations, outside of the free weekly tours they host, and visits for people who are interested in membership and/or events space. In the next fortnight I’m leading two delegations from abroad there, keen to see the innovation it represents, with its visually striking expression of its distinct approach and ethos – “part innovation lab, part business incubator and part community centre” – focused on the value-adding synergies that co-working can nurture.

Third-place workspaces as businesses in their own right are burgeoning. And in this expansion, what is in essence a business centre has been mutating and diversifying, resulting in a greater range and assortment of offers. For example, Regus – mostly known to date for “easy in, easy out” office space – now has Regus Express, offering on demand space in entirely new types of centres and locations; for example, petrol stations, railway stations and retail stores. 

But note the shift above. This article started by referencing a spectrum of third places that included coffee shops and libraries, whereas now we’ve zeroed-in on more professionalised settings in which third-place working is the core product.


Pay for options
One obvious question is, why would you pay for third-place working when there are free options, such as coffee shops, libraries and the aforementioned Kings Place?

But a quick comparison with airport lounges makes it obvious that there would be a market for more protected milieus. Who doesn’t sometimes require buffered conditions more conducive to working than the unmediated melee of a Starbucks?

This underlies the growth of venues such as Angel airport lounges, to which people buy entry when they can’t use the lounges for which access comes with premium airline travel. 

Privileged paid-for third-place working solves the associated hitches of venues that can be used free of charge – the downtime when you can’t find a seat, the risk to confidentiality through being overheard, the important message missed because the wi-fi failed, and the phone conversation frustrated by ambient noise.

This accounts for the considerable user interest in the paid-for third-place workspace sector, while diversity of customer circumstance and preference accounts for the extensive variety of available offers – in location, standard, image, culture and level/ variety of support services.
Mobile working, expanded access

Given the benefit of privileged third-place working as a cushion from the vagaries of third-place “for free”, and given its special relevance for people who work in mobile modes, the obvious next level of requirement is for assured access wherever you are. As with the network of airport lounges accessible worldwide with a member’s card, so a network of other third-place venues one can access with ease is a logical requirement.

This is a benefit of a Regus Gold Card – assured entry to a third-place workspace of predictable quality at extensive geographic scale – whether in a city, a region, a country or across the globe.

Impact Hub has also built an international network of venues offering their distinctive “ecosystem to grow impact.” Covering six continents, upwards of 40 centres are operational, with over 20 more in the making.

Regus is a world-leading supplier, with the distinctive scale afforded by its founder’s early vision for agile working. This underpins the reach of its venues – offering concrete provision on the ground to match the mantra that “work is where you are.”

How can younger and smaller entrants to the third-place supply chain meet the demands of scale? The answer is in aggregation, with operators such as Liquidspace (mostly US-based) and NearDesk in the UK using technology solutions as an interface between people wanting a third-place venue to work, and accessible third-place provision in their respective networks.

These systems offer scope for the granular matching of user requirements to the best available provision – space in the location sought, at the time and for the requisite duration, for solo or group work, in a setting of the right size and preferred configuration, and so on.

 The key advantage of this model for the provider is partnering with the operators of space in their pool, rather than being a landlord. This fact facilitates the expansion in the scale and reach of what they can offer. The benefits to the user are expanded choice, and increased scope for fine-grain matching of place to customer preference. Ease of transaction is another advantage – just search, choose, book and pay online, then turn up and start working.

The diversification described, the scaling of reach, the expansion of choice, and the incorporation of service within the offer, shift third-place working from a real estate proposition to a holistic customer experience. With the consumer as driver, the third-place provider becomes an enabler, and the matchmaker between needs and preferences.


Third spaces 1


Consumer vs enterprise
So the next question would reasonably be: “Are these transactions increasing?” The reality is that the third-place market is highly dynamic – relatively immature, but fast-changing. The people who now command working in locations of their choice are mostly autonomous – individual consumers, those in SMEs, and more senior personnel in larger organisations.

More benefits will flow when corporates begin to trade in their under-utilised space for their workforces’ access to flexible working spaces, at times that are relevant to their needs and work imperatives. The arrangement that Yell made with Regus demonstrates how responsive such a solution can be – to support mobile and distributed colleagues who need to convene locally at specified times, but not consistently.

An interesting development came this year when Marissa Mayer of Yahoo called time on staff working at home – a move she believed would champion corporate cohesion. Her concerns are shared by more than a few people – a fact that underlies one of the reasons ZZA researched Why Place Still Matters in the Digital Age.

The results refute concern that a flexible approach to colleagues working in third-place environments risks putting them, as the phrase goes, out of sight and out of mind. Many of our interviewees in business centre environments were members of organisations with offices elsewhere, and they reported that frequenting a work setting away from their colleagues did not diminish their bond, because these settings are technologically equipped to support virtual communication.

The research highlights people’s wish for face-to-face communication with others that are using the same third place, and virtual communication with remote colleagues. The data suggests that this is effective: a high majority reported feeling a sense of community with their colleagues who work elsewhere, whether in the same country or abroad.


Looking ahead

When you have worked with forward-looking clients such as PwC and Cisco, you take it as read that agile working is a basis for, not a threat to, successful business performance. In ZZA’s international third place study, the two primary means of remote communication with colleagues were email and phone. With the decreasing price and significantly expanding dissemination of presence technologies, their use is also changing.

Last week I saw a woman on a bus playing with her grandchild in another country by phone via Facetime. OK, blood is thicker than water, but I believe the future belongs to the finely tuned matching of workplace needs to individual preferences at a corporate level. Why?

Because those employed or otherwise engaged with organisations have the necessary kit, value the productive use of their time, believe that a sense of belonging is important, and find rewarding and successful work engaging.