Gone are the days when office space can be broken down into two distinctive categories: work desks and conference rooms. Now, we are seeing offices be redesigned to include what has become one of the most popular types of seating, what is being called third space. Much like the living rooms and kitchens where we were forced to work during the pandemic, the third space is filled with informal seating and can be used for either heads down work or collaboration. These non-dedicated spaces add flexibility to an office and can be yet another place to take a meeting. Extra meeting space is paramount in today’s office environment; a recent study of over 20,000 workspaces by CORT showed that space devoted for meetings is at 26 currently, up from an average of 10 percent recorded in the first quarter of 2020.
There are a number of important reasons why third space is becoming so prevalent. The first is to mimic the flexibility that workers have gotten used to at home. “There is a real code shift when people are at home, and they are working, they do things totally differently,” said Darrel Gardner, Director of Product at CORT. “At home, you get to wear what you want, eat what you want, decide what you do with your downtime, but in an office, there are more limitations. For a lot of people, that structure works, and for others, it doesn’t.” With most companies choosing not to mandate office attendance, offices need to be a place where people want to work, and for many, that means flexibility. By offering a number of different seating options, offices can create the flexibility that workers want. Third space itself also creates a certain amount of flexibility as it can be used for focused work or impromptu meetings.
Another reason that third space has become so prevalent in the post-pandemic office is because of the added importance that has been placed on collaboration. While workers seem to be able to remain productive while working at home, the same is not true when it comes to learning from each other. “Studies show that there are learning and development issues when people don’t come into the office because we are not getting all of the subtle cues that we rely on when interacting with others,” Gardner said. These cues could be how people react to something we say or how and when is the best time to start a conversation.
Offices reinforce a certain level of formality that may or may not be warranted for the situation. For that reason, third space provides a less formal way for workers to interact. “If someone walks into a room and wants to have a conversation, they feel much less likely to speak freely when the person they are talking to is sitting behind a desk, and they are not,” said Gardner. The level of formality changes drastically when both participants of a conversation are sitting together on a couch.
The interaction between workers and managers is also a huge benefit of a shared workspace. It can be difficult for lower level workers to approach more senior managers when all their interactions happen online. When they both work side by side, those same interactions happen more frequently and more effortlessly. Interestingly, management coming into the office seems to be one of the most important factors in a company embracing the office. “When senior management is in the office, it sets the tone for everyone else; if they are seen using informal spaces, then the rest of the organization feels comfortable doing so as well,” Gardner said.
As easy as it sounds to say that offices need to include more third space, the specifics can be quite complicated. Office managers use gearing ratios to help them understand how much of each type of space they need to provide, and those calculations need to be rethought when you add a new type of seating. Even within the third space, seating there is a lot of variance. Some companies choose to use couches to bring people together, whereas others prefer lounge chairs to give more privacy to those who want to work alone but don’t want to be secluded in a formal desk area. Every worker generally has their own preference, and understanding what is right for an organization takes a lot of experimentation. Now, furniture of all kinds can be equipped with sensors to help companies create controlled experiments with their office layouts and analyze what is working and what isn’t.
So much has changed about the way that the world works since the pandemic. One of those changes is the addition of a new type of office seating. Since solo work can be done at home and scheduled meetings can be facilitated with video conferencing, the addition of third space helps offices be better at the type of collaboration that doesn’t happen without people working closely together.