Working remotely is one of the post-pandemic benefits that folks love to boast about.
However, for some, working from home leaves them feeling isolated. Many prefer an in-between to the office and home – now commonly referred to as “third places.” These spaces can be anything from coffee shops, bookstores, hotel lobbies, to bars and restaurants and co-working spaces, and have seen a massive uptick since WFH has become normalized.
Trouble is, the extended periods of home working and emphasis on video calls, over in-person meetings, over the last few years, have led to a somewhat more relaxed work behavior for many. Some might say too relaxed. And that attitude is now spilling over from a person’s living room, into the third workplace they use.
Most coffee shops welcome remote workers, making their WiFi passwords available and letting them take up tables for hours (the trade-off is a silent agreement that more than one coffee will be purchased during that period.) But some workers are getting muddled by the casual atmosphere of a third working space – less formal than an office, but not as slipper-friendly as home. Some people have even been spotted setting up a double monitor, and an extra keyboard in cafes, while others unapologetically take calls on speaker phone. And there have even been occasions where a person on a video call is stranded by their meeting host, (who has popped off to get another coffee) and is forced to sit and wait for them, staring out across the cafe.
It begs the question: What is the right way to work in a third place? According to real estate company JLL’s 2022 Workplace Preferences Barometer, some 36% of employees work in third places at least once a week, up 8% from 2021. The attraction appears set to continue, with third places remaining attractive in the future to 33% of respondents.
“Third places rank as the most socially fulfilling work location, more than home and offices,” said Ben Marks, who conducted a recent study on workplace loneliness that incorporated data from non-home remote work environments, with two other colleagues. “Workers can avoid unnecessary interactions with annoying coworkers. There is also a different dynamic that avoids this competitive, maybe evaluative, pressure from people that work in the same company as you.”
There are clear benefits to working from a third place. However, just like there is a certain etiquette when it comes to working in an office or hybrid work, there is also the right etiquette for working in third places. Marks said that the JJL study found that one of the main reasons people were inhibited from trying coworking spaces was being distracted by other people.
We spoke to workplace experts to compile a list of top tips for etiquette when working in third places.
1. Use headphones
Brian Stromquist, Gensler’s global practice area leader for workplace technology, explains that third places are great for people who like medium to high energy levels. If you’re in a coffee shop, there might be more noise allowed than compared to working in say a library. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be mindful of other people around you.
“Noise is a really big one,” said Marks. “Try to use headphones when you’re on calls and maybe use a mix as well so that you don’t need to shout or speak as loudly.”
It seems obvious, says Jamie Hodari, CEO and founder of private office and suites company Industrious, but people still violate this implicit rule. “Some of it is that it can feel odd when you have headphones in a public place because you feel like you can’t modulate the volume of your own voice, but it’s totally okay to be on calls with headphones,” said Hodari. “It’s really not okay to be on speakerphone.”
If you’re hearing only one half of a conversation, it will likely be easier for people around you to tune it out, compared to if they heard both sides.
2. Order something
If you decide to work at a coffee shop, restaurant or bar, it’s best practice to support the business and order something.
“There are coffee shops that are set up in a way where you can kind of get away without doing it, but that’s violating the implicit social contract of them opening up their spaces for people to use,” said Hodari. “Get that coffee or matcha latte.”
If it’s a coworker space, where you pay a subscription fee, or a library, where your taxpayer dollars go to, then it’s a different scenario.
3. Bringing work equipment is okay, but be considerate
For those who want to get out of their house for a workday, but work best with certain productivity equipment, it’s okay to bring it to a third place, but it might require more thought of where you want to go.
“If it’s disruptive, blocking everyone’s view, or a really loud clacking keyboard, then maybe it’s worth thinking about the impact on others,” said Hodari. “If it’s what you need to be productive and it’s not disturbing everyone else, then who cares?”
For example, if one coffee shop is crowded and has limited seating, it’s probably best to choose a different location that you know will have more space for your setup. That might be a library or a coworking space that has more of a culture and expectation that people will have double monitors or an extra keyboard with them.
4. Don’t hog the power strips
It sounds obvious but it isn’t always. Power outlets are one of the most critical resources when working in a third place, especially because the amount of them might be limited.
“It’s fine to use them until you’re charged up, but if you’re at a coffee shop or hotel lobby, it’s definitely better to give someone else a chance to use it once you’re set,” said Hodari.
5. Don’t add an unfair burden to those working for the third place
Baristas, servers and librarians are focused on doing their jobs, while you’re in the same space doing your job. If an establishment has clear signage that no laptops are allowed, then it’s best practice to follow that rule.
“If not, an employee who has a lot on their hands, has to come and have an uncomfortable conversation with you,” said Hodari. “That’s an unfair burden. You’re creating a lot of work for someone who it isn’t fair to create extra work for.”
Stromquist agrees and says we want to avoid “an assumption that these spaces are available to disrupt and bend to your will.”
“That might mean there is stronger messaging from third places about what type of place it is,” said Stromquist. “There might be a concerted messaging effort in the beginning as people explore how to use these different third places, until there is a collective community understanding of what you can and can’t do there.”
At the same time, the business owners shouldn’t feel the onus is on them, which is why people who are using it as a workplace should be especially mindful.
6. Think about who is around you
“You don’t want to be at a bar and make someone who is enjoying a cocktail become an unconsenting participant in your third place work experience,” said Stromquist.
That awareness, combined with the awareness of the workers and business owners, helps to set ground rules to ensure everyone is happy under that roof.
Considering each of these tips will help ensure that everyone is happy when working in a third place. At the end of the day people choose third places because they want to be around people versus being isolated in their homes. That means that there might be some trade-offs. It pays off to consider what third place is right for you.
“It’s important to be thoughtful about what the implicit social contract is of the people in that space,” said Hodari.