Hybrid working enters a third dimension
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
After two years in my spare bedroom, I decided to switch things up and went to work in a café in my east London neighbourhood. As I settled in, I realised the WiFi was so slow that I could not even send emails. Long black coffee barely finished, I was forced back home.
I love my flat, but in this hybrid world the homeworking days of my partner and I don’t coincide, and the quiet does not suit me (frankly, I hate it).
Plenty of others also find themselves in a situation where working from home is boring, not productive, or simply impossible. But there is a solution. The “third space” is not the office and not home, but somewhere in between: a flexible, affordable professional space on your doorstep.
Everyone knows the cautionary tale of WeWork and its rapid overexpansion into shared workspaces that also seemed to promise a cool lifestyle (as well as free beer). But post-pandemic, the company now offers a more flexible “on demand” service at more than 250 locations, offering individual workers the chance to use its offices with no monthly commitment. And an increase in sign ups to its “all access” membership, which gives entry to more than 700 offices, is being driven by both individuals, and companies that want to give their employees more flexibility.
Dan Cable, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, sees how the third space concept “solves a bunch of problems”.
In the context of what he calls “new worker expectations” — where people want more flexibility around not just how, but where they work — the fact that third spaces are near our homes is key. “Ten minutes from your house, that’s a really important piece of this. We’re getting rid of an hour [commute] each way each day, 10 hours of wasted time”.
He adds that third spaces could be part of the long-term revolution in our ways of working. “It’s a specific, practical, affordable solution.”
Arc Club is one of a number of start-ups offering co-working spaces close to where office workers live. Hannah Philp and Caro Lundin opened the first site in Homerton, north-east London, in 2020 and have just opened a second in Camberwell Green in the south, with 10 more in the pipeline.
Facilities include individual desks, private call booths and meeting rooms — there is coffee, networking with local professionals and WiFi that works. It costs £25 a day or £150 a month.
Who uses these spaces? Beyond obvious candidates such as freelancers and solo business founders, some people want to have a couple of days off from their commute or they may want access to a professional space to escape their children or housemates.
Third spaces seem to fit neatly into how hybrid work is evolving and shaping the new office landscape in major cities. When I talk to those in the commercial property sector, centralisation seems to be their key aim. To lure workers back, businesses are opting for high-end, centrally located office spaces with, or near, gyms, cafés and restaurants. But as the return to the office gains pace, it looks like many workers will only be there for part of the working week.
Many employees are currently paying for their own third space visits, but this is a cost that could become part of employee benefits packages as organisations focus on retaining staff in 2022 and beyond.
That such a service could be offered as a perk, “that to me resonates”, Prof Cable adds. “To me that feels like a value add, like a benefit, it feels like ‘you’re trusting me and liberating me to do my best work’.”
Philp believes offering flexible workspace as a perk “is a pretty low investment [for employers] in terms of what you’re getting”.
Working somewhere new can boost motivation and productivity as it breaks the routine. Research suggests that the part of our brain that regulates motivation responds better to novelty than to the familiar, so even a glitzy head office could potentially sap productivity if you spend too much time there (not to mention the commute).
A third space offers fresh perspectives and if it specifically caters to workers then you will be able to focus in a quiet area or talk to the people you meet there — you may end up collaborating.
I only have a 30-minute walk to the office, but if there was a cool flexible workspace on my doorstep I would be tempted — especially if the coffee was good and my employer was paying.
Pilita Clark is away