There’s home, there’s work, and there’s the social “third space.” As our relationship to the workplace evolves in the wake of COVID-19, how might the office buildings of tomorrow serve this intermediary role?
By Kirk Layton
Like a lot of people, I’ve been very excited to see signs of the world opening up and getting back to normal – or at least the new normal – in the wake of COVID-19. Travel restrictions are loosening, movies are back in theatres, dining out is picking up, and people are slowly but surely heading back to the office.
Just yesterday, I stepped into the office for the first time in over 15 months, and I’ll admit that I was brimming with excitement and anticipation, fully appreciating the importance of this crucial step into post-pandemic life. What’s more, I finally met some colleagues whom I’d never seen face-to-face. You see, my old company, a tenant perks solution called eServus, was recently acquired by Lane Technologies, and the only exposure I’d had to my new workmates since the acquisition was via Zoom. To meet my colleagues in the flesh for the first time… well, it was a great feeling, and far different from any other time I’ve started a new job.
I expect that a lot of people will have the same feeling when they return to their respective offices. They’ll be reconnecting with coworkers they haven’t seen since last spring, or, like me, meeting colleagues for the first time. But because we’ve been cooped up for so long, my return to the office was more than just going back to a physical workspace — it was a social experience, more so than any trip to the office has ever been for me. We all crave interaction with people to one degree or another, and that has been made all the more palpable due to the isolation that COVID has forced upon us. So in addition to the gym and the coffee shop being places where we used to connect outside of work and home – places sometimes referred to as “the third space” – is the office itself destined to be a new third space in the post-COVID world?
My return to the office was more than just going back to a physical workspace — it was a social experience.
Back in 2016, I wrote a blog post that focused on the third space. As I mentioned in that post, the third space is defined as any place outside of your home (the first space) and your work (the second space) where people engage and interact with each other in a dynamic way. But of course, thanks to the pandemic, third spaces – the gym, the local Starbucks, the community centre, places of worship – were shut down. As the pandemic wore on, we felt more and more isolated, craving interaction with others – contact that we took for granted before COVID – perhaps more than we ever have before. We had lost our third spaces, and with them we lost an important avenue through which we connected with our fellow humans.
I think that’s why I felt so excited to return to the office. It wasn’t that I was going back to “work” – although that was part of it. It’s that I was interacting with people in a way that I hadn’t done in nearly a year and a half. There was more of a social element attached to the experience, the kind that people used to enjoy in a third space; this is a feeling that I expect will continue even after the restrictive aspects of the pandemic have long subsided.
I think the view that the office itself can serve as a third space has significant implications for commercial property managers as they welcome their tenants back into the office buildings. Perhaps more than ever, property managers can have a direct impact on our ability to reconnect with one another by thinking about their buildings as a third space, as places where people are able to reconnect with their colleagues in a way that they never have before. The easier property managers make it for tenants to return to the office by implementing safety protocols and effectively communicating them to the tenants, the sooner people can experience the dynamic interactions with others that are the hallmark of third spaces.
In my 2016 post, I pulled a quote from Oxford Properties’ Chad Remis, now Executive Vice President of North America at Oxford, from an article in the Boston Business Journal about the third space. Referring to a lobby redevelopment at 125 Summer Street in Boston, Chad explained that Oxford was “taking more of a hospitality approach to the lobby, in the sense that we want it to be a third space. We want our tenant base to feel comfortable and to want to use it, want to interact in it, and want to have meetings in it.” Given Chad’s belief in the importance of providing a third space for Oxford’s tenants, I thought it was appropriate for me to follow up with him to get his take on “The Third Space: COVID Edition.” Here’s what he had to say:
“We were big believers in the concept of a third space prior to the pandemic, and today we remain equally focused on creating those environments across our portfolio. The workplace is about teamship, collaboration, relationships, growth, and development, and what we have missed while working from home are those moments that come before the meeting, in the elevators, at the front door, over lunch — the informal and organic connections we make with our colleagues and networks when we are physically together. As an owner, if we can provide engaging environments that actively foster these connections while putting wellness at the front of mind, we will fulfill our goal of creating spaces that help people to do their best work and enrich their day.”
For me, that last sentence can serve as marching orders for all property managers as tenants return to their offices: if property managers can provide engaging environments that actively foster the connections we make when we are physically together, the PMs will fulfil their goal of providing spaces where people can thrive. By focusing on implementing effective return-to-office protocols, and then effectively communicating those protocols to their tenants, property managers have the power to facilitate the sense of community that we all so sorely crave, creating a new “third space” in the process.