Familiar Places in New Spaces

Familiar Places in New Spaces

Fundamental changes are occurring in the way we work. As we spend more and more time at the office, our workplace behaviors and expectations are changing to more closely mirror the rest of our lives. For companies like Metro Furniture, that connection can lead to inspiration.

Something’s changing in the office, and it isn’t just the wiring or the walls. It’s what we do when we’re there. It’s the relationships we have with our co-workers. And it’s what we expect to get out of a good day’s work. Sure, we’re spending more time than ever at the office. But that alone may not mean the end of life as we know it. Sometimes, when we don’t make time for the important things in life, the important things in life make their way to the workplace.

In his book, “The Great Good Place,” sociologist Ray Oldenburg identified three places that Americans need to go in our daily lives. We need home. We need work. And we need a third place – a more elusive locale that is neither home nor work, but rather a place that lets us behave differently than how we do in the other two places. For some, this third place is church. For others, it may be a local café, the bowling alley, or a corner bar. Whatever its form, this third place offers us the chance to connect with peer groups, socialize, and generally recharge from our experiences at home and at work.

Oldenburg’s understanding of this spatial trinity is coupled with the realization that third places are disappearing from the American landscape. Overall participation in social groups and civic organizations is down. Involvement in traditional pastimes like sports leagues has waned in the face of ever-harried schedules. Even the local drinking hole has seen attendance drop off, as health concerns and changing ethics make daily imbibing socially unacceptable.

Third places aren’t the only parts of our life that are disappearing. We’re also spending less time at home, largely because we’re spending more time than ever at work. According to a recent poll by the National Sleep Foundation, Americans are suffering from a serious sleep deficit while also cutting back on leisure activities. Work is the only activity to which more people said they devoted longer hours than they did five years ago.

The disappearance of life outside of work is an alarming proposition, but fortunately something quite different may be happening. The less time that we spend in home places and third places, the more we begin to see vital signs of the rest of life appearing at work. Services, from day care to dry cleaning, are increasingly provided at the office. Visiting the gym has given way to running on your lunch break. Friday evening happy hours have been replaced with departmental social hours, beer and all.

Life Shows Up At Work

While the appearance of home and third place activities at work is interesting in and of itself, more profound is the transfer of home and third place expectations to the workplace. In study after study, sociologists note that Generation X’ers expect work to be the primary source of fulfillment in their lives – an attitude that’s mirrored in the media. Fast Company magazine tells workers how to achieve goals at work that were previously reserved for the rest of their life. Television depicts office workers whose entire lives are defined in terms of the relationships and experiences they have in the office. The message is clear: our co-workers are supposed to be our best friends. Drawing from the full palette of life’s interactions allows us to be healthy and sane human beings – to be whole persons.

As Malcolm Gladwell noted in a recent New Yorker article, “The reason Americans are content to bowl alone (or, for that matter, not bowl at all) is that, increasingly, they receive all the social support they need – all the serendipitous interactions that serve to make them happy and productive – from nine to five.” That alone ought to cheer employers who care about their workers’ welfare. But there’s a more direct benefit to supporting all of life’s interactions, and the reason for it lies in the changing nature of work itself.

Enlightened companies are discovering that making work more like life actually makes work more productive. Knowledge work isn’t factory work. In fact, it’s those work processes that most closely resemble an assembly line that are being replaced by new technologies. ERP, sales-force automation and customer relationship management systems are all tools designed to drive the assembly line out of knowledge work. What’s left are the most human of activities: thinking, creating and communicating ideas.

How does work happen in a world where such everyday activities can amount to a competitive advantage? Most of us don’t have good models for what that actually looks like, and the conventional workplace doesn’t point the way. But human beings have had a whole lot of practice at interacting socially; it’s just happened outside of the office. The big secret is this: work is increasingly a composite of very familiar interactions. Those interactions already exist, just in other parts of our life. We first learned how to play with other kids when we were in the sandbox. Now, when the full spectrum of life’s interactions is showing up at work, we’re finding that many of those learned behaviors are exactly what’s needed to make knowledge work happen.

Dev Patnaik


Dev Patnaik is the CEO of Jump Associates, the leading independent strategy and innovation firm. He’s a board member of Conscious Capitalism. Dev has been a trusted advisor to CEOs at some of the world’s most admired companies, including Starbucks, Target, Nike, Universal and Virgin.