Mike Bifulco
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The third place - the secret to a happy life for remote workers

The Third Place is thought of as a space different from home (the first place) and work (the second place), where people can socialize and find community.

I live in a fast-growing city in the southeast US, where urban design and city planning are always a hot topic. As population density has increased, it's become apparent that Charlotte needs to make drastic and sweeping changes to accommodate the growing number of people living in the area.

Naturally, this means I'm also reading heaps about urban planning - which is where I first heard the term third place being used.

What is the third place?

As defined by Brookings:

(...the) Third place is a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, referring to places where people spend time between home ('first' place) and work ('second' place).

Third places have traditionally been where people go to socialize, to relax, and to be a part of their community. You've probably seen them in urban areas, in the form of a town square, piazza, or public park. They might also be a subway station, a heavily trafficked intersection, or a kiosk on a street corner.

A photo of a city street in Lisbon, with people walking together and talking
Lisbon, Portugal is full of third spaces - public streetcorners, kiosks, and cafes buzzing with people chatting and relaxing.

These spaces are important for people to feel like they belong, and have purpose beyond just home and work. It gives space for one to decompress and find entertainment, to find reprieve from the pressures of work and home life.

Simply put - the third space is a place where you're not expected to work or look after your household and family chores. It's an important part of life and finding balance. Each and every one of us will have our own personal third spaces. Spending time regularly in your third space can provide balance and tranquility, social interaction, and serendipity.

Suburban living erases the third place

Notably, for people living in suburban places, the third place may be completely missing - folks commuting from the suburbs will skip third places as they drive straight to and from work. This phenomenon is particularly common amongst americans, where it is typical to drive to work, rather than walking, cycling, or taking public transit.

As you might imagine, this means that people living like this don't experience the benefits of a third place in the same way that an on-foot commuter might. This is particularly harmful for people who need a third place the most - those with demanding jobs, parents with young children, and so on.

overhead photo of a suburban neighborhood
Photo by Raphaël Biscaldi on Unsplash

City living fosters the third place

For people living in cities, the third place is often more accessible. City dwellers are more likely to live in smaller apartments, which encourages them to get out more often. City dwellers are also more likely to use public transit or walk to work, which gives them time to relax or socialize on their way to and from work.

The third place is an important part of city life, and it's one of the things that makes cities such great places to live.

The third place and remote work

People who work remotely may find themselves one degree further away from a third place - living and working in the same place can create a life with only one place - blurring the lines between home-space and work-space. This makes finding the benefits of a third place even more challenging.

The past several years of post-pandemic-living have been extremely challenging for all of us - and for many, adapting to remote work has had a steep learning curve. I have found that in order to work remotely and live well, I have needed to make a concerted effort to build a life that intentionally includes second and third places that fit into my routines.

Finding your third place

If you're looking for a third place, there are a few things you can do to find one that's right for you.

The first step is to find a place that suits you. If you're an introvert, you might want a third place that's quiet and relaxing. If you're an extrovert, you might want a third place that's lively and social. There are third places for all kinds of people, so it's important to find one that's right for you.

One way to find a third place that suits you is to explore. Wander around your neighborhood and see what kinds of places there are. Visit a shop or a park you've never been to, or take a class at a new gym. If you see a place that looks interesting, go in and check it out. You might find a third place that you never would have thought of otherwise.

The third place: community, socialization, and balance

For each of us, the third place will be a unique choice. It might be your favorite coffee shop, your back yard, a beach, a hiking trail, or something completely different. What's important here is that the third space is literally anything other than where you do home-things and office-things - if you work from home, this has to work for you. Find something that makes you feel good, energized, empowered, different. For me, this has taken many forms:

Coworking spaces

Photo of a coworking space, with people working at desks in an open office space
Atlas Local coworking in Greenville, SC, USA

Coworking is obviously near and dear to my heart, since I once built a coworking product. These are great because they supplant your typical work community with likeminded, colocated people who don't have the same problems as you. You can complain to them or unplug completely from work and just hang out. In my experience, people are far more likely to have a eureka moment at a coworking space than in the stuffy hallways of your typical cube farm or open office.

Serendipity is a happy byproduct of interacting with people who don't have the same colleagues as you. Their problems and joys are different, and they can share their perspective on your world, just as you can do the same for them.

Cafes

A laptop sitting on a table at a coffee shop
Coffee shops are great for relaxing, reading, and watching the world go by.

My god, do I love a good cafe. I have great gear for making coffee at home, yet I still spend plenty of time at cafes. This is because, for me, there's a change in mindset at a cafe. I know I typically have 1-2 hours of comfortable time at any given cafe, and I can hammer through some really great work during this time. It also requires transit/transition time on either side of it, where I can clear my mind, give myself a break, see nature, go for a bike ride/drive/etc. This has a multiplicative effect on my productivity - small doses of repose are amazing.

Touch grass, feel the sun

Photo of a bicycle leaning against a fence, with a green riverbed behind it
There's no replacement for spending time outside.

Many times, I'll use the great outdoors as my third space. Going for a long walk in the morning (1-2hrs) while listening to a podcast can set my energy for the day. When I know I've got calls/meetings/deadlines all day, this helps me to feel like I haven't burned an entire day behind my computer screen. This can also take the form of a run or a bike ride or (whatever you do to exercise) - turning your mind off of work really is a booster. Don't let hustle porn ruin your perception of your own throughput (but don't lie to yourself, either). At the end of the day, you still have to get things done, but doing so with a mindful eye on balance can keep you healthier and happier in the long run.

There are also times where I know I'll be on a super long call (30min+) where I just need to listen - going for a walk during these calls (even in super hot or super cold weather) is often a guarantee that I'll pay better attention to the content of the call than if I'm left to poke around in my browser, on twitter, reddit, etc. I have several regular 1:1s with teammates where this is the expectation and the norm. Even though we're not in the same place, we will pop our earbuds in and go for a walk at the same time, talking together like a normal old phonecall instead of performing business-normality in front of a web cam.

Conclusion

Generally, I've been extremely happy as a remote worker for a long time by creating a series of third places for myself. If you're new to working remotely, and you're having a difficult time being productive, this may provide some relief. It's also a great way to meet new people, and to find a sense of community.

If you live in a city, there's a good chance you already have a third place. If you live in a suburb, you might have to work a little harder to find one. Either way, it's important to find a third place that suits you, and to make it a habit to spend time there.

(Quick privilege note: I'm lucky to have an exceptionally charmed life. There are countless people who have been through an unimaginable hell during the pandemic. There's also plenty of people who can barely make ends meet, and don't have time to fret over finding the perfect way to bring balance to their life. I do not mean to trivilize or minimize these lived experiences in any way.)

Publications about Third Places:

  • The Wellbeing thesis says breaks can reduce or prevent stress, help to maintain performance throughout the day and reduce the need for a long recovery at the end of the day
  • How Do Work Breaks Help Your Brain? says “Movement breaks” are essential for your physical and emotional health, and that breaks restore motivation, especially for long-term goals.
  • Atomic Habits - habits are the compound interest of self-improvement, and finding a (series of) third place(s) is a huge part of that - there's a great primer video on Atomic Habits from the book's author, James Clear.

More from me

If you liked this, you may appreciate my articles from the early days of the pandemic:

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The third place - the secret to a happy life for remote workers

The Third Place is thought of as a space different from home (the first place) and work (the second place), where people can socialize and find community.

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