Third Spaces: Workplace Design that Draws Employees In

How designing a magnet office and incorporating workplace third spaces improves employee attraction, retention, and engagement.

Living walls combined with natural materials bring a sense of the outside into the work environment, while a variety in spaces empower employees to choose where they want to work throughout the day. Live On Nebraska in Omaha, Nebraska by DLR Group. Photo by Paul Brokering.

Today’s unprecedented talent shortage is compelling businesses and other organizations to get serious about employee attraction and retention. The current war for talent is amplified by a strong economy and a growing number of Baby Boomers nearing retirement age. Within this highly competitive landscape, the workplace can be a strategic asset that distinguishes an organization as an exceptional employer. For many employees, the physical work environment ranks among one of the top factors that influence their decisions to join a specific company.

As workplaces look to attract and retain the best and brightest, companies are turning to design to help differentiate their work environment, focusing on an increased understanding of the demographics and values of employees to home in on the most valued amenities. These amenities can range from on-site food and entertainment options, to pet daycare, to free parking; yet, amid all these amenities is one key factor that remains at the forefront of much of today’s workplace design: a need for human connection. Though younger employees represent a generation that grew up with social media and are adept at collaborating virtually, there’s still a strong desire to build face-to-face relationships and cultivate in-person connections. In short, people need people, even if they don’t think so.

Drawing Employees to the Office

The work environment of 2050 will look vastly different than it does today. Telecommuting offers employees an alternative to working in a traditional office setting. This trend combined with the number of hours people now spend online means individuals are interacting in vastly different ways than they once were. Remote work and the traditional office will not exist in the same way, and though there will be scheduled time for co-workers to come together as a team, bosses will trust that employees are completing work even if those employees are not in the physical office. Knowing that our future workplaces present a greater emphasis on virtual communication, how can workplace designers create physical spaces that encourage face-to-face interaction and speak to our innate need for human connection?

Many view the workplace as a second home, so employees are drawn to comfortable environments where they can work, socialize, and simply be themselves. Engaging workplaces integrate connection points and collaboration zones where people can interact with their colleagues. Designing a space that attracts (and retains) employees means creating an office that draws those employees back to the office. Quite literally, a magnet workplace where employees who might otherwise work remotely from home or in a coffee shop, choose to come and spend their day. There are already examples of this in co-working spaces like Fueled Collective, which undoubtedly blurs the lines between office and social venue.

The Magnet Workplace

How can workplace designers create a magnet workplace that attracts employees? For one, the space should make people feel good. Biophilia, landscape or nature views strongly impact productivity and behavior, and studies have shown that being surrounded by nature improves both physical and mental health. While a rain forest in the office is unrealistic, a more practical approach is a space that is tactile and has ample quality daylight. Living walls combined with natural materials bring a sense of the outside into the work environment. Biowalls used in conference rooms and other spaces that have high occupancy provide “home-made” oxygen and create a healthier workplace.

Productivity can be improved by offering a variety of interior settings that allow employees to choose where they want to work that day based on the mode of work required. For example, in the morning, workers can gather in a bistro area for coffee and informal interaction; in the afternoon, they can move to a gathering place designed for teamwork or to a privacy “hive” for focused work. Magnet workplaces support the unique roles, work styles, and personalities of each individual, and provide a range of space types, furnishings, and multi-functional common areas that draw people in and keep them wanting to come back to the office.

Third spaces draw people in and encourage them to take a moment (or two or three) to pause from work, and this act of slowing down allows for chance interactions between co-workers, encouraging socialization and connection. Meet Minneapolis in Minneapolis by DLR Group. Photo by Brandon Stengel.

A Third Place in the Second Place

Ray Oldenburg, an American urban sociologist, coined the term “third place” in the 1980s. The “third place” refers to a social sphere outside the “first place” (the home) and the “second place” (the workplace). It’s often described as a comfortable, welcoming space where people can cultivate relationships with other like-minded people. Third places have been shown to play a critical role in strengthening a sense of community because of their ability to balance out social class and background, allowing individuals to come together as equals. For many young people, third places are now virtual spaces in which they interact with others on a minute-by-minute basis.

These virtual third places serve a purpose but are not nearly as effective at connecting as physical third places – parks, gyms, salons, cafes – where people can easily and regularly connect. These spaces, especially ones with internet connectivity, often attract workers looking for a comfortable social environment in which they can have invigorating social interactions while they work. And because people are now working more than ever before (Gallup reports that the average full-time employed adult now works an average of 47 hours per week, up 1.5 hours from a decade ago), many companies are looking for ways to recreate the spirit of external third spaces within the office itself.

An on-campus third place offers a retreat for employees, serving as a social magnet that allows workers to get out of a “business only” mentality and engage in casual interactions that help build community and spark new ideas. These spaces differ from formal conference rooms – they’re neutral ground. Third spaces draw people in and encourage them to take a moment (or two or three) to pause from work, and this act of slowing down allows for chance interactions between co-workers, encouraging socialization and connection.

The most effective third spaces take cues from hotels, lounges, restaurants, spas – places people generally associate with relaxation, refreshment, and socializing. Third place design echoes many of the elements of hospitality: textured materials that feel more luxurious, warm ambient lighting, and built-in amenities such as food and beverages. When employees take a break from their focused tasks and enter a light-filled room that offers refreshment, one that’s lively and healthy, they enter a different frame of mind, one more conducive to creative ideas and new connections.

An on-campus third place offers a retreat for employees, serving as a social magnet that allows workers to get out of a “business only” mentality and engage in casual interactions that help build community and spark new ideas. Vertafore in Denver by DLR Group. Photo by Ed LaCasse.

Though it might seem like the obvious answer, incorporating a third space doesn’t necessarily mean companies have to dedicate more space in the lunchroom. Look for where interactions are already taking place and consider how those spaces might be modified to be more hospitable. Existing areas within the building can be reconfigured to incorporate elements – lounge areas, dedicated collaboration zones – that encourage social interaction. Exterior spaces, such as courtyards, patios, and decks can serve as highly effective third spaces, as long as they provide access to power and connectivity and offer comfortable seating. In short, the size of the space is less important than the quality of what happens in that space.

The size of the space is less important than the quality of what happens in that space; companies can reconfigure existing areas within a building to incorporate elements that encourage social interaction and a break from the business of work. Greater Omaha Chamber in Omaha, Nebraska by DLR Group. Photo by Paul Brokering.

With people spending more time in the business of work than ever before, it’s critical to create opportunities for connection and enhanced balance between work and life. Socializing at work helps build trust, encourage teamwork, and allows employees to work together more effectively. A well-designed third place offers employees an inclusive space to be inspired, feel engaged, and connect, elements that are fundamental to our sense of fulfillment, and play a crucial role in attracting and retaining the best and brightest in today’s workforce.

More from Melissa Spearman, LEED AP BD+C

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