Op-Ed: The Case for a Third Space

The CEO of Workbar has a few things to say about offices, work spaces, and what life on the job will look like in the Boston of the future.

Mature businessman with mask using digital tablet at work

Image via Getty

There are a lot of aspects of our return to an open economy that are not yet clear. But one thing that is apparent is that we are on the cusp of a major transformation of the entire concept of “the office.” Bostonians need spaces to work that are neither home, nor the office, but places that are as safe as the former and as productive as the latter.

As the CEO of Workbar, a coworking space founded in Boston, I have a front row seat to this unfolding transition. Over the past few weeks, I have seen not just a significant jump in demand for our space, but a different kind of demand. It’s not just freelancers and consultants, or even small companies looking for Workbar space anymore. Now I am getting calls from medium and large companies that have what we used to think of as enviable office space downtown.

There is a war for talent that often comes down to flexibility as the key driver that millennials and Generation Z rate above all else—even salary. For a long time, that flexibility took the form of working from home, or a coffee shop, and much of my energy was spent trying to explain to employers the difference between working remotely and working from home. I don’t have to do that anymore. COVID-19 and the subsequent mandatory work-from-home orders have flattened the learning curve on that concept for all of us.

The difficulties of working and living under the same roof have become apparent to all of us—and embarrassingly visible to our bosses and colleagues. We all have stories to tell, of children interrupting high powered business video meetings, of shutting ourselves in bathrooms to take calls, of other people’s outrageous or tasteless background views, and of lousy internet connections and uncomfortable chairs. Yet, simply going back to work is not an option. Workers will want to avoid public transportation, but they don’t want to spend half their day fighting traffic to commute by car all the way downtown.

What I’ve been hearing over and again these past few weeks are medium to large-size companies grappling with the logistical nightmare of having a single corporate headquarters located downtown. They are dealing with a staff that require individualized considerations on issues from health to family to transportation. Employers need to figure out physical modifications to their space and also how to phase people back, rotate schedules, enhance transportation benefits and, on top of it all, they are dealing with a workforce that is understandably reluctant and concerned about returning into an office again.

Most companies are simply not set up to create a safe and productive workspace or, in many cases, to even begin to know how to. Workspace is not among their core competencies. They often have not gone through the rigorous amount of work it takes to achieve high wellness standards for their offices because the most impactful elements are invisible—air filtration, ventilation and purification—and expensive.

It’s these companies that have started to reach out to us to create a customized remote working plan for their employees. What I am hearing is that companies are particularly interested in coworking spaces near where their workers live and need to be for meetings—meaning both in the city and the suburbs. And they are relieved to know that there are coworking spaces, like ours, where someone else has already gone to the trouble of installing a state-of-the-art air-filtration system so they don’t have to undertake an expensive retrofit to their existing space. What’s been most telling—and surprising—is that pricing is almost an afterthought. It is all about the safety of the physical workspace and the ability to customize options based on individual needs.

There is little doubt that work is going to become more nuanced in the future. Employees will be on a rotation schedule and spend certain days (if not hours) at their company’s head office. The other days (if not hours) will be spent working somewhere else. As we start on the path towards our new normal, the third workspace will feature prominently—and the office of yore, as well as the kitchen table of the past few months, will seem hopelessly behind the times.

Sarah Travers is the CEO of Workbar. The opinions expressed in this Op- Ed are solely those of the author.