During the Covid-19 pandemic, many office workers have developed flexible working hours, to avoid spending too much time in crowded offices. But an MIT-backed survey project reveals a twist to this now-familiar scenario: Many workers with geographic flexibility don’t necessarily work from home. Instead, they take their work to “third places,” including cafes, libraries, and coworking spaces. About a third of out-of-office work hours are spent in such places, the data shows, even though such places bring people closer to others than working from home.
The results come from the November and December iterations of the Survey on working methods and attitudesa joint monthly project in which MIT has partnered with the University of Chicago, Stanford University and the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México. To learn more about this trend and its implications, MIT News spoken with Jinhua Zhao, associate professor of transportation and urban planning in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and director of the MIT Mobility Initiative, who is working with his students Nick Caros and Xiaotong Guo on this project.
Q: It has become quite common for workers to have flexible arrangements during the Covid-19 pandemic. Certainly many employees in service industries, healthcare and other essential professions do not have this opportunity. But many who can work remotely have done so. However, the survey indicates that a significant number of people working remotely are not staying at home, but traveling elsewhere. Can you explain to us the main results of the survey?
A: We find that in addition to home and office, there is a whole range of places that people use as their workplace of choice. Out-of-home and out-of-office workspace is what we call the ‘third place’, and we recently released a survey to quantify this trend: the ‘third place’ makes up more than a third of total hours remote work. [as of November and December 2021].
The first category of third places can be broadly described as “public spaces”. This includes places like a cafe, library, community center. The second category is coworking spaces, a collaborative work environment where people or businesses can rent office space on a short-term basis. Most of these spaces are currently located in city centers, but they are now starting to move into suburban areas. Why take a long drive if I can walk to a coworking space? The third example is the home of a friend or associate. Suppose you have three or four good friends or co-workers and you say, “Today I’m going to your house, but tomorrow you can come to my garden.” »
Why do people leave their homes to go to a “third place”? There are several reasons. One may be that you don’t have a good internet connection or your neighbor is blowing leaves all the time. The “third location” can provide benefits such as a quiet room for conference calls. But there are also social reasons. It gives workers the opportunity to meet people, which helps with creativity and productivity, or just mental health. It’s good to say “hello” to people.
Q: You discovered a split in these survey results between men and women. What did you find there?
A: Men and women behave similarly in terms of total remote work hours, but there is a clear gender difference in the use of “third place”. On average, men spend about 40% of the total hours spent remotely in “third places”, and women only 30%. So what could be the source of this difference? One hypothesis is that women continue to shoulder a greater burden of household and childcare chores. Working from home allows you to take care of children and family, as well as perform small tasks during breaks in the workday. This is our main hypothesis. There are other potential reasons: do women have a different perspective on interacting with other people in a ‘third place’, for example? Our investigation only quantified the facts, and a follow-up study could clarify the motivations.
Q: What are the main implications of this trend for neighbourhoods, urban planning and transport, among others?
A: We anticipate that there will be quite a significant impact. Let me mention three potential consequences. The first concerns urban space. If coworking spaces move to suburban centers, they can be smaller and more localized. If so, you’ll likely run errands, retail, or get a haircut near your “third place.” This would drive demand for neighborhood-level retail, as opposed to businesses located downtown or near the office park off the freeway. In the field of urban planning, we speak of the “city in 15 minutes”, where
most daily activities can be accomplished within a few minutes walk. The trend towards “third place” work is a component of this concept.
The second area of impact is transportation. I’m a transport specialist, and the thought is: if the people of Newton [a suburban city west of Boston] can go to Newton Center instead of Boston, it’s a shorter trip and they’re more likely to walk, bike or take a short bus ride. This can reduce traffic and carbon dioxide emissions. When it comes to climate change, transport is the most carbon dioxide-emitting sector of the economy. Thus, if “third place” work can reduce travel, this would contribute to decarbonization.
The third is social: if I work locally, I know my community better and I have a better chance of meeting my neighbours. Would this allow a better understanding between people? There is potential for that.
For a long time, a job imposed a specific time, space and organization on people. A job is an anchor. But many people are rethinking these arrangements.