3 Questions: Jinhua Zhao on a “third place” between home and office

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many office workers have developed flexible working arrangements, to avoid too much time spent in crowded offices. But an MIT-supported survey project reveals a twist on this now-familiar scenario: Many workers with location flexibility are not necessarily working from home. Instead, they are taking their work to a “third place,” including cafés, libraries, and co-working spaces. About one-third of nonoffice work hours are spent in such places, the data show, even if those locations put people in closer proximity to others than working at home might.

The results come from the November and December iterations of the Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes, a joint monthly project in which MIT has joined forces 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 spoke with Jinhua Zhao, associate professor of transportation and city 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’s become fairly common for workers to have flexible arrangements during the Covid-19 pandemic. Certainly many employees in the service industries, in health care, and other essential occupations do not have that opportunity. But many who can work remotely have been doing so. However, the survey indicates a substantial number of people working remotely are not staying home, but going to other locations. Can you explain the survey’s main findings for us?

A: We find that besides the home and the office, there is a whole spectrum of places people are using as their location of choice for work. The nonhome, nonoffice workspace is what we call the “third place,” and we recently distributed a survey to quantify this trend: The “third place” constitutes more than a third of the total remote working hours [as of November and December 2021].

The first category of third places can be described broadly as “public spaces.” That includes places like a café, a library, a community center. The second category is co-working spaces, a collaborative working environment where people or companies can rent desks on a short term basis. Most of these spaces are currently located in downtowns, but now they’re starting to penetrate into suburban areas. Why commute a long way if I can walk to a co-working space? The third example is a friend or associate’s home. Suppose you have three or four good friends or work colleagues, and you say, “Today I’ll go to your place, but tomorrow you can come to my backyard.”

Why are people leaving their homes to go to a “third place?” There are multiple reasons. One may be that you don’t have good internet, or your neighbor may be doing leaf-blowing all the time. The “third place” may bring benefits like a quiet room for conference calls. But there are also social reasons. It gives workers the opportunity to meet people, which helps for creativity and productivity, or just for mental health. It’s good to say “hello” to people.

Q: You have a uncovered a split in these survey results between men and women. What did you find there?

A: Men and women behave the same in terms of their total remote working hours, but there is a distinct gender difference in the use of the “third place.” On average, men spend about 40 percent of total remote hours in “third places,” and women only 30 percent. So, what could be the source of this difference? One hypothesis is that women still take on a higher burden of household maintenance tasks and child care. Working at home allows you care for children and family, as well as complete small chores during breaks in the work day. That’s our main hypothesis. There are other potential reasons: Do women have a different perspective about interacting with other people in a “third place,” for instance? Our survey only quantified the facts, and a follow-up study could clarify the motivations.

Q: What are the main implications of this trend for neighborhoods, urban planning, and transportation, among other things?

A: We anticipate there would be quite a significant impact. Let me mention three potential consequences. The first involves urban space. If co-working spaces move to suburban centers, they may be smaller and more localized. If that is the case, you’ll probably do some grocery shopping, make retail purchases, or have your hair cut near your “third place.” That would boost demand for neighborhood-level retail, as opposed to businesses located downtown or near the office park off the interstate. In the urban planning realm, we talk about the “15-minute city,” where

most daily activities can be accomplished within a short walk. The “third place” working trend is one component of this concept.

The second area of impact is transportation. I’m a transportation scholar, and the thought is this: If people in 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 get there by walking, cycling, or a short bus ride. That can reduce traffic and carbon dioxide emissions. As far as climate change goes, transportation is the biggest carbon dioxide-emitting sector in the economy. So, if “third place” working can reduce travel, that would contribute to decarbonization.

The third one is social: If I work locally, I know my community better and have more chances to meet my neighbors. Would that allow a better understanding between people? There’s potential for that.

For a long time, a job imposed a specific time, space, and organizational arrangement on people. A job is an anchor. But many people are rethinking these arrangements.

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