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Cohort Alpha

Why You Need a “Third Place” to Survive and Thrive at Work

6 min read
Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Starbucks identified and then popularized the idea of the “Third Place.” This term was first introduced by Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist, in his book, "The Great Good Place."

According to his book “Pour Your Heart Into It,” founder and CEO Howard Schultz described the third place as a space between work and home, in this case, the physical cafe.

It’s a great idea, one that has special resonance for those who have intense, demanding jobs, yet value their outside lives.

However, the vision and execution of this third place was wrong.

While Starbucks defined their third place to be more than just the physical coffee place and to include the overall customer experience, they are limited by what they can control, which is, in the end, the physical form-factor and the availability of drinks, goodies, and wifi.

A truly effective third-place, however, would make the actual surroundings moot and irrelevant.

In the same way that many of the most intense and challenging roles in fast growing companies depend upon what’s going on inside their employee’s heads, the third place is also not physical.

The third place is an intellectual, emotional, and even soulful construct.

It’s safe, but also mutually value-adding: it increases performance, perhaps even enjoyment, at work, while providing a buffer from work stress encroaching one real life.

It’s not really something that takes place amongst co-workers because, sadly, those co-workers are often part of the on-the-job challenges.

It’s also very rarely something that can take place at home. Part of the reason is no one would want to bring that stuff home. It’s the same reason you have a mud room or a distinct entry-way: you want to drop off the “stuff” before entering the real part of your house.

The other reason is that friends and family are often ill-equipped to help you handle the challenges at work. There are three reasons why friends and family might not be the right sources for solid workplace advice.

First, because of the broader context they share with you, they might not be willing to tell you things that would actually help you. They have a broader context that they need to preserve and protect.

Second, you didn’t select your friends because of their ability to operate as high-performers in a fast-growing company. So there’s a good chance they don’t have the skills or context to actually help you.

Third, even if they did share your context, the ability to actually help you might be limited. Going through the same problems at work, for example, doesn’t mean they have the answer. And even if they are successful at a similarly demanding job, they might not know how to actually translate their success to actionable coaching.

If everyone’s friend knew how to listen and provide guidance during times of personal trouble, for example, no one would need a psychologist or paid therapist. So it is with true guidance at work.

As a result, most people don’t really have a “Third Place” where they can process what’s happening work. They don’t have an effective forum to address the challenges, such as politics or stress. They don’t also have forward-looking guidance on how to increase results, visibility, and financial returns.

What does it mean to not have such a Third Place?

The necessity of this Third Place is lost on most people. And understandably so.

Everyone will acknowledge that they need a place of Work.

Everyone will acknowledge that they need a Home.

This Third Place, however, is not top of mind. Many could even see it as frivolous.

The reality is that the health and success, the joy and rewards, of both home and work depend on having this the Third Place.

Let’s look at those who do have such a place: the founders of the very companies people work at.

Whether it is formally organized through alumni meetings for Y Combinator or events created by their investors, founders have this Third Place pretty well institutionalized. They have it for the same reason you, working for them, need.

Very senior executives also have some semblance of this place through executive coaching sponsored by their company. Executive coaching, however, is a thin expression of what a truly effective Third Place could look like. But I could see how someone with executive coaching could believe they have no need for this connection with others.

I would argue that the challenges of being an employee — from an individual contributor to a mid-level director or vice-president, can be even more challenging. You have less autonomy. Greater risks of losing your job. A greater need to apply influence and “politics” to survive.

Some people naturally have all the skills and internal fortitude to survive.

But many don’t, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The problem is, unlike founders, who have their Third Place’s built and awaiting them, there isn’t one if you are an employee. There isn’t an easily accessible place for this level of interaction and support

The question is whether you think there should be for yourself and is it worth it to you.

This last question really matters.

On the surface, most busy professionals would respond, “Of course.” It preserves optionality, it’s “more”, it can provide an edge, and couldn’t hurt.

The real rub comes down to what are people willing to put in. What is the “cost” someone is willing to pay in time and resources to join something like this?

Are they going to enter this space as a Giver, Trader or a Taker?

The real litmus test is if the employee recognizes this is not just an option, but a necessity, as important as going to gym for physical fitness or setting aside money in the 401k for their financial health.

So what would be the attributes of such a Third Place that would provide those benefits such as increased job satisfaction, protection from job loss or toxic politics, as well as career acceleration?

Although I elaborate on in more detail later here are some highlights of what it would look like.

It’s a regular meeting of like-minded people.

This is what I think Starbucks was going after when it claimed their coffee shops were the Third Place.

They intended it to be that regular pitstop from home on the way to work; that place to meet friends on the way home.

They got that part correct. A “Third Place” needs to be a first-class citizen alongside Home and Work.

It’s safe.

The group loses effectiveness if it is no one can share. One primary way to make it safe is to make ti small. It should feel intimate. Without that intimacy, there will not be a feeling that it is safe. But safety goes beyond size. The ability to actually create an environment of trust and vulnerability needs much more than size,, but isn’t possible if it’s too big.

There’s mutual investment.

Anything worth building has a cost. If there’s a return, there’s some investment.

Here’s the primary benefit of knowing that everyone else sitting at the table has paid some price to enter: it reduces free-riders. It means you are in it together.

There’s the right amount of structure

A gathering without the right amount of structure, even if it is small, will lose direction. A framework that is flexible enough to accommodate different topics and personalities, yet is structured enough to ensure forward moment, mutual investment, and safety.

Asking the right questions

The real question every person working in a demanding workplace (and every company in Silicon Valley pretty much qualifies as such), is whether they really have a Third Place in their life.

If they don’t, what stands in their way?

What could they be missing out by not having one?

I’d love to know what you think.