Tags:Remote WorkTipsThird Places

6 min read

First, second and third places: Creating boundaries in a remote environment

There are three places in everyone’s life. The first is home – the space we live in, our comfortable surroundings. The second is our place of work – the space that, outside of our home, we spend most of our time.  

Then there is the third place – something that Ray Oldenburg argues is critical for a healthy society. This third place differs from person to person, but it is always where you go to enjoy yourself, or more generally partake in society. It might be your favourite café or bookstore, perhaps your local church, or even a nearby park you like to take a walk in.  

But under COVID-19 and the lockdown restrictions, our ability to access these three places is greatly limited. So what we’d like to explore today is, can you possibly have the three places accessible from your own home?  

The problem with place in a remote working environment 

Work-life boundaries were already difficult to maintain prior to lockdown. Researchers like Leonardi, Treem and Jackson have highlighted how information technology – the bridge between us when working remotely – often acts as the ultimate boundary eliminator, making us feel connected to work no matter what space we occupy.  

In our current conditions, the distinction becomes even harder to maintain. At least one space in your home has to be converted to a work environment, and the majority of people’s third places will be closed until we reach at least level two. There are those who will have already done this courtesy of work from home arrangements – but Stats NZ indicates that this is only 16% of New Zealanders. This drastic shift to remote has many impacts – and often negative ones.  

Further reading: MBIE Flexible Work Toolkit

Grant, Wallace and Spurgeon found a tendency to over-work in remote environments (for those with high motivation), as well as minimal time to recover. By the same token, remote work also lowered productivity among those with an existing lack of motivation. Then there are also new barriers put in place through remote working arrangements – ease of access to physical resources, tech literacy gaps and the conflation of home and work boundaries are the beginning.  

Of course, it isn’t all bad. Grant, Wallace and Spurgeon noted increased autonomy and confidence, as well as reduced travel- and family- related stress. The freedom afforded by remote working gives us all a greater sense of control over the way we work.  

But the fact remains that with this situation put upon everyone who continues to work, there needs to be boundaries – spaces – for each element of someone’s life. So how can we make that happen?  

Creating a first and second space in the home  

The first space is the easiest to create in a remote working environment – in that it doesn’t need to be created at all. Rather, it is a task of maintaining boundaries in your pre-existing home – which in turn creates the second space.  

This can be as simple as marking out a specific room that is the ‘work room’ - a study, lounge or kitchen for example. You can do work in this environment, and maintain a ‘home’ boundary at the edges of the room.  

However, this makes some assumptions about one’s living environment. Many people will be working without such a space available to them – co-working households, flatting situations or smaller properties may lack the space to create a separate work environment.  

In these cases, boundaries may have to be actions, rather than physical borders. Going for walks to mark breaks or the end of the day, changing into work attire, using a work-specific chair and desk or strict working hours can demarcate your lockdown workplace effectively. The Springboard Trust team has their own tips for doing this here.  

An interesting note to add here as well is the use of our home’s outdoor spaces. Khajehzadeh and Vale found that even in summer, New Zealanders average just 0.55 hours a day spent outdoors at their own home – perhaps an underutilised space for all of us.  

Creating a third space in the home  

This can be more difficult. When someone’s third space is a commercial premises (like a café or bar), or even a non-essential service venue (libraries, meeting halls), it is difficult to recreate.  

You can create areas of the home for specific activities (reading, watching films) that typically form part of your third place, although this can have cross-over with home activities.  

For others, the third place may be (or become) an action. The popularity of the daily walk in our current environment offers one way people are creating this third place, while for others something as simple as the dairy queue might be all they need.  

Then, of course, there is the virtual. The third place does not have to be a physical environment or action – it is the sense of participation, creativity and relationship-building that defines it. Zoom or HouseParty calls, playing board games with a friend online, or perhaps even logging on to Twitter or Facebook could constitute visiting a third place for many.  

These online communities, ever-present in modern life, reflect real-world social environments in many ways. Crowd participation, the ability to have private exchanges, learn new ideas, even argue – for some, a third place may just be a Stuff comments section.  

Food for thought: The body as the work-life boundary 

For a final point of discussion, we have to acknowledge that many remote workers do not have those clear boundaries – they are comfortable performing domestic, working and social functions in quick succession or even simultaneously.  

For example Koslowski, Linehan and Tietze argue that the body is the “ultimate boundary object”, in that it is part of every space in the home and controls what that space is being used for – work, home, or something else. This includes the mind, where we will often feel the pull of all three spaces at once, clouding our needs and creating confusion.  

They use examples of this like someone answering emails on their laptop while talking in bed with their partner. In this situation, a person is acting in both a home and work environment, turning home furniture into work furniture, and performing both personal and professional acts at once.  

There are limits, of course. The researchers use the example of parents working from home to highlight that a home / work duality only properly works when one party does not demand active attention – for example, if a child is sleeping on their lap rather than asking for something.  

But the fact remains that no matter how we create and maintain our spaces, we are capable of blending multiple roles into one action. They key is understanding your limits, your comfort zone and which parts of the house you want to reserve for a particular kind of space. 

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