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Creating third spaces for employees and the community

8th November 2022

“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.” 

Herman Melville

When I was growing up, it always felt like there was a sense of community everywhere I went. Whether it was seeing your parent’s friends at the local pub, or seeing your mates at the youth centre, you could see the spaces that the community congregated in.

Sadly, that seems to have fallen by the wayside as digital communities became the new social ground, but the need for a physical community space will always persist.

That’s why I opened my office to my teams to use as a ‘third space’ for any of their needs.

There have been quite a few changes in the UK over the course of my lifetime, but one that few people seem to talk about is the death of the ‘third place’. A third place is defined as any place you go to spend time that isn’t your home (first place) or your workplace (second place).

The idea is that the third place is somewhere you go to socialise and to be part of your community – often these were places like libraries, pubs, cafes, parks, or youth centres – places that required little to no money to attend, and which would become the nexus of the community; acting as a place to meet friends, to interact with local events, and as an important part of building a sense of community unity.

Sadly, the concept of the third place has died a death of a thousand cuts. Years of austerity and funding cuts have all but removed youth centres and libraries from society, even as many pubs and cafes have begun to lose their connection to the community. When we stop to think about the third spaces that remain, only parks and libraries remain – the latter of which is already in turmoil with the future of library funding existing on a knife edge, the threat of defunding hanging above them like a fiscally-conservative sword of Damocles.

Stop and think about it for a second – where do you see your community interacting? Do you even see it at all anymore?

The effects have been profound; although they are not always visibly connected to the death of the third space. However, with a bit of critical thinking, the connection becomes apparent. Have you found yourself wondering “why does politics seem more divisive than it used to be?”; “How could someone become so radicalised online?”; “Why do young people today seem so lost?”

The answer to all of these questions may well lie with the death of the third space. Political debates in the community were hashed out in the local pub with a wide array of views in the audience – not debated in ‘right only’ or ‘left only’ online echo chambers.

Similarly, the previous decades have shown that many of those who are inexplicably radicalised online tend to be those who lack a connection to a real-life community. In the absence of a positive community to give a sense of belonging, they are drawn into toxic radical communities that offer a sense of belonging and camaraderie.

The toxic effects of a lack of community become most apparent when we look at the state of many young people today – particularly those in the cities. Years of government-sanctioned cuts have left youth outreach as the responsibility of local communities – communities which have slowly been dismantled by the lack of public spaces.

The result is a growing rate of youth reoffending and a dramatic surge in gang membership – gangs which are offering young men the sense of community and belonging that they crave.

Talking about the decay of community spirit is easy to dismiss as ‘boomer nostalgia nonsense’ – in the same vein as complaints that ‘fish and chips don’t come wrapped in newspaper anymore’ – but the reality is that the loss of community spaces has become a profound and endemic issue throughout the UK.

We urgently need more third spaces in our communities, and although I can’t provide a solution for the entire country, I can at least help those in my immediate network. Starting a few months ago, I opened my office to every member of every team in my organisation. Accessible at any time of day or night, for whatever reasonable / appropriate purpose they may need it for.

Since starting this programme, we’ve: had a series of afterparties, provided space for a handful of social functions and even started up a weekend creche! All employees have access to the building 24/7, and are encouraged to use the space as a community hub.

We’ve had employees bring personal friends along with colleagues for impromptu parties after hours; and on weekends, those employees with children have begun to form a community daycare, taking advantage of the various consoles, activities and games we have in our breakout area.

The effect on morale has been outstanding. Not only has it brought our teams closer together, it has begun to reinvigorate a sense of community amongst those in the area. We have children who otherwise may never have met one another (despite living in the same community), who are now becoming firm friends. We have various employees introducing their groups of friends to one another at after-hours drinking sessions – we’re bootstrapping our own micro-community, and it has cost us virtually nothing.

I wish I could be more optimistic about the return of third spaces in our society, but I’m disheartened to report that any profound change to our view of third spaces is unlikely to materialise under the current government, or even under the opposition’s proposed government. The most that we can do as individuals is to try to form our own communities.

If you – like me – have access to office buildings that you can open to your employees, I implore you to consider following my path, and create a third space for them. The effects on morale and productivity are substantial, and should offer motivation enough, but I would make a more personal appeal.

This blog is primarily a source of business advice, with clear business-orientated rationales for the things I suggest – but in this one case I’d like to make an impassioned plea. Consider opening up your spaces to grow communities – not because it will help your company (although it will) – but simply because our local communities desperately need it. 

We urgently need to build new third spaces and provide new communities for those who need them. We may not be able to reinvigorate them across the country, but if someone reading this can help even one young person find a sense of community, then the effort has been worth it, for – in the words of Dorothy Day – “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”

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