The Third Place

How public spaces beyond home and work can foster human connections

The Third Place

The Third Place

1024 574 Michael Kraabel

In the quiet hum of a bustling coffee shop, where the aroma of freshly brewed coffee mingles with the low murmur of conversations, lies the essence of what sociologists call “The Third Place.” A concept popularized by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, it refers to those inclusive locations that are neither home (the first place) nor work (the second place), but rather public spots where people can gather, interact, and build community.

In today’s digitally connected world, where remote working and online relationships dominate our social fabric, the significance of these third places has been multiplied, offering a tangible antidote to the isolation of digital life. They are the locations where we exchange ideas, have a good time, and build relationships.  I’ve always had a third place where I felt comfortable – places where I could escape my office to get some free thinking done.  It was often a coffee shop; other times, a park, restaurant, book store, or fitness center (kidding on the last one – I never went).

When I left my career in advertising, where creative thinkers surrounded me in an office, I struggled to find my new community. I was working from home quite a bit, but also in a workshop, where the sounds of metal grinders replaced the sounds of a coffee grinder.  For the better part of the first year of my new venture, it was myself and one employee at the workshop.  We got along very well, but each came from a different background – I missed the immediacy of being able to wander into one of my co-workers’ offices to run an idea past them or engage in social banter.  I needed social interaction but didn’t have the luxury of a traditional office.

I wasn’t alone.

Amid the global shift towards remote work, the importance of face-to-face connections has never been more pronounced. Dr. Tina Phillips, a psychologist specializing in human connections, asserts, “Humans are inherently social creatures. Despite the convenience of digital communication, the depth of face-to-face interaction is irreplaceable. Third places offer a venue for these essential interactions, bridging the gap between the digital and physical worlds.”

Connecting in a Connected World

The digital era has transformed how we interact, often reducing complex human emotions to emojis and text messages. This shift underscores the necessity for physical spaces where unplanned, spontaneous interactions can flourish. Dr. Phillips says such interactions are “crucial for our mental health and sense of belonging.”

Companies have capitalized on the third place concept to carve out significant niches within the market. Starbucks has famously positioned its cafes as “the third place,” a comfortable and inviting space between home and work where people can relax, meet, or work independently. This branding strategy has contributed to Starbucks’ image as a community hub and driven its expansion worldwide.

Similarly, coworking spaces like WeWork have redefined the traditional office environment, offering flexible, communal areas that cater to the needs of freelancers, entrepreneurs, and remote workers seeking connection and community. These spaces embody the essence of the third place, where the blending of work, play, and social interaction fosters a unique ecosystem of creativity and collaboration.

The resurgence of local bookstores and libraries as community hubs further illustrates the enduring appeal of third places. These spaces offer more than just books; they provide a sanctuary for thought, discussion, and connection, hosting events that bring together diverse groups of people.

For me, I found Sandy’s Tavern.  A burger joint just two blocks away from my workshop.  It became my afternoon ritual.  I would take my laptop and notes to my semi-reserved bar stool, where I would post up to work, socialize, and sip a few 3.2% lightweight beers while enjoying one of the best burger and fries baskets you will ever taste.  Eventually, I would become very close friends with the owner, staff, and a group of regulars who had the same routine.

Meaningful Relationships and Social Engagement

The search for meaningful connections and community remains at the heart of the human experience – almost as important as finding a great hamburger. In its many forms, the third place is a testament to the enduring need for physical spaces that foster social interaction and community building. In the words of Oldenburg, “Third places…are nothing more than informal public gathering places. The more we have, the more connected and grounded we feel.”

The journey towards fostering human connections in the digital age may be challenging, but it is clear that the third place plays a pivotal role in this quest. As we seek a balance between our online lives and the physical world, these spaces offer a little hope, reminding us of the value of community and the simple yet important pleasure of a face-to-face conversation.

The Remote Work Generation

As the narrative around work and productivity evolves in the post-pandemic era, the conversation naturally extends to the contentious debate on returning to the office. The shift toward remote working has not only redefined the boundaries of the workplace but also reshaped employees’ expectations and desires. In this new reality, the traditional office space and the often derided “forced fun” of corporate team-building activities no longer hold the appeal they once might have. The emerging consensus among self-aware companies is that adaptability, rather than insistence on returning to pre-pandemic norms, is key to thriving in the new economy.

The insistence on dragging employees back to the office overlooks a fundamental shift in how work is perceived and valued. Today, employees seek more than just a paycheck; they seek flexibility, autonomy, and, importantly, meaningful interactions that aren’t mandated as part of a corporate agenda. Dr. Emily Stone, a business psychologist specializing in workplace culture, emphasizes that “The future of work is about choice and recognizing that meaningful engagement cannot be manufactured through obligatory social events. Instead, creating opportunities for genuine connection, perhaps by encouraging encounters in third places, can significantly enhance employee satisfaction and loyalty.”

Companies that understand the benefit of third places are positioning themselves ahead of the curve. Rather than enforcing outdated interaction models, they are exploring how these neutral, inviting spaces can catalyze creativity, collaboration, and community. By supporting or creating third places, businesses can offer employees the flexibility to find balance and connection on their own terms. This approach acknowledges the diverse needs of a modern workforce and that inspiration and innovation often strike outside the confines of the traditional office environment.

Companies Primed to Benefit From The Third Place Movement

Several companies and industries have notably benefited from the third place concept, leveraging these communal spaces to foster engagement, creativity, and loyalty among customers and employees alike. Here are some examples:

  • Community Centers and Nonprofits: Organizations that operate community centers or similar spaces often benefit from the third place concept by providing a safe and welcoming environment for various groups to gather, participate in activities, and support each other.
  • Retailers with Community Spaces: Some retail brands, such as REI and Apple, offer community spaces where customers can attend workshops, learn new skills, or participate in group activities. This approach not only enhances the customer experience but also builds brand loyalty.
  • Fitness Centers and Yoga Studios: Fitness brands like Peloton, which offer both online and in-person classes, and traditional yoga studios use the third place concept to create communities centered around health and wellness, encouraging regular attendance and social interaction among members.
  • Restaurants and Cafes with a Community Focus: Beyond serving food and drinks, many restaurants and cafes are designing their spaces to serve as community hubs where people can meet, work, or participate in events, attracting a regular clientele who value a sense of belonging.
  • Makerspaces and Creative Hubs: Spaces dedicated to creativity and making, such as makerspaces, art studios, and craft workshops, attract individuals interested in learning, sharing skills, and collaborating on projects, fostering a vibrant community of creators.
  • Online Platforms with Physical Meetups: Companies like, which facilitate online groups that host in-person gatherings, indirectly benefit from the third place concept by encouraging real-world connections and community building among people with shared interests.
  • The Modern Public House: One of the things I enjoyed about operating a business in England was the various pubs I would come across. We don’t have the same concept in the US, but several companies are trying to re-create this sense of community – with quite a bit of American flair.  Smash Park, which recently opened a location in the Twin Cities, is a venue that combines entertainment, sports, and socializing and is perfectly positioned to leverage the third-place concept to its advantage. Smash Park naturally embodies the essence of a third place: a communal, inclusive space where people come together outside of their homes and workplaces by offering a diverse array of activities- from pickleball courts to arcade games and from live music to diverse dining options.

Social Engagement and Mental Health

Embracing third places aligns with recognizing the importance of mental health and well-being in the workplace. Providing employees with the autonomy to choose where they work and interact acknowledges individual preferences and lifestyles, fostering a culture of respect and understanding. This cultural shift benefits employees and enriches the company by cultivating a more engaged, motivated, and satisfied workforce.

The benefits of embracing third places extend beyond employee well-being and attracting and retaining top talent. The flexibility and autonomy associated with third-place-friendly policies can significantly draw prospective employees. Companies seen as adaptive, human-centric, and forward-thinking are more likely to appeal to a generation of workers who value freedom, authenticity, and meaningful connections.

Companies and organizations that recognize and harness the power of third places will find themselves at the forefront of the new economy. These entities understand that the future of work isn’t about returning to the past but about moving forward with intention, embracing the changes that have reshaped the landscape of employment, and fostering environments where creativity, well-being, and community flourish. In doing so, they are not only enhancing the lives of their employees but also setting a new standard for what it means to be a truly modern workplace.



All stories by: kraabel