WPM: What is a Third Space (and is it Second Now)?

In the world of office design, there has been much discussion about the so-called third space (or third place). So if your home is the first space and office is the second, what exactly is the third space and what does it have to do with the way you work?

The third space is a place that isn’t your home or traditional office where you decide to work. It can be a coffee shop, library, airport or any other spot where someone chooses to work. The third space also can be in an office, perhaps a lounge area, cafeteria, lobby or outdoor patio where work happens, even though it might not have been designed for that purpose.

The third space has become so important to those thinking about and planning your offices some are wondering whether we should scrap most of the traditional office space (the second space for those keeping score) and think of the third space more seriously as a place to work.

When it comes to office buildings, third spaces were often designed as an afterthought. Depending on the place in the office it occupies, these third spaces might include clunky lounge furniture, dining tables and chairs or waiting room furniture, all of which would be completely appropriate if it wasn’t for the work going on there.

So Green Bay, Wis., office furniture maker KI set about creating a seat that would work perfectly in one of these third spaces — a chair that would be comfortable for lounging or working with others. That’s how the Sway chair was born.

It looks like virtually nothing else on the market. It is at the same time homey and hospitable; functional and funky; corporate and casual. It is instantly iconic, but not designed to be gimmicky in any way, said Shawn Green, KI’s vice president of design and product marketing. He knows the company hit the right balance when he hears comments like, “That would look great in my home.”

“You don’t hear that a lot when you are talking about a piece of contract furniture,” he said. “When you can build a chair that really resonates with people, and they like to look at it and use it in the office and the home, that’s really something.”

Not surprisingly, the chair is a hit at colleges and universities, which generally provide a good early litmus test for what is coming to the office. Higher education has become a hotbed for learning in these third spaces — not the dorms and not the classrooms. Project work is the norm, and students must work together in spaces that foster collaboration and creativity. That mantra is heading to the world of work as well.

Sway has a lot going for it and fits perfectly in these third spaces. It is beautiful, comfortable and a statement piece in a sea of the same blocky, clunky lounge furniture currently on the market.

For some companies, third spaces are nonexistent. Law offices, accounting firms and other professional services generally don’t create third spaces, though that is changing a bit, too.

Green said Sway is different because it brings the movement of a task chair to the lounge environment. Sway is slightly egg-shaped with a soft, rounded look. The movement of the chair is hard to describe. Functionally, it works like a very sophisticated version of the papasan chairs you might have bought from Pier One while in college. The main portion of the chair sits on top of the base and swivels. It is held in place by an elastic cord that brings it back to the home position when the user gets up. Sway uses a unique orbital motion, allowing users to move freely from front to back, side to side and everywhere in between. It is available with a coordinating occasional table and upholstered ottoman.

Unlike task chairs — the workhorses of the office where workers spend most of their time — few have considered the “freedom of sit” in lounge furniture. Simply put, you generally can’t move much in the lounge furniture found in most third spaces. With Sway, KI took a static piece of furniture — a lounge chair — and added movement.

“When most think about designing lounge furniture, few designers ask themselves whether it can be ergonomic or if the user can sit the way they want to sit,” Green said. “Sway is the evolution of that: A lounge product with a simple mechanical nuance that lets you sit the way you want to sit. There is a physical response to this chair where we wed some of what you would find in a task chair into a lounge. You can work out of this chair, relax in it, and it is visually appealing.”

Sway also provides a bridge between traditional task work to the more creative work taking place more and more in offices around the world. There is more focus on interaction, and work has become a more social experience. Unfortunately, most third spaces don’t have the right design or furniture to foster the changing way people work.

“The third space is becoming the primary space, not just an adjacent area to where heads-down work is happening,” Green said. “So it begs the question: What should it be called? Sway is one of those products that are being planned into the third spaces. It provides a unifying element between those third spaces and the heads-down spaces.”

For some companies, third spaces are nonexistent. Law offices, accounting firms and other professional services generally don’t create third spaces, though that is changing a bit, too.

Green will continue to push for employers to reconsider the design of third spaces and give them more priority. Otherwise, workers will simply leave the office and find a more comfortable, engaging place to work. The third place segment is growing. KI’s plant in High Point, N.C., that makes lounge furniture for the company has seen record growth.

“There is not one solution,” Green said, “but it is incumbent upon us to put forth new ideas.”. WPM

First published in the May 2016 issue of Workplaces >