If the first and second place coincide, you need to create and safeguard a third place now more than ever!

Human Resources COVID-19


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In this time of crisis, there is no first and second place anymore

If you are one of those people who are currently working from home and / or managing people who work from home, you may already have figured out that there is just no more point in trying to maintain the balance between work and home. A Zoom conversation with your department (camera off) while you are preparing lunch, a Skype meeting with your coworkers while one of them is trying to deal with an urgent question of his little boy, a phone call with a supplier while you are quickly emptying your washing machine.

Now that our first place (home) and second place (workplace) have merged into one (home office), it is more important than ever to safeguard a third place. A place where you can disconnect, where nothing is expected of you and where you are not trying to achieve anything.

A third place where you can just be, nothing more, nothing less

The idea of a third place originally comes from Community Building architecture. When designing a community, next to living and working space, you also need to provide a place where people can simply hang out. Coffee bars, libraries or the gym can all be places where you can just be you, without having to perform or come up with any ideas or answers. In Taoism this concept is called Wei Wu Wei: the deliberate choice of not doing anything that has a purpose.

Often, we already have such a third place without even realizing it (see also Marichal & Segers, The Leader in the Mirror). The morning walk with the dog while everyone else is still sleeping, the plane trips to congresses abroad. The train ride to work, reading a book during lunch in the city park, driving across the country to meet a client, the bike ride back home, a yoga class, a weekly run, a relaxing bath with the door locked etc. All of these places and moments where you don’t have a goal, where nothing is expected of you, where you don't have to perform, where you needn’t think, answer or be nice, where you don’t have to make any progress or solve things, can be your third place.

Aimless moments lead to better decisions

During these aimless moments your default neuronal network (or task-negative network) is activated. Disconnecting from purposeful thinking gives your brain the opportunity to randomly scroll through all kinds of elements in your mental life and spontaneously create new links (Rock et al., 2012). This is not just relaxing and good for your mental health, research also shows that it leads to better decisions (see e.g. Dijksterhuis, The Smart Unconscious).

But in this time of crisis, these precious moments without purpose are unfortunately the first to go. Today, there is no more clear distinction between the first place (home) and the second place (workplace), which makes our day a succession of moments in which we are expected to perform, to solve, to respond, to be nice. That is why it is now more important than ever to create and safeguard a place where you can disconnect, where you can just be, without any purpose.

Initiate a positive change, create room for a third place

And not just for yourself either. If you are living with other people, you can tell them why a third place is so important for everyone in the house. If you are managing people, you can initiate a debate about the creation and benefits of a third place. You can lead by example by blocking time for your third place. You can structurally plan one afternoon per week as 'disconnect time' in everyone's schedule (as opposed to the weekly 'everyone has to be in the office’ day). When the positive effects on well-being and performance become visible, you may even be able to initiate a positive change in your organization after the crisis, increasing employer attractiveness.

Don’t give in, safeguard your third place

So the next time you consider skipping your morning walk and planning a preliminary call with your staff to prepare that 9am Skype meeting, or the next time you consider doing yoga tomorrow (because really, you haven't spent enough time with the kids today), think again: we all need to hang out in a third place to remain productive, loving, creative, caring, problem-solving and mentally healthy!

Do you want to contact the author of this blog? Or do you have a question? Let her know via kathleen.vangronsvelt@ams.ac.be.