An Ode to the Accidental Workplace

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An Ode to the Accidental Workplace post image

I was not expecting it, but when I first moved to Asia I found that you could walk into a broad range of establishments— restaurants, pubs, resorts, hotels, guesthouses— first thing in the morning, spread all your stuff out, and start working. You might have breakfast or you might not. You might leave for a mid-day break, or keep plowing through lunch hour. Even if they get busy, they won’t ask you to leave.

The next thing you know you’ve spent 10 hours of your day in this one space. A space that’s not really a restaurant, not really an office, not really a cafe.

Us digital nomads often compare locations based on their “cafe culture,” but that doesn’t really do these distinctly developing world establishments justice. Many of what we call “cafes” here are not cafes at all.

These are the spaces where many of us have built our businesses. The ones that serve us three meals– from coffee to coconuts to cocktails. They don’t seem to specialize on anything but lazy days and a lax approach to optimizing table turnover.

These are the spaces, outside of perhaps only our beds, where many of us spend the most time. And for all their importance to our small subculture, I rarely see them talked about.

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Back in the US, there’s been a lot of talk by journalists about the “rise of the third space.” Hipster cafes and coffee chains like Starbucks who have found a sweet spot in the marketplace. When people aren’t at work, and don’t want to go home, where do they go to spend time reading, writing, and staring at their handsets? Journalists say they “go to third spaces.”

Of course, it could be less of a case that our generation desires third spaces more than others— the neighborhood stoop used to do quite well— and more of a case that caffeine is addictive and profitable. You might consider the same logic for why there are so many pizza shops. Is pizza really that popular, or does it just monetize real estate more effectively than other, equally delicious food items?

Those of us who spend a lot of time tramping around developing countries might recognize the third space concept as something of a banality. In countries where competition isn’t cut throat, space and time isn’t constantly maximized and refined, and slick-haired waiters aren’t schooled in the art of the turnover— a lack of efficiency isn’t synonymous with a lack of a business. Here in the developing world, you’ll find people just hanging out, well, everywhere.

Owners of these types of establishments often own the real estate as well, and that seems to be significant in how they operate them. The real money is coming from elsewhere, or will come when they flip the property in 5 years time. It often is the case that the purpose of the establishment is merely for it to exist, not necessarily to maximize profit per square meter or to hit the top of Trip Advisor. Sometimes these spaces are built simply to employ extended family members, or to give the owners and their friends a place to hang out.

It’s this sweet spot in history— the quick advancement of WIFI and internet technologies into these spaces, on the backdrop of the more glacial march of globalization (which allows, for example, Americans to order Hamburgers and speak English at them) that helps gives rise to the prototypical mini-mogul and digital nomad– sipping organic coffees and cracking off Skype calls from a rice field.

These ‘accidental workplaces’ have the following characteristics, in order of importance.

  • WIFI and accessible power outlets.
  • You can occupy the same table for 10 hours or more.
  • Staff will provide security for your things when you leave table.
  • They won’t kick you out for “turnover” reasons.
  • You can eat three different meals– breakfast, lunch, dinner.
  • Provides a casual ‘not work’ ‘not home’ environment.
  • You can order decent coffee and cocktails.
  • Ideally open 24 hours, but not a necessity.
  • One can effectively have recorded Skype calls.

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I have never liked co-working spaces. Their DNA comes from the office, a space I never got comfortable with. Do I think white boards, bean bags, ping pong tables, and desks with monitors make great offices? I guess so. But it’s still an office.

I don’t want an office I can have fun in. I want a cafe I can work in. Hubud is the first co-working space that I’ve been to that seems to get this concept. When I described my pet theory of ‘accidental workplaces’ to my friend she said “Hubud is deliberately that.” A co-working space with ‘cafe’ DNA.

And it seems it’s being noticed– cafe by cafe, inn by inn— proprietors are dropping more and more power outlets below the tables, perhaps promising a future where these spaces are not so “accidental.”

So this article is a sort of thank you to these business owners for not kicking us out. For wittingly or unwittingly creating a lovely type of space— not a first, second, or third space— but a living space, where accidents and serendipities can happen. Where I can find a guy to do my laundry or stamp my passport. For not being a place tailor made to “get sleep” or “do work,” but a place to live life and hang out for a bit.

Many of us are building our businesses with your support, and we hope you’ll build yours from ours as well… or at least, we’ll help keep the chairs warm until you flip the real estate in 10 years.

Curious if you know what I’m on about. Do you have a favorite accidental workplace?

Cheers,

Dan

Published on 08.19.14
  • http://www.coreymcmahon.com/ Corey McMahon

    I love the concept of “third places.” It’s something that we simply don’t have in my home country of Australia, probably for a number of reasons (cultural differences, low population density, more competition / risk / overheads in the hospitality industry). I can’t help but feel like we’re missing out on something by not having these kinds of places.

    Australian cafés simply aren’t good places to work from. They rarely offer wifi, shut early, and don’t want a single person tying up their precious seating space for hours at a time.

  • http://www.elisadoucette.com/ Elisa Doucette

    I am in love with working in third spaces. I have yet to actually get a membership at a co-working spot in any place that I’ve lived, for many of the same reasons. The biggest for me, however, is that surrounding myself with potential distractions. I’m easily distractable, and somehow the beautiful anonymity of curling up with my earbuds and a cup of coffee and my laptop is the perfect work solution. To the point where I have “my spots” in every city, and often just 2-3 cause I spend a LOT of time at them.

    Which brings me to the GREATEST frustration I have with third spaces. I recognize that I am taking up that “real estate” you speak of. If I’m not ordering (and ordering something more than a bottle of water or cup of instant coffee) something every couple hours I’m causing the shop owner:

    – Lost revenue
    – Lost costs (if I’m there more than 3-4 hours, I’m gonna have to plugin)
    – Lost WIFI bandwidth

    As you noted, having a place where you can feel comfortable jumping up to run to the bathroom and leaving your stuff or being allowed to sit 6-8 hours without anyone blinking an eye, is like finding a magical hidden treasure in a city where you are a half-guest/half-local. I’ve had people ask before how I get “treated so well” in these places and it’s simple – be considerate of the time and space they are giving you, tip them (no, it’s not required in most countries; yes, it’s less than a dollar for most of us to leave our change; yes it will absolutely endear a server or barista to you), and treat them like they are someone who matters to you that you respect. They’ll treat you the same back.

    I continue being sadly baffled how many people seem to struggle with these concepts.

    tl;dr – Yay third spaces! But if you want to get the best benefit from working in them, don’t be a dick. ;)

  • http://cinderellaman.com/ JakubH

    Agree. I live in Sydney for the past 4 years. Every few months I go with a friend to a korean restaurant, have several meals and drink. Every time they kick us out by bringing the bill to our table. And it’s not even that we stop ordering, we are going through those $8 beers & $7 small bottles of Soju rather quickly! But I guess they still have higher profit on food…

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/sholaabidoye/ Shola Abidoye

    Love the images by the way. Actually, I like co-working. The reason is that when I spend 2-days a week in the “office”, it makes me appreciate our lifestyle more. It’s just the irony of being human. You appreciate something more through absence. Cafes are lovely at least once a week too though!

  • http://vagabondlifestyles.com/blog/ Vagabond Lifestyles

    Awesome Article! You just described how I operate. This is a must read for lifestyle designers everywhere. Main reason get to understand how to mold your productivity space anywhere.

  • Nolwenn

    Totally agree with you! I used to work a lot in these third spaces and hope to go back to doing this soon (I get more distacted at home than anywhere else), but I always try not to be a parasite. I order something like every hour or so, not only to keep going, but also to be welcome back again.
    I try to get to know the staff a bit and I ask if there is some especially busy time, like soccer matches … I don’t have to be around on these 2 hours when they make good money.
    In Paris I found out that many of the small restaurants don’t mind you sitting around with one drink for long times, as long as it’s not between noon and 2 pm. In Barcelona I used to spend many evenings working in an arabic coffee shop, and the owner sometimes offered me to share his dinner. Peru was the worst, even in Starbucks the internet was far from reliable.

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    agreed great point, for me it’s super natural to order order order!!! :D one of the things i didn’t mention is the supportive relationships you can build in these types of environments (that are less distracting that than the types i’ve found in co-working spaces, which often seem taylor made to create long term work interruptions). i seem to cherish these spaces the same you do, that’s the feeling i was trying to capture here… i really do savor these places

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    mmmm Paris and Barcelona :D yeah certainly plenty of decent spots to work in both, in Barcelona i found one distinct “creative” cafe that catered to laptop workers essentially. in the developing world these places tend to come under the names “bar and grill” or “resort.”

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    cheers thanks man!

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    agree RE: balance, for certain types of tasks, say spreadsheets and banging through admin bs, I’ve found a more traditional office vibe gets me through it faster. got a few theories about that– think spreadsheets like drywall :D

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    lots of this in CA when I was there as well– owners don’t seem quite what to do with WIFI just yet, although a few spaces were coming around. another factor might be staff costing and shift timing, although related to the points you mentioned.

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    American restaurants are ninja grade that moving you along as well. “I’m just going to put the check here but you can pay whenever you want” = “get outta here!”

  • http://www.beachheadmarketing.com/ Steven Moody

    Great point about the real estate, hadn’t thought about this. The coworking spaces are also real estate plays, but usually focused more on cash flows than equity and most seem cynically designed for profit.

    My favorite workplace is Living Room La Jolla, upstairs at 2pm on a Sunday. You get ocean breeze, empty room save for a few hookahs, and plush comfortable chairs. Optimized for maker work.

  • mgelgota

    I was stunned by the hostile looks I got for pulling a tablet out of my bag in certain cafes in Sydney. Can’t a guy sit and read? Not making wifi available is dark as well. Think it’s related to the heinous practice of charging per GB of data rather than a flat monthly rate?

  • mgelgota

    ‘Tokyo is my living room,’ was my old quip when friends from home would argue that apartments in Japan were too small to be hospitable. I’ve always been a fan of cafes, but that was the first place where I’d routinely leave my apartment in the morning and spend the whole day away, relying on a network of ‘third spaces’ and clients offices for meetings, calls, lunch and dinner. Living all day everyday out in the city, moving from one location to another, made wide swathes of essentially public space feel more like home than anywhere else I’ve been.

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    ya know the most interesting business models i’ve seen with co-working spaces are 1) paid for events and 2) funnel for investments (kinda cool and tricky to execute) but yeah co-working spaces monetize space poorly so they generally need more monetization layer on or they are passion plays.

    Very interesting RE: living room! I dig a hookah here and there.

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    I feel like that occasionally, being out makes me feel engaged. I sometimes stand in awe at american suburbs– how do people stand it!? many days i slowly bounce bounce bounce from location to location.

  • http://www.nomadicnotes.com/ James Clark

    I love working in cafes and I have never got into the co-working space scene either. For me I like to mix up it up by working at home half the day and at cafes the other half.

  • http://www.coreymcmahon.com/ Corey McMahon

    The “funnel for investments” model seems to be the one being adopted by coworking spaces in Australia.

    One well-known technology focused coworking space here in Sydney operates on a membership-only basis. Membership is conditional, and granted only to product-based businesses with potential for growth. The unwritten assumption here is that if your business takes off, the guys backing the coworking space will get first shot at investing.

    The harsh economic realities of operating a business in Australia seem to have forced the coworking spaces to wise-up early: the money isn’t in membership fees…

  • Ryan

    Good post. I never got into the café scene until I rented a cheap place in BKK with no WIFI… This forced me into the coffee shops all day. I would usually bounce from one to another throughout the day and I even had the same route where the people were expecting me. Cappuccino Mister? Chai! I will look into the rates at some of these “third places.”

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    yeah generally i swing back home mid day to do some skypes…

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    haha, love the bounce plan as well… it seems like the BKK cafe scene is improving rapidly I remember it wasn’t well known for it just a few years ago

  • Jen

    I will kill for a place where I wouldn’t feel awkward to stay too long. Libraries always work for that… And when you get bored, you can go find a cool book for a break. Only downside is in some food isn’t allowed, and they don’t always have cafes inside. But some do!

  • Stacey

    Agree about so called ‘third spaces’ in CA Dan…LA in particular….wow, I end up tethering from my iPhone almost every day. Forget trying to find a seat at Starbucks, you have to squat at hotels and restaurants and hope there’s wifi or else it’s tether-city!

  • Stacey

    you guys are making me jealous! need to bounce.bounce.bounce from location 2 location NOW!

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    good point RE: Libraries in the developing world seem to be catering to this market… people want places to read their kindles uninterrupted in public, not places to check out books :)

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    perhaps there should be a standard “laptop jockey friendliness” sticker standard sorta like the “WIFI” logo so we’d know how friendly they are to campers :)

  • Jen

    Haha. =) I love the books too, but libraries are one of my favorite places to write. (Airports are the other, but for obvious reasons, I can only do that while I’m travelling). Man, this one library I went to though, it had these tiny water fountains placed in random locations in the shelves. Genious.

  • http://robcubbon.com/ Rob Cubbon

    I spend a lot of time in cafes in London at the moment. I never have a problem staying there for hours as long as I buy the occasional coffee and it’s not too noisy. The independent cafes are better than the chains.

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    that’s great to hear, in NYC as well I’ve had good luck finding “camper cafes”

  • Leroy Smith

    What an amazing post.

    in South Africa providers are only now seeing the importance of being wifi ready and power etc.

    Mc’ds, KFC, Mug and Bean those are my staples.

  • http://www.enterliberty.com Nayar Ali

    Great post dan, I have been looking for such a place in my town but there doesn’t seem to be any. Alas i resorted to going to the local library with my own coffee and nibbles. But I know exactly what you mean, i crave for such third spaces, im normally easily distracted however if i sit down in a cafe style setting with a coffee and some nibbles without any distractions i can get a lot of work done and i feel theres a sheer lack of these third spaces. with more and more people getting into the remote/online working lifestyles i think more establishments should realise the trend and offer such a service.

  • http://www.livinginthailand.net/ Neale

    Thanks Dan for reminding me how lucky I am to be surrounded by places like this.
    Some of the best places I have worked in had no WIFI, like many others I have a lot that can be done without internet access. I have also worked often on those concrete tables you find in temple grounds, national parks and by the beach. I did this because with no WIFI or Electric I would stay super focused for a few hours, I also treated it in such away that when the battery dies that’s my day done.

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    cheers Neale thanks for reading, agree RE: noWIFIS I have some good memories with that as well, for everything else there’s Mac Freedom! :)

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    absolutely could be an opportunity for entrepreneurs !

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    cheers Leroy thanks!! Yeah MacDo on the trend early! Wonder what their business case for it was

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