An Ode to the Accidental Workplace

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

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