Issue #90
#90 - 🎵 “Sometimes You Wanna Go Where Everybody Knows Your...Username” 🎹
November 03, 2023

#90 - 🎵 “Sometimes You Wanna Go Where Everybody Knows Your Username” 🎹

"Cheers", a US sitcom that aired from 1982-1993, became one of the most popular TV shows of all time. The entire show was set in a bar in Boston (called "Cheers"), where a group of quirky locals met to drink, socialize and unwind.

Then in the 90's came "Seinfeld" and "Friends", both of which featured spaces -- the diner in Seinfeld, Central Perk cafe in Friends -- where characters were regulars and met to eat, gossip and hang out.

Sociologists have a term for spaces like this: "third places":

In sociology, the third place refers to the social surroundings that are separate from home ("first place") and work ("second place"). Examples of third places include churches, cafes, bars, clubs, community centers, public libraries, gyms, bookstores, stoops, and parks.

Third places are "anchors" of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction. In other words, "your third place is where you relax in public, where you encounter familiar faces and make new acquaintances."

Cheers' catchy theme song captures the promise and allure of a third place:

Making your way in the world today
Takes everything you've got
Taking a break from all your worries
Sure would help a lot

Sometimes you wanna go
Where everybody knows your name
And they're always glad you came
You wanna be where you can see
Our troubles are all the same

Sadly, I’m looking to fiction for examples because, in reality, third places have been disappearing over recent decades. The combination of longer hours at work, exploding hours spent online, and urban sprawl is that these spaces no longer anchor us socially the way they once did.

So with third spaces dwindling, our expectation was that our second space (work) could fill the social void. And as we spent more time there, we looked to work to meet our human need for meaning and connection. By and large though, work has come up woefully short.

Meantime our shift to remote work has meant that the once-clear boundary between our first place (home) and our second place (work) has become murkier than ever.

In short: third places are gone. First and second places are merging. So where are we going in order to find the community and connection we need?

This week, we use our 3 Stories to understand just that: why and how have our workplaces failed to fill the social gap of disappearing third places? Where are we turning in order to find community and connection, as a result? How does the merging of our first and second spaces (home and work) come into play? And of course, what are the lessons we can apply as leaders and organizations?

🎯 Story #1 - Time spent with a high-flying startup 🚀 in Vietnam prompts the founders to ask themselves: what does it mean for our team to feel "seen"? We explore what the concept means, how commonly we feel unseen at work, and the implications of that invisibility.

🎯 Story #2 - It turns out that one of the "places" we are going in order to commune and connect -- is online. To work, to connect, to avoid the commute; but to avoid other aspects of work, too. We dig into an online tool for doing deep, focused work with strangers online, and discover we want much more than shorter commutes.

🎯 Story #3 - What's a "neighborhood work club"? It's a new coworking model that's exploding in two U.S. cities right now. We look at the way the model works, how it differs from WeWork -- and what its popularity reveals about the many, under-appreciated drivers of remote work. (Hint: they're social, and professional, and overlap squarely with what's on offer from the digital spaces in Story #2). We also use the lessons of our second and third Stories to lay out a prescription for our startup team in Vietnam. 🙌🏻

Thanks for reading and exploring with us -- and have a great end to your week!

Aki + Usman


#FeelingSeen #Engagement #NotHRsJob

I got to spend time with an exciting startup in Vietnam last week. After two days of conversations and observations, one of the challenges I flagged to the leadership team was engagement: the level of enthusiasm and connection that employees felt towards their work, their colleagues, their manager, and their company.

The leaders agreed that engagement was waning, and we began to discuss what could be at play: corporate culture, country culture; the founders' personalities, and the type of hires those attract; even the nature of the product that the company builds.

Then, one founder said something that clicked: "We need the team to feel seen."

Now, feeling seen is a huge factor in engagement, but it is not engagement, per se. Feeling seen means that part of our identity, emotions, needs, and physical (or virtual!) presence gets recognized. It means the people we're around act in ways that don't dismiss us. It means feeling acknowledged; included. Roughly: "I feel like it's ok to be here, and to be myself here".

To be clear, my friends, this is fairly basic stuff. These are human needs, and baseline expectations for how we all deserve to be treated. And beyond mere acknowledgement of their presence, people also need to feel their contributions are recognized; that their ideas and effort are appreciated, valued and have impact. This sense of visibility creates a connection to the work we do, and the people we work with. It fosters motivation and commitment.

And yet, this feeling of invisibility and dismissal -- the sense that I am just a cog in the proverbial machine -- has become a defining feature of modern work. Not just of startups, much less this one in Vietnam.

The data bear this out. Gallup's 2023 study of global employee engagement cited a "record high" engagement rate -- of 23%. 🤔

So if not enough people are engaged at work, it follows that they are engaging somewhere else. If traditional work isn't meeting their basic social needs of connection and belonging, if third places like bars, barber shops and bowling leagues are disappearing from our social fabric, and if the line between our homes and our offices is blurring, and causing more isolation, the question then becomes:

"Where are people looking in order to have these basic needs of connection and belonging met?"

Stories 2 and 3 give us some fascinating, insightful trends to help us answer this. ⬇️


#Work #Accountability #Judgment #Performative

Back in issue #67, which explored how lonely work was becoming, we featured the concept of "body doubling": doing work in the presence of others, the way we always have. But digitally, and with strangers.

Wired magazine explains:

For reasons we’re all aware of, working remotely from home is now far more common than it used to be. That brings with it advantages, but also challenges, like the need to stay motivated and on task when there are no colleagues around and so many distractions a click away.

To try and tackle the problem, some people are turning to strangers on the internet—strangers who will sit with them, connected over a video call, while both parties study or work or do whatever needs to be done. It adds a low level of accountability without much additional effort.

Today we hone in on a specific product, Focusmate, which allows you to book a digital coworking call with someone, dial in to the call, ID your goals for the session together, then get some focused work done:

When we analyze working from home, we often forget that a commute is not the only aspect of office work we're keen to improve. Indeed, the appeal of FocusMate and products like it goes beyond just providing company in the background while we work. These products also offer:

👉 Acceptance. A space free of judgment.

👉 Authenticity. There is no need to "perform" for colleagues, the way we do at work.

👉 Serendipity. The unknown of whom you'll meet, and the potential to meet someone different.

👉 Productivity. The constant interruptions of in-person work are distracting. Working at home has less desk-level banter, but back-to-back Zoom calls make it hard to find time and space for dee, creative work.

👉 Community. The ability to connect and belong. Per the company's homepage.

Via our next story, we learn that acceptance, authenticity, serendipity, productivity and community are not just online aspirations. They're needs we're chasing in our offline work spaces, too. ↓


#ThirdPlaces2.0 #Coworking2.0 #Decentralization

Switchyards is an Atlanta-based "neighborhood work club." At first glance, you might think this is just another coworking space. But there are key distinctions, and the design and the success of the model (it is growing very fast) are as revealing as they are relevant to our conversation:

  • Unlike WeWork, you cannot rent a hot desk or an office at a Switchyards. The spaces are not designed for "full-time" work. And at USD $100/month, they are also much cheaper than WeWork.
  • Switchyards are not coffee shops either; you need a membership and an access code to enter one, and they're open 24 hours a day.
  • Instead, Switchyards straddle a line between the two formats. The pitch is flowing wifi, hot coffee, lots of power outlets 🔌, and a space optimized for creativity, serendipity and connection.

From its website:

It feels an awful lot like an evolved form of a third place; a space designed for the new reality and needs of work, and remote work. Switchyards is definitely not home, and it's not squarely work, either. It's a place you where can be comfortable, interact and connect -- with people whom you do not work with -- and be productive. It's a place, to invoke the Cheers theme song, where everybody may even "know your name".

To wit, this Shiftyard location is even physically IN what was once a classic third place: a church. It will have a cafe, phone booths, and two library spaces:

As I wrote this issue, the question I initially grappled with was whether people were seeking social or professional alternatives. But the behaviours we're exploring today -- online and off -- make clear: we want and need both right now.

We want to avoid what we've always had to put up with at work: commutes, yes, but also judgment, distraction, sterility, performative everything; feeling like a cog in the machine, the forced and false pretense of being a "family". And we want what we're not getting from work, or from a traditional third place: flexibility, yes, but also space, focus, warmth, authenticity, serendipity, creativity, belonging, and community.

The insight for leaders and organizations is just as clear. Because the difference between "default work" as it's long existed, and Focusmate and Shipyard, is that the latter are both products which were clearly designed for people. They were designed with people in mind. To attract them, and to give them an experience they want and need. They want you to work in their worlds, or spaces, and they want you to feel like you belong. They see you. They're listening to you. And they're offering work-social products which meet social and professional needs that are not being met by default work right now.

Default work, by contrast, does almost none of this. It so often fails to see its teams, much less design an experience around them to meet their needs.

Back to our startup in Vietnam then -- the answer to its engagement challenge is not to have HR run an after work happy hours at the bar downstairs, or chase employees into an online version of the same. It's to design a great work "product", and articulate its benefits to employees. It's to see and listen to those employees, to design an experience with them in mind, and to make clear: "This is how you belong here. This is how you connect with others here. This is how and why the work you do is valued, and how it ties to the work we all do together." ✌️

Thanks for reading. 🙏

Work moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
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