Sanctuaries and Schelling Points: The evolving role of SMBs in our public space

What are the opportunities and risks of increased remote working for the public space?

Writing in the late eighties, Oldenberg identified three distinct ‘places’ in Western life: the first place, the home; the second place, the workplace; and finally the third place, the public space. The third place is the ‘community’s living room’. It is the coffee shops, pubs and restaurants; churches and village halls; bookshops, hairdressers and post offices; parks and town squares. These are the places where our communal life flourishes. As our working life increasingly merges with home life and we interact less with the public space on the way to, and around, our offices, is our relationship with the public space at risk? What is to become of the small businesses that served our old way of life, and how can they adjust to capture demand, whilst creating thriving local economies and communities?

The balance between the first, second and third places has evolved over time. In pre-Industrial societies, home and work were often synonymous, but became forcibly separated by the emergence of mass production and the pursuit of efficiency. More recently, advances in computing and communications technologies have blurred the boundary between the first and second once again; with cloud services and collaboration software we have the capability to do almost everything from home, and the Pandemic has accelerated and enforced this shift. 

At first glance, the blurring of work and home gives individuals new freedoms. Schedules can be more accommodating around our lifestyles, rather than our non-work activities being crammed around a long day in the office. Working from home can help to shift the focus from presenteeism to the actual quality and quantity of work; ending the performance of ‘putting in the hours’.

But there’s another side to this shift. For many, the working day used to end when they left the office. Now that the link between work and a physical location has been broken, the idea of office hours seems old fashioned, and the regular physical interactions we had in the office are largely lost. As long as we have our phones or laptops to hand we’re contactable and ‘always on’. The home also provides a bounty of new procrastination opportunities, meaning that it can be even harder to focus on one thing at a time. And what does it matter? We don’t have trains to catch and we won’t miss dinner. Rather than an option, a privilege or a luxury, the Pandemic has suddenly made working from home the necessity and the norm for many. 

It would be easy to assume that the decline of the office would threaten the third place, and it’s true that many city business districts have created micro-economies and communities teeming with small businesses to serve office workers. It is also true that many small businesses are still closed, or operating far below their usual capacity, and struggling to stay afloat. But as third places serve such fundamental human needs, needs that cannot be fulfilled by their digital surrogates, we expect them to prove resilient in the long run.

Truly flexible working means being able to choose a location that balances productivity alongside our individual needs, both in terms of geography and type of space. And there are strong indicators from influential companies such as Twitter, PwC, and Schroders, that flexible working will remain the norm for many, even in a post-Pandemic world. At the highest level we see a mixing of roles and physical locations: we can be consummate professionals from the back corner of a coffee shop, we can be caring and compassionate friends over Zoom, and, with apps like Strava, we can be competitive athletes… anywhere.

Rather than interpreting the blurring of first, second and third places as an existential threat to public spaces and small businesses, we see it as a huge opportunity. In a world where we think more flexibly about physical spaces and how we use them, small businesses can choose one of three strategies; they can provide:

(1) a thriving community hub where we anchor our busy, connected lives
(2) a quiet sanctuary from noise, distraction and technology, or
(3) something more flexible in between the two

Where SMBs place themselves on this continuum from community to sanctuary will depend on their own preferences and values, and the needs of the market they serve.

Building and fostering community

For many, the traditional office had a profound influence - it cultivated lasting friendships and fierce rivalries, and shaped our daily routines - acting as a physical Schelling point around which we organised the rest of our lives. While we believe the office won’t disappear entirely, acting instead as a venue for work where meeting face-to-face is a boon, the newly dispersed workforce will naturally find new Schelling points to anchor their lives. This need not - and arguably should not - be the home. Instead, there is a big opportunity for individual SMBs. If they can provide the right experience they can be at the very heart of our new lives, rather than consigned to the margins. 

SMBs, particularly those that encourage the customer to stay awhile, can place themselves at the centre of this shift towards greater flexibility and the need for community formation and encourage customers to see them as extensions of their own living rooms and offices. These spaces will be the setting for business lunches and first dates, novel-writing and conference calls, and must be designed for adaptability. Ideally there should be corners where the slightly self-conscious can retreat to make a call and easily accessible areas for families with small children. As an extension to the office, wi-fi connection will obviously be a must. There should also be a range of ways to order and pay - customers may want to order ahead if they’re making a quick stop, or order from their table via an app if they’re fully focussed on their work. Businesses that adopt this strategy will reap the rewards of their investment in fostering a community, and it’s not a revolutionary assertion that increased dwell time translates to stronger business performance. We’ve already seen major brands recognise the importance of encouraging such communities to form in their spaces, including high-end fashion houses from Armani to Vogue.

Providing sanctuary 

We must not assume that everyone is as enthralled as we are by this vision of cafes, pubs, coffee shops and retailers becoming the bustling, connected centres of our working and social lives. For centuries these establishments have also provided a shelter from the outside world - from work, responsibilities and chores. In a world where work, enabled by technology, can intrude into every moment of our day, we may find a new desire to have at least one or two places where we can reliably escape from it all. The pursuit of mindfulness and wellbeing is not new, but has become mainstream during the Pandemic. Much like the shift towards flexibility and autonomy, we see the desire to take time out of the day to focus on oneself as a trend that will stick. 

Here, SMBs can also cater to the changing desires of their customers. In contrast to the community-building hubs we describe above, some SMBs may position themselves as places to escape from the noise and intrusion of everyday life. These spaces will be designed for intimate conversations, as an environment to get your head down, or just to take time to reflect. Implicity, or explicitly, it should be clear to patrons what these spaces are for. This may sound charming and traditional, but these places do not have to be device-free throwbacks to a pre-digital age. Apps and services such as Headspace and Audible have shown the potential for technology to calm and reassure us, and can be used wherever a quiet corner can be found.

Flexible spaces

Between these two options lies a third path. Businesses with the right physical spaces and resources will be able to flex their offer, and the customers they cater for, throughout the week and during the day. As we all get used to lives that have a very different cadence, this may prove to be a strategic masterstroke or, if we’re less optimistic, the key to survival. 

Why shouldn’t a cafe be a bustling hub in the morning and afternoon when everyone is full or energy, and then a more tranquil environment in the evening when work is done? Why shouldn’t a pub make use of it’s ample space and large tables to become a quiet workspace during the day, and then the centre of community life in the evening once the drinks start flowing? Through free-to-use digital CRM tools, even the smallest businesses can build a detailed and evolving picture of their customers, and can use this knowledge to tailor and develop the offer and environment they provide. 

Small businesses have always been part of our public lives. We’re confident that if they keep one eye on the future, they’ll play an even more important role in what comes next.

How do you think your relationship with the public space will change once the pandemic is over?

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