The PA system at Boston’s South Station crackles to life, and a robotic voice reads out the track number and stops served on the next Amtrak train leaving the station.
Everyone around me has an electronic device open, balanced precariously either on their knees or on their lap, as they sacrifice ergonomics for the sake of being able to clear a couple of emails before the 3:20 p.m. train to Washington, D.C..
As the announcement peters out, some gather their belongings and head for the tracks, while the others turn back to their work, trying to fully utilize the time between now and departure.
These digital nomads all have one thing in common: they’re seeking maximum productivity in the Third Space.
The Third Space is anywhere that isn’t the office (the traditional first thing/space that comes to mind when thinking about work), or the home (the second work “space”, forced upon many of us by the pandemic). It can be a busy train hall in Boston, a cafe on New York’s Lower East Side, or the departure gate at an airport. The Third Space is where we haven’t traditionally found ourselves seeking productivity, and where we increasingly demand it.
The Third Space is not a new phenomenon—President Joe Biden famously took 8,200 round-trip train rides from Delaware to D.C. as a senator, all while trying to eke as much productivity out of the 3-hour daily commute as he could. But rather than being a perk exclusive to a select few, working out of the Third Space has become the norm as travel-starved Americans flood airports and Amtraks, aided and abetted by the new normal—remote work.
Instead of sacrificing an extra vacation day for traveling to and from our destinations, or sitting idly in a cafe while waiting for our friends to show up, many of us are taking advantage of being able to work from anywhere, maximizing productivity in both our work and personal lives.
The search for productivity is nothing without preparation, however. Here are our top tips to take with you while you explore the Third Space:
Third Space work should be more intentional than just “What do I do with this spare time?”.
Start by considering the type of work you’re aiming to do. Coming off of a weekend trip to Boston, my goal at the train station was to rid my inbox of cold sales emails and other various newsletters that have overstayed their welcome—a relatively simple task. Once onboard, however, I needed to get into a deep state of flow to tackle longer and more demanding tasks.
Once your goals have been established, the kit you need slowly takes shape.
A passenger two rows down had an iPad Pro that seemed to magically float in front of him, displaying critical information that he needed while he took calls on his AirPods (I should’ve opted for the quiet car, I know).
Amtrak tables (and most of those found on planes, for that matter) are way too low for long stretches of typing, so I propped my Macbook Pro up on a MOFT laptop stand, moving my screen closer to the level of my eyes and creating the perfect angle that has seen me through hours of work both at home and in the office.
Some research also goes a long way before Third Space work. Look on Yelp or Google Reviews to see if the establishment is friendly to people working out of their location, or if you’ll be sheepishly asked to leave just as you get into a nice state of flow. Free and speedy WiFi is also a must if you don’t have an unlimited data plan, or are expecting to participate in Zoom conference calls.
Don’t settle for less
In using a laptop stand on a crowded Amtrak, I wasn’t aiming for “good enough”, or a compromise replicating my home/office set up—I expected to be just as efficient, if not more so. In fact, as more and more of us work from Third Spaces, we’ll become just as adept and productive as we have been from traditional work spaces. Over time, the distinction between the spaces should disappear—we’re simply at work.
But while we adapt to this hybrid way of working, I’ve found a few things that have helped me tap into a rich vein of productivity while working in a Third Space.
Headphones with active noise cancellation (ANC) are essential for establishing control over the low, incessant hum of our preferred modes of transport, as well the sporadic but oh-so-interesting gossip from the people around us.
At its core, most knowledge work is extracting information from various sources, and transforming them into a new form—which is why I always have my sources of information easily accessible to me. Whether at the office or on a train, my MacBook’s screen splits down the middle, usually with the left half displaying a Word document, and the right half showing my sources and research. My phone (itself a powerful computer), is usually propped up to my left, displaying texts and other urgent notifications as they come in.
Lastly, remember that sometimes the most productive thing you can do is relax. My browser has a Pomodoro timer that reminds me to take a well-deserved 5 minute break every 25 minutes, which has given me the chance to appreciate the beauty of the towns my train speeds through en route to our destination, before I dive back into work, refreshed.
Hybrid work is here to stay. If you’re looking to explore this way of working yourself, be sure to be prepared with the gear, workflows and technology that will allow you to maximize your productivity even as you transition seamlessly from space to space. Make the world your office.