Creating the Best Home Office
With more people than ever are shifting to full-time, in-house work, many household office designs need rethinking.
Once upon a time — about 35 years ago — working from home was considered the way of the future. Telecommuting was where everyone was headed; labor marketing experts predicted that driving to work was going to be obsolete by the end of the century. And this was before a little thing called the internet came along.
It actually took a bit longer for technology to grow up, and for major companies to seriously consider allowing their employees to work from home even part-time. But by the time President George W. Bush went into his second term, corporations such as IBM, Google, Bank of America, and Best Buy were letting workers do their thing from inside their homes.
These same companies reversed direction within about 10 years because innovation and productivity suffered. So, almost everyone went back to work on site.
Two-thirds of telecommuters like working at home at least part-time. Only 1 in 7 people have no desire to do so once the pandemic ends. Credit: IBM Institute for Business Value
But with the arrival of COVID-19 and the lockdown that everyone has had to live with since last spring, being a stay-at-home employee is getting the thumbs-up again. The Brookings Institution estimates that up to 50 percent of workers now do so remotely, more than double the total who did in 2018. About 25 percent to 30 percent of those people may keep that status once the pandemic is over, according to research-based consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics.
Similarly, research by COGNITION Smart Data reveals that one-third of all American workers are able to work from home and that 98 percent of these would like the option of continuing to telecommute for the rest of their career.
How Will a Year at Home Affect Work Practices?
10 Ways to a Smart Home Office
As more people work from home, numerous optional amenities have become must-haves. Here are 10 things that telecommuters expect in their current and/or next homes:
- Security cameras, smart locks, intruder alerts, and remote check-in/monitoring
- Smart home devices like thermostats that link to intelligent HVAC and mechanical systems
- An integrated indoor air quality (IAQ) system—monitors/sensors connected to vent fans, energy recovery ventilators (ERVs) and range hoods—to facilitate fresh air exchange
- Aging-in-place functionality for active adults: Non-intrusive cameras/monitors, fall detection devices, and voice-controlled technologies
- Smart switches/plugs, appliances, and irrigation systems
- Built-in data protection and privacy technologies/protocols
- Enhanced connectivity and bandwidth capabilities
- Water heating, monitoring, and leak detection
- Household smart speakers
- Capability to integrate home with a solar-power system, ideally with battery backup.
There are reasons for society’s shift to a telecommuting mentality. The obvious one is the pandemic: For months, people in “non-essential” jobs simply weren’t allowed to go back to the workplace. Also, a faster, more-stable internet has made it the remote worker’s premier information and communication tool—for example, web services giant Comcast reported a 60 percent increase in internet usage and a 212 percent jump in video conferencing tools in use since the pandemic began in March.
Smartphones, the cloud, and communication aids such as Zoom, Skype, and Microsoft Teams have made it easier to collaborate with coworkers. Schedules can be more flexible, with some employers taking a “just get it done on time” approach. And there’s the appreciated informality—formal office attire and being constantly clean-shaven are out; working in a t-shirt and jeans, with three days’ facial growth, is in.
In an April 2020 Brookings Institution report on the pandemic’s impact on telecommuting, coauthors Katherine Guyot and Isabel V. Sawhill note that employers are pushing telecommuting harder than they used to because it saves them money through lower operating costs. It keeps employees off the road (up to 164 billion miles annually, according to researchers at the University of Chicago) and out of traffic jams, which reduces stress.
Driving cars less also cuts down on air pollution (by a mere 66 million metric tons of CO2 emissions annually, according to UChicago), which helps the environment. And, in many cases, employees’ productivity increases from working at home because they are happier, which leads to better worker retention.
There are secondary positives. Employees are healthier thanks to home gyms, lower-stress household environments, and better eating habits. There are few, if any, personality clashes with colleagues. They get to spend more time with family.
And, of course, working from home means increased protection from the coronavirus.
Also, remote work means some people can upgrade their lifestyles by moving from a cramped residence in a densely populated urban center to less-packed, and often less-expensive, outer suburbs and rural areas. According to real estate marketplace operator The Zillow Group, many of the suburban transplants will be renters who have a chance to finally buy a home.
Zillow economist Jeff Tucker says that could mean a housing market that includes almost 2 million new homeowners within a few years. “It’s going to be huge,” he says. “If remote work becomes a bona fide long-term option, especially with the pandemic, that could reshape the U.S. housing market.”
Remote Working Drawbacks
But remote working is not without its drawbacks. Telecommuters report feelings of loneliness and being “disconnected” from their coworkers. They often end up working longer hours than they might if they were still in the office.
There’s a lack of privacy, as many employees’ homes weren’t designed for on-demand videoconferencing and all-day laptop use. There are even career concerns, as being off-site means not being seen by the boss when doing something exceptional, which could mean missed promotions, or possible job elimination.
“We traditionally tend to think of working from home as a perk,” notes work advice writer Allison Green in Slate. “You can do your laundry while you work. You can stay in pajamas and control your own thermostat. You can take the dog for a walk. But after being abruptly forced to work from home full time this year, a lot of people have discovered they don’t like it nearly as much as they thought they would.”
An ongoing study by the IBM Institute for Business Value indicates the arrival of “work from home fatigue.” In July, the percentage of Americans who indicated that they would like to continue remotely even part-time sat at 80 percent. By September, that optimism had dropped to 67 percent. In addition, only 50 percent reported they wanted to primarily work remotely, down from 65 percent two months earlier, according to the study.
The bottom line is that telecommuting, and its pros and cons, are here to stay.
“COVID-19 may permanently change the way many of us work,” Brookings coauthors Guyot and Sawhill note. “At present, shifting as many people as possible to home-based telework is a necessary response to a terrible crisis. In the post-pandemic world, it may stay with us as a popular practice.”
Architect David Hart, CEO of Steinberg Hart in San Francisco, agrees. “The renewed emphasis on dedicated home offices will persist even as the pandemic passes,” he predicted in Bloomberg CityLab. “Now that millions have gotten a tantalizing taste of life without daily commuting, we’ll insist on keeping one foot of our laboring lives in our homes.”
Six Smart Home Office Ideas
The most effective home offices are built around one thing: contentment. Here are ideas to get there.
Steinberg Hart architect and CEO David Hart remembers when a home office was merely an add-on to a floorplan, or an option for an existing room. But the stay-at-home status most people experienced during the early months of the pandemic has changed all of that.
“Pre-COVID, only about 10 percent to 15 percent of the apartments we built had some type of dedicated office space,” Hart says in a report to Bloomberg CityLab. “Going forward, we expect that figure to be more like 75 percent.”
Designers and contractors today have a lot to consider when meeting that demand. People who plan to work from home want more than just a kitchen table and chair to work from. They want a place where they can feel comfortable—because they’re going to be spending a lot of time there.
Here are six design elements that architects, builders, and customers should keep in mind whether crafting a home office for a client or even for themselves.
- Purpose, location, and size. According to residential developer Harris Doyle Homes in Birmingham, Ala., it’s not enough for a customer to say, “I just want somewhere to work.” What exactly will they be doing? If they will be taking client calls, hosting virtual meetings, or require constant alone time to concentrate on their work, make sure the office is tucked away from the busy places in the home. Also, consider the best access to the home’s Wi-Fi network to avoid “dead zones.”
- Productivity. The office should accommodate workflow. Work with the client to think through which items are essential for productivity and how to create a home for each item. Clutter has been scientifically proven to limit productivity, so adequate storage is key. “Solutions are as simple as pencil cups or trays to keep all writing instruments in one place, plus memo and business card holders, wall shelves, chic storage cabinets,” Harris Doyle notes. “Literally, there is a place for everything.”
- Adequate lighting. Many impromptu home offices end up being in a basement or attic, or in a small spare room. “A well-lit room is essential to feel awake and ready to conquer the day,” Harris Doyle notes. “Lighting can make all the difference when it comes to boosting creativity, as a dark space can leave [the user] tired and feeling uninspired.” When designing, make sure the office utilizes as much natural light as possible. Install overhead lights to use “cool” (white) bulbs. And, ensure there are adequate outlets throughout the room in case the customer needs to plug in lamps of their own.
- Ventilation. A home office, when isolated, isn’t of much use with stale air. Focus on natural airflow efforts first, through the use of windows and cross ventilation. The other key provider, an air circulatory system or HVAC unit, will probably already be part of the home’s master design.
- Modern style. According to University of Virginia associate professor of urban and environmental planning Dr. Jessica Sewell, if someone is asked to describe a typical imaginary home office, it would probably include traditionally masculine features such as dark wood furniture, built-in bookshelves, and an oversized desk and chair. “That’s coming straight out of Victorian ideas of the masculine space,” she says in Bloomberg CityLab. “[Those] masculine offices are very much the kind of style that then comes into the home office or the study.” Think lighter, brighter, comfortable, and personalized.
- Color scheme. Encourage color that the customer will feel good about and pair it with accent colors that balance the room, but aren’t too distracting, Harris Doyle notes. Scientifically speaking, a strong blue promotes clear thought while softer blues calm the mind and aid concentration. Brighter colors such as yellow and orange help spark creativity and energy, but they can also foster nervousness. Green can reduce anxiety, reduce stress on eyes, and give the office an outdoor-like feel for those into nature. And good old-fashioned white or off-white can make a room feel more spacious, even if it can also instill a fear of dirt.