The future of the home office

Recent reports suggest that the home office is dying, but is that really correct and what does the future actually hold for the dedicated home workspace?

Jump in a time machine and zip back 15 years and you’ll find the average person working from home with a desktop computer, printer and separate phone landline connected to a fax machine. He or she would typically be sat at a large workstation desk that could accommodate all this bulky equipment and be surrounded by several storage areas and filing cabinets. The office itself would most likely all be set up in a dedicated room or even a separate building away from normal home life.

Fast-forward back to the present and, partly thanks to the prevalence of laptops and wi-fi, the home office might look quite different. Many who work remotely can now be found set up on the dining table or working from the sofa, with the TV on in the background. Others may alternatively be down their local Starbucks, keeping in touch with HQ while they sip a frappuccino. 

Nomadic workers today are more self-contained; a laptop may have all they need and, with paperwork diminishing, large filing and storage areas are no longer required. People are now asking themselves whether they still need a home office at all. Anecdotal evidence even suggests that some existing home offices are being repurposed into that modern equivalent of the Victorian study, the ‘man cave’. While the kids are playing video games on the living room TV, Dad’s in the ‘office’ watching football with a beer!

The nuanced truth

But is this all just apocryphal nonsense or are the days of the home office really numbered? OPI spoke to a number of home office suppliers to see if this scenario stacks up with their experiences and sales figures.

Michelle Boolton, Director of Design and Workplace Strategy at Staples Business Advantage in the US, agrees that the dedicated home office space is in decline: “This is primarily for two reasons,” she says. “Firstly, while technology has pulled us away from the office to work more from home, it’s also pushing us back out. Many home workers now need access to better technology such as telepresence and video conferencing, media labs and increased wi-fi speeds that they simply can’t access at home. As such, they’re heading out to co-working spaces such as our Staples Workbar.

“Secondly, it’s human nature to desire connection and shared purpose. And while many companies encourage their remote employees to use virtual team-building tools like Cisco Jabber or GoToMeeting, there is still nothing quite like the power of face-to-face human interaction. Consequently, corporations are requesting that some of their work-from-home employees spend more time collaborating in a shared workspace. It is there they’ll get that sense of community and the physical connection that fosters increased collaboration, camaraderie, engagement and motivation; all of which lead to an increase in thought capital for the business.”

Doug Nash, President of US furniture manufacturer Iceberg Enterprises, doesn’t believe the home office is dead, but agrees that the demand for a more engaging and synergistic work environment is growing. “Co-working spaces and more flexible work environments are on the rise because they offer a unique, energising and collaborative setting that home offices cannot,” he says. “In terms of product sales we are finding that the tables we supply are actually being used more as next-generation desks because they are flexible, mobile and in some cases, height-adjustable. These tables are ending up both in home offices and the fast-growing co-working spaces as both environments change to suit today’s employee needs. So while we see co-working growing, home offices aren’t gone, they are just evolving too.”

Others still recognise a role for a separate home office environment and see distinct advantages in maintaining a split between work and home life. Bryon Morton, VP of Leasing for the NeoCon furniture show, explains: “While mobile technology has made it possible to work from just about anywhere, most would agree that having a dedicated place to work that’s like a real office – complete with printers, scanners and shredders – is important. It also gives remote workers the chance to ‘leave work’ at the end of the day, shutting the door of the office and returning to normal home life, which is vital for maintaining a true work/life balance.

“But having a traditional office is also essential as it gives employees the opportunity to collaborate, learn from their peers and experience corporate culture first hand. The importance companies give to this is illustrated by the trend for establishing satellite offices in city centres that can also be used to attract and retain talent.”

No impact on sales

In Australia, Toby Watson, National Merchandise Manager at Officeworks, has not seen any negative impact on home office product sales. “We continue to see customers respond positively to the products that help fulfil their home office needs across all our core areas such as furniture, technology and general office supplies. So from our perspective the home office is still alive and well, and continuing to grow.

“Having said this, we are also seeing a huge trend in people wanting to work from locations outside their home office – whether it’s in different rooms around their house, or externally at cafés, parks or in transit. Advances in technology are now making this possible, and our challenge is to continuously innovate to meet customer needs and empower them to work more flexibly.”

Many corporations with a large mobile workforce will actually offer to provide staff with equipment to kit out their home offices. However, budgetary constraints often mean that only low-cost, low-quality options are available. “This means that telecommuters often don’t take advantage of these programmes,” says Morton. “Instead, they choose to buy their own furniture that’s better quality and which complements the decor of their home. As such, we believe that quality ergonomic products such as workstations and seating represent a significant growth opportunity for home office furniture sales. Technology is another key area of major importance for a home office or mobile worker, and companies must develop rock-solid IT and security standards to protect the data of employees in their workforce who work remotely.”

A glimpse of the future

Technology has created a ‘work from anywhere’ ethos, but it has also redefined the concept of ‘work’ and ‘employment’. There has been a sizeable shift away from the concept of working for one firm on a full-time basis and a movement towards the idea of the ‘gig economy’ – a labour market characterised by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work, as opposed to permanent jobs. In the UK alone it’s estimated that five million people are already employed in this type of capacity and it’s a trend that is expected to continue.

This is inevitably having an effect on the way both companies and their employees view their workspace needs. In a recent Tomorrow’s Workplace competition hosted by Staples Business Advantage, the runner-up, Jie Zhang – an architect from Cambridge, Massachusetts – presented her FoAM design range that sets out to celebrate this rapidly-growing trend towards a freelance economy. 

FoAM is a combination of easily-deployable inflatable ‘bubbles’ that create personal mobile offices, which can be set up essentially anywhere. The inflatables are collapsible, come equipped with digital technology and can be carried in a backpack to wherever they are required. Technology like this is truly pushing the idea of the mobile office far away from the traditional offering.

The concept of a work ‘touchdown area’ is already established in many homes and seen by experts as the model many will choose to adopt going forward. This is not a defined or dedicated room, but an alcove or other area within the house that is equipped with the basics needed to work. Kitting it out is more about concentrating on ergonomics and suitable personalised accessories, rather than thinking about a full suite of office equipment – as such, items like fold-down or sit-to-stand desks, task lighting, monitor arms and compact desktop accessories are becoming more important. 

“This idea of the blended workspace is increasingly important,” says Boolton. “Results from our 2016 Workplace Index survey showed just this, with a desire for flexible furniture that can be used for multiple things by employees working from home on a more regular basis.

“I see the home office continuing to trend to a home ‘desk-at-best’ arrangement. This desk will most likely double with other activities, such as also being a craft table or a blogging site. Most users simply don’t need to invest in the square footage of a purposely-designed room. With the trend towards urbanisation on the rise, especially among younger generations, space is increasingly at a premium and will play into this too.

“However, as with anything, these trends are certainly not the answer for all home workers. We have to approach the idea of the ‘home office of the future’ like any good designer and come up with specific solutions that can meet the needs of all types of individuals. That may be a touchdown area or even an inflatable mobile office, but equally it may just require a traditional home office solution with associated dedicated space, furniture and technology. We need to cater for everybody.”

Read more about the furniture category and a review of this year’s NeoCon event in Chicago in the July/August issue of OPI.

Remote working reboots concentration 

A change of scene lifts flagging productivity, according to research by flexible workplace provider Regus. Remote working improves productivity levels by offering a much-needed change of scenery said its recent survey of over 20,000 business people. Over half of global employees (53%) suffering from symptoms of cabin fever find relief by varying their work environment.

In addition to improving productivity, remote working also helps 56% of people to concentrate, with a break from the usual business environment renewing focus and enabling mobile workers to get through their ‘to do’ list without interruptions. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, employees who work this way spend less time commuting and have more time to unwind with family at the end of the day. 58% also say working away from the office helps them stay closer to clients.

Given those findings it’s encouraging to see that many managers are aware of these positive effects. Next year around a third plan to allow their teams one or two remote-working days per week, while 11% would allow them to work this way the whole time.

Richard Morris, UK CEO at Regus, comments: “Traditionally, business managers have been seen as being hesitant about allowing staff to work remotely. So the fact they’re offering employees mobile working may come as a surprise. However, further motivation for directors is that remote working provides companies with a wider reach. As a business grows, proximity to clients and prospects is indispensable, but can also be costly. Flexible working practices allow companies to have a presence in different locations, whether to meet potential customers or source suppliers, with little extra expense.”