Home-working during the COVID-19 pandemic

Trying to replicate the office isn't the best strategy while working from home, says Emeritus Reader in Architecture, Frances Holliss, but there are many ways to adapt and thrive.

Date: 16 April 2020

COVID-19 has thrown millions of people across the globe into enforced home-based work. This brings housing into sharp focus, as people’s experience of this radical shift is inextricably linked to the nature of the spaces they inhabit. Size matters, undoubtedly. Most UK home-based work is accommodated through under-occupation, in a spare bedroom, a large landing, an under-used dining room or a disused garage – or by building a shed at the bottom of the garden. But clever design is equally important, especially where space is at a premium. This poses a challenge in the UK, where new housing is generally designed to inflexible tight-fit design principles in which rooms are designed to fulfil prescribed functions only.

Home-based work has been growing rapidly, globally, since the 2008 crash. While the standard developer’s housing product - the BIM-ready 1-, 2- or 3-bed flat - is ubiquitous world-wide, countries like Japan and the Netherlands are leading the way in terms of developing housing that responds to the spatial and environmental demands of this new wave of homeworking. In the context of COVID-19, people inhabiting homes already designed to combine dwelling with workplace (‘workhomes’) are the lucky ones.

So, what are the underlying design issues? The first complication is that one size does not fit all. Spatial requirements for home-based work depend on four factors: 1. the nature of the occupation (which can range from baker to journalist, hairdresser or childminder to architect), 2. the amount of space available 3. the nature of the household, and 4. the character of the home-based worker. Innumerable permutations mean there is no ‘ideal’ design for a workhome. Most homeworkers, however, prefer a dedicated workspace acoustically separate from the rest of the dwelling, to aid concentration. Some want it as far away from living spaces as possible, limiting interruptions from other members of their household and distancing themselves from that common distraction – the fridge. They also like to be able to close the door on work at the end of the day. Others, especially the rapidly increasing number of people who live alone in the UK, prefer a workspace that opens directly onto, or overlooks, the public realm, to mitigate social isolation. Home-based workers that can see, and be seen on, the street contribute to the safety and vitality of the neighbourhood. Ultimately, housing designed to be spatially flexible and adaptable, with indeterminate spaces not designed around a particular function, is likely to meet the needs of the largest number of home-workers.

In the immediate crisis, some strategies can help people cope or even thrive - even if they are working in overcrowded and/or inappropriate spaces: 1. Trying to replicate the office is not necessarily the best strategy. Most people enjoy home-based work, under ordinary circumstances, because of the additional control that it gives them over their lives. So you like to start work at 5.30am? Perfect - especially if that means you can take a two-hour lunch break in the garden – or on the sofa watching football. Make a daily schedule that sets out time to work, and time to play. 2. Interrogate your home for where you want to work. It could be anywhere. Some people like to cook as they work, moving between computer and stove when they get stuck or bored. In which case, there may be a kitchen shelf at exactly the right height for a standing desk. Others, including some well-known authors, like to work in bed. Why not, so long as it doesn’t hurt your back or arms? Be imaginative, there are many possibilities; moving between them can be a good strategy. Some home-workers have a morning, and an afternoon, working spot. 3. Design your journey to and from work at the start and end of the day. A long walk can help make the transition, but so can any form of exercise. Others change into ‘work’ clothes after breakfast, to get themselves into the right mindset, or alter their environment, by moving a piece of furniture, for example, changing the lighting or removing a fluffy rug to formalise the space. 4. Sound is important. If you can’t be in a separate space, noise-cancelling headphones and microphone can make it possible for two people in the same space to make phone calls at the same time.  5. Remember work is an activity, not a place - don’t worry about your occupational identity. The brilliant civil servant is just as brilliant in her cramped and untidy fourth-floor flat, as she is in her prestigious Westminster office.

After this crisis, there should be no return to the status quo. We have learned that working at home is possible, and maybe even preferable, across a wide range of jobs. A radical redesign is needed to our housing and how it is managed. Fast internet should be an essential service for all, equivalent to electricity and water. Policies are needed to prevent overcrowding. Home-working social tenants should have the right to a dedicated workspace and living rooms rented as bedrooms should be outlawed. In planning policy, ‘dwelling-house with small other function eg shop, office, studio’ should be tucked into the ‘dwelling-house’ category of the Planning Use Class Order, as it is in Japan.

If we can work from home to contain the spread of COVID-19, then we can also do so to combat the climate emergency. The UK government needs to champion home-based work – starting with acknowledging how well it works for the Prime Minister and Chancellor in Downing Street.