Last March, as the first waves of the pandemic surged across the U.S. and thousands of employers emptied their headquarters, the need to invent a “home office” on the fly—from commandeering a couch to squeezing a desk into a closet—was born of necessity. Some larger tech companies offered up stipends to employees to set themselves up at home, desks were panic-purchased from Wayfair and nearly everyone tried to boost their bandwidth while riding this thing out. Now, a year later, the residential workspace has gone much more strategic. And it makes sense: spending so much additional time at home has made people hyper-aware of their needs, both professionally and personally. It turns out that maintaining a professional level of productivity requires, in no small way, the right sort of environment. Especially with WFH options likely to become part of many companies’ “hybrid” working plans even as traditional offices reopen, home workstations are in the middle of an accelerated transformation. After all, for hybrid working to really succeed, there needs to be parity between the quality of work happening in either place.

For anyone who thinks about the best uses of space routinely—especially architects, interior designers and real estate agents—the shift of the home office from nice-to-have to essential has been an ongoing wave. According to a recent design trends survey from the American Institute of Architects, 68% of architects reported requests for home offices last year versus 29% in 2019; and ‘flex rooms’—spaces that didn’t even make the list in 2019—were requested among 43% of the architects surveyed. That’s a surge that San Francisco architect Andrew Mann has been seeing in real time. One of his clients realized early on that he couldn’t work within his home, tasking Mann to design an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) complete with a workstation, secondary workstation, built-in green screen (for his client’s TV interviews and presentations) and meeting space for up to four people. It’s basically a private, mini version of his professional office. Logan Ziegler, Senior Product Designer at the Las Vegas design-build development firm Blue Heron, has fielded similar requests. “We’ve had a few clients ask for a substantially large office as a response to COVID; one recently asked for a conference room-style office with storage and screens for web conferencing.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, designers and realtors have seen a shift with the home office going from a nice-to-have to essential.

You need the means to do something like that, though. And, of course, you have to own the extra space to begin with. But even without physical room to build, Mann believes what people are seeking today goes far beyond a clean surface to plop down a laptop. “The thing that has disappeared is the desk nook in the great room or the kitchen—I haven’t heard anybody talk about wanting that or finding it at all useful lately,” he notes. “Those kinds of multi-functional casual spaces seem so much less important now. And even in offices designed to be multi-functional, now it’s an office first and a guest bedroom second. It was typically the reverse before.”

Los Angeles-based interior designer Peti Lau has been regularly retrofitting guest rooms with workstations for her clients lately, especially in homes with kids or two adults that are often simultaneously on video calls. “There’s a mental shift that happens when you create a space with intention, and the intention here is ‘working from home,’ so that your brain can step into ‘work’ mode,” Lau says. And if you don’t have space, she advises that it’s high time to get creative and make it, even if that means taking a hard look at what else can be eliminated. Sliding partitions, privacy screens and room dividers can at least create the illusion of a separate ‘room,’ which, again, can help you mentally gear up to work. Position yourself with an attractive background for Zoom calls and add some fresh cut flowers or a plant to further elevate your surroundings, recommends Marion Philpotts-Miller, a partner of Hawaii’s Philpotts Interiors. “Your home office is now a representation of your personal brand,” she states. It’s so true. By extension, it’s suddenly a representation of the company, too. Where no one might have seen your unmade bed before, it says something about you now, and might even affect the perception of your corporation. Professionalism at all angles really counts. “It’s like having a good outfit on, at least from the waist up,” stresses Lau. “A clean, not-too-distracting background is now essential.” 

Realtors are taking note. As Los Angeles-based real estate agent Tracy Do of Compass has observed, “Buyers today want workspaces—plural—because oftentimes they have the need for two individuals to have defined work areas.” In response, she’s regularly staging two bedrooms in a three-bedroom home as offices in the homes she’s selling, and even finds herself answering questions about service providers and bandwidth right off the bat. Small studio apartments are also attracting more interest and bidding wars than ever before in cities like New York, not as places to sleep but as places to work. A recent Curbed article reported that wealthy New Yorkers are jumping to make offers on vacant apartments in their own buildings, opting to set up workstations and “commute” down the hall.

With hybrid working models here to stay, employees are getting creative about their home work stations, even creating accessory dwelling units in their backyards.

Bottom line, a permanent or semi-permanent investment in a home workplace is a smart move, both from a mental health and productivity standpoint. The means for individuals to make this investment, however, remains the X factor. So if the answer to the still-lingering ‘will we return to the office?’ question is looking like ‘hybrid’—though the term has multiple meanings—the best move would be for companies themselves to take a hand in equipping their employees’ home workstations. If some of the fit-out costs of traditional offices are shifted to upgrading WFH spaces, the likely result is that brand standards are maintained, money is (potentially) saved, and employees are more productive…and happier too. Getting the home workspace right may prove to be a valuable tool for talent acquisition, retention and engagement. That’s one of the reasons ROOM is launching pro-quality WFH kits, and why the company is partnering with Industrious to launch a series of ROOM ‘Workspace Galleries’ where people can test out products like Phone Booths and Meeting Rooms. A similar move is underway from office furniture behemoth Herman Miller, which just opened its first experiential concept stores in New York and L.A. in November, with several other locations planned later this year. And the U.S. office furniture market is currently projected to grow by $5.64 billion through 2024, despite the fact that no one quite knows exactly what the relationship between the traditional office and the home office might be.

One thing isn’t questionable: “We think people are just so, so tired of working in their dining rooms and kitchens,” says Julie Hawkins of Hawkins Interiors in Napa Valley. It’s time to change that, for workers at every level. The home office is undergoing a quieter evolution than the reckoning underway about traditional office spaces—but it’s certainly here to stay.

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