A cultural shift to remote work may keep you working at home even when the pandemic passes, if history is any guide
Four months into New York City’s lockdown, I’m finally committing to outfitting my own home office.
Prior to the onset of the pandemic, I worked at my husband’s desk, which has multiple large monitors, a very nice desk chair, and even one of those green-glass banker’s lamps. Now that he’s working from home, I need to design my own little work nook, which will cost a little bit of cash I’m loath to part with in these precarious times.
The investment of energy, creative thinking, and money into creating a home workspace is intimidating, but it’s never been more essential that I — and many other office workers — bite the bullet and build a home office that won’t leave us prone to distractions or with debilitating back pain.
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More people are purchasing desks, office chairs, and other home office accessories than ever before. British furniture brand John Lewis reports that a recent week saw a 91% sales increase of office chairs and a 44% increase in desks compared to the year before. According to Wirecutter, interest in home office equipment like computer monitors, standing desks, and office chairs have all skyrocketed. There was such a rush on computer monitors, in fact, that one Office Depot salesperson in San Francisco told Bloomberg that “it’s just like toilet paper and hand sanitizer.”
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This investment in home offices could encourage people to stay and work from home even after the pandemic is “over”—or at least whenever it is deemed safe enough for us to commute to the office. Interior design and architecture are often thought of as being reactive: People build homes and design spaces to address needs people already have. Less often do we consider how those spaces will then shape us. But throughout history, people have invented new home technologies, created trends, and introduced architectural or design norms that have gone on to affect culture and life generally — take the home bathroom, for example, which only became normal in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The second monitor of today is the personal toilet of the 19th century.
Spending significant energy and money — both of which are in insufficient supply for most of us — on our home offices, creating a workspace as we want it rather than how a boss wants it, could very likely make working from home more common and desirable even after we’re told to shuffle back to the office. In other words: The second monitor of today is the personal toilet of the 19th century.
By essentially building a (perhaps cramped) personalized workspace in our homes, the downsides of the office — of which, in my opinion, there are too many to count — will become more obvious. Suddenly, the need to go into the office, where there’s a desk and a decent-sized monitor for an employee to do their work, is less vital when we more or less have the same setup at home. Though there are factors that will make professional office space appealing in many ways (when you want to see a co-worker face-to-face, for example), it won’t be essential every day when a home contains most of the amenities once relegated to the professional office. Nor will we want to let the possibly expensive home office area we’ve built go to waste once we finally are allowed back into communal work spaces.
When we consider how architecture and interior design has affected culture, we need to think about technology, says Yu Nong Khew, assistant professor of interior design at Parsons School of Design. “The first obvious example [of impactful architecture] is definitely the lift or the elevator,” she says. “The ability to move vertically was influenced by the implementation of the elevator.”
Before its introduction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, buildings were generally only a few stories high; much taller and people simply wouldn’t be able to get to the top floors without exhausting themselves. But as the elevator evolved, becoming faster (they were incredibly slow at first) and safer (early elevators either didn’t have doors or only had manual, rather than automatic, doors), elevators changed the very landscape of cities — and made higher floors trendy. The invention of the elevator made the top floor of a building, once little more than a place for storage and debris, fashionable and expensive. Now, some of the most coveted real estate in the world is at the top of very tall buildings.
And as mentioned, the adoption of indoor plumbing in the 19th and early 20th centuries is another technological, architectural innovation that had massive effects on people’s lives. People were healthier and cleaner, of course. But it also spurred the necessity for another room in the house — the washroom or bathroom — that before the invention of indoor plumbing, no one needed at all. Ordinary people relied on outhouses and chamber pots to do their business, and portable washtubs and public baths were how people got clean. With private toilets and baths being fitted into people’s homes and added to new architectural blueprints, the formerly communal activity of bathing became a private one.
While bathing became a more private activity in the 19th and early 20th century, architectural trends and technological innovations transformed cooking, eating, and “living” into communal activities. “The development of the modern 20th-century kitchen with all of its automated appliances had a profound effect on kitchen design and daily life,” says Molly Heintz, program chair of design research at the School of Visual Arts in New York. “The kitchen became a place to show off the latest designs, and this in part led to the open-kitchen concept in residential planning. The kitchen became a locus of family life, a gathering place, visibly connected with other living areas.” It also led to more multitasking: When homes were separated into separate living spaces, women were often cloistered in the kitchen while cooking while the rest of the family spent time in the rest of the home. But with an open concept, a mother could cook, clean, watch television, and supervise the kids all at the same time.
Now that families helmed by office-worker parents are working from home, taking Zoom calls at the same time, and generally crawling all over each other in their open-concept homes (or, conversely, setting up a desk in the same vicinity as the bed), it’s clear that walls, actually, are a good thing.
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“The home office is here to stay,” says Stephanie Travis, associate professor of interior architecture at George Washington University in D.C. “These office spaces will be more intentional — more than a converted bedroom.”
A separate room for an office or, at the very least, space for a desk for each working adult in a family is practically a luxury when for decades we’ve been commuting to work and knocking down walls both at home and at the office. Already, many architects suspect that houses and apartments will be designed with the home office in mind. In an interview with Bloomberg, architect David Hart says that before the onset of the pandemic, only 10–15% of the apartments his firm designed had dedicated office space. He thinks that will rise as high as 75% in the near future. In Dwell, architect Dan Weber says that “this experiment, especially if it lasts a long time, is going to completely redefine our ability to work from home. … This health crisis could possibly have a long-term effect on how important a home office — or at least a working nook — is in residential design.”
While the wealthiest city dwellers are fleeing to the suburbs — a move that, according to Reuters, economists predict may be permanent — office workers who aren’t swimming in cash are investing disproportionate sums of money into making their home offices comfortable and productive. Many companies, including Shopify and Basecamp, allow employees to expense some of their home office purchases, a trend that, according to CNBC, will only become more commonplace.
The time and money people spend on making these spaces workable and pleasant could make it even more likely that remote work will remain a permanent fixture in our lives, at least part of the time. Khew thinks that people will still crave time spent at the office but that home workspaces will remain an important fixture in people’s work lives. “The home office will become an extension of the workplace. I think it’s here to stay — there’s no doubt about it,” she says. “If you’re going to the office, it’s because you want to socialize, because you want to exchange ideas with your colleagues.”
Pandemics have had distinct effects on architecture and culture before; there’s no reason to believe this one will be any different, especially regarding the thing we spend most of our time and energy on: work. As it becomes clear that a full communal office space, especially those with an open office plan, is a health and economic liability, and employees spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on home office infrastructure that’s to their preference, not their boss’s, we’ll likely take advantage of our personalized desk space and lack of a commute for as long as we can.