Rethinking the social infrastructure of work after the pandemic

Rethinking the social infrastructure of work after the pandemic

What kind of houses should we build when home is also the workplace?

Over the past few years there has been a constant stream of articles and reports about how to solve the UK’s housing crisis by building more homes. These invariably focus on the mechanics of the problem: regulatory changes, land availability, location, taxes, lending arrangements and financial incentives.

In all the debate about how to deliver the quantity of homes needed, no one seems to be asking ‘What kind of houses should we be building in the 21st century?’ And if home is also where we work, how well are our homes designed for this?

In this article I’ll be exploring both the lessons learned from the pandemic and the wider strategic issues related to the rapidly changing nature of work.

The coronavirus pandemic has seen a massive increase in working from home. Yet ‘return to work’ is almost entirely seen as being about how to (re)design the traditional workplace to enable people to work safely, and how people can travel to work safely. Very little attention is given to the design of the spaces for working outside of the traditional workplace.

Literally millions of people have now discovered that actually they can work remotely, in addition to the millions who were already doing so. Surveys have consistently indicated that more people intend to work from home more of the time. Most people feel just as productive, if not more so, when they do it.

Rapid changes in the nature of work are a key part of the context. Due to technological advances, increasing amounts of work can be done almost anywhere. Workplaces are changing as a result, but policy and thinking around housing, communities and public spaces are resolutely stuck in the mid-20th century.

Cramming people into smaller and smaller units in identical estates, or shoe-boxes piled into the sky, is still predicated on a 20th century commuting model of work

In the UK before the pandemic, 14% of the workforce worked mainly from home. A further 21% of employees worked from home at least sometimes, and double that for office-based work. Over 70% of business start-ups begin at home, and 55% opt to stay there. But the story is not all about homeworking. The spatial and mobility impacts of the new world of work are much more varied and subtle.

The changing relationships between people, work and space

Nearly all large organisations have been rationalising their workspace. This typically means smaller offices that are more intensively used. Manufacturing and distribution centres, however, are increasingly automated, with fewer people based on site. Retail is also going through a major transformation, affecting who sells what and where. New companies and individuals now run retail operations with minimal need for premises.

As land values for offices decline except in the most prestigious areas, the biggest growth area in the office property market is for coworking space. The UK government is adopting this concept too with the closure of many single-department offices in favour of shared ‘government hubs’. Employees work there or elsewhere as needed.

Artificial intelligence and automation will intensify these trends, enabling monitoring, analysis and control to be carried out from remote locations.

Why we must rethink how we build homes

However, we are not planning our homes and communities to provide the right spaces for work in the 21st century. The approach of cramming people into smaller and smaller units in identical estates, or shoe-boxes piled into the sky, is still predicated on a 20th century commuting model of work. Housing policy remains fundamentally based on separating work from home and community. It made sense in the industrial era, but not now.

Changing demographics also impact housing requirements. We need to develop homes flexible enough by design to accommodate changing uses through life. This includes working (or flexing in and out of work), learning, devoting space to our personal interests and projects as well as caring responsibilities, for children or grandchildren as well as an older generation. Or accommodating people – or machines – to support and care for us in our homes as needed.

We need a much more diverse and flexible blueprint for our future homes. A proportion of homes should be designed to include business space, not only ‘home offices’. Contrary to the high-tech image, many home-based businesses and start-ups are in quite traditional fields like food preparation, education, health and skilled crafts. These are just the kinds of enterprises we’ll need more of as manufacturing and traditional white-collar work become more automated, not only the high-tech high-skilled ones.

An inescapable conclusion is that a significant proportion of new homes should be larger.

Fibre to the home must be included in all new settlements. Much more immersive video collaboration technologies will be commonplace by the mid-2020s. These will be vital for work and learning activities, as well as social and recreational purposes. And we’ll need both space and connection in homes to use them most effectively.

An inescapable conclusion is that a significant proportion of new homes should be larger. This will involve rethinking approaches to density. Planners and developers alike favour high-density developments. It’s a mistake to think high density is more sustainable, and we need a much more intelligent approach to this when we can integrate living and working and thereby eliminate a large amount of commuting.

In another article I’ll look more closely at the kind of requirements for the workplace-home – how to address not only the space and technology requirements, but also the quality of the sensory environment, ergonomics and more.

Provision for local ‘workhubs’ or coworking centres in new communities is a must. There needs to be a much stronger connection between housing policy and economic development policy. We need to start thinking about homes and local community spaces as key parts of the national infrastructure of work.

For all the talk of robots and AI, we’re a long way from the ‘end of work’. But it is a world where new industries, digital technology and AI are reshaping the landscape of work while people are also living significantly longer. We need homes that will support much more decentralised, networked and flexible patterns of work, help us develop new and innovative enterprises or just give us space to do the things we love doing.

It’s a sustainable and future-focused way forward to ensure the right quality of homes, to go with the quantity – and to ensure we have the right infrastructure for work to keep the economy going through the next pandemic.

The second article, looking closer at the nature and design of future homes, is available here: What are homes for in the 21st century?

Andy Lake, Director of Flexibility.co.uk, advises business and government on new working practices and writes about the future of work.