You are currently viewing What are homes for in the 21st century?

What are homes for in the 21st century?

An exploration of the future home in the new world of work

This is the second in a series of 3 articles on the rethinking the social infrastructure for work. The first article is here.

When working with organisations to develop smarter ways of working, one of the key questions I ask is “What is the workplace for?”

It’s an essential question when much of the work that the workforce does these days can be carried out from pretty much anywhere. And during the pandemic home has become the default place to work for hundreds of millions of people around the world.

So as the industrial age separation of work and home breaks down, there’s a need to ask the question: “What are homes for in the 21st century?”

Let’s look at some of the factors which are changing the nature of activity in the home environment.

  • An ever-increasing amount of work is capable of being done remotely, and employing organisations provide the tools to enable this
  • “Industry 4.0” – the extensive use of artificial intelligence, robotics and automation – increases the knowledge components of previously hands-on and site-specific work, enabling ever more activities to be carried out remotely
  • Commercial platforms that support business operations, including retail, remove much of the requirement for real estate and locally-held inventory
  • Increasingly business start-ups not only begin at home, but stay there using networks of freelancers and associates as much as employees
  • People are living longer and working later in life, but wish to do so in more flexible ways
  • Learning is becoming increasingly capable of being carried out online and supported virtually
  • Remote support for healthcare is growing fast
  • People have aspirations for better work-life balance and more choice about where, when and how to work.

In short, there is a combination of trends that creates momentum towards carrying out work, learning and healthcare without having to travel to separate premises to do so.

The problem is, homes are not designed to cater for this range of activity. Instead, the trend over the past 40 years has been to make homes ever smaller and more standardised. That effectively designs out the ability to work from home or have the flexibility needed for these other purposes.

So, what are the implications for how homes are designed?

Homes need to have dedicated space designed for work

First of all, when the home is used as a workplace, there needs to be a dedicated space for work.

Many people working from home during the lockdown are doing so from kitchen tables, corners of bedrooms or from the sofa. These can be unsuitable for ergonomic reasons or from competing uses of the space.

Some people, particularly more mature workers whose children have left home, or more senior managers and professionals, may have a room they can turn into a study. Such rooms may be fine for computer-based work with the right furniture and equipment. However, a room that happens to be available is unlikely to be ideal for many types of work if one is running a business that involves making products, receiving business visitors or clients.

It may also not be ideal from the point of view of acoustics or other aspects of the sensory environment (more of which below).

Contrary to the view that most home-based work is office-based knowledge work, a very large number of home-based businesses and start-ups are in fields like crafts, textiles, food preparation, retail and therapies.

Many businesses, freelancers and independent contractors use their home as a base while working in multiple places. This kind of work cuts across sectors, and some such as musicians, peripatetic teachers or therapists, landscapers, and event organisers need good spaces for developing their services and to prepare work they take elsewhere, as well as for administration, marketing or collaborating with partners.

The kind of space required varies according to the type of work being undertaken. So it’s not a question of designing home workplaces on a “one size fits all” basis.

Home workspaces need to be optimised for increasingly immersive communications technologies

During the pandemic there has been a big jump in both the uptake of virtual collaboration technologies and people’s confidence in using it.

This in turn is giving a big boost to the industry and we can expect to see ever more immersive technologies to interact both with colleagues and remote work systems, including:

  • Larger and more flexible screens
  • Collaboration software that is more seamless and enables more real-time collaboration with remote colleagues
  • Intelligent surfaces
  • Virtual reality – primarily to interact with remote systems and sites
  • Further down the line: 3D virtual presence.

It’s worth thinking through some use cases here. For example, a teacher or other professional delivering training to remote participants. To deliver a professional-quality experience, more and more people have been turning a home office (or co-opted bedroom!) into a kind of home studio, with microphones, mixers, multiple screens etc.

Then there is the emerging group of podcasters and influencers who make a living from channels of economic activity that were unthought of just a few years ago.

A different example might be engineers working on a design collaboratively, with large drawings or complex CAD drawings, or needing to look at designs and prototypes in 3D.

These are not the kinds of work to do from the kitchen table or a corner of the landing – they need a decent amount of space that can accommodate whatever screens, surfaces or other communication equipment is needed.

Bandwidth to and from the home

From the beginning, broadband services to the home have been based on the idea that people at home are primarily consumers of digital services rather than producers. That’s part of the logic of asymmetric services (i.e. there’s greater bandwidth bringing stuff to you than you have available to send stuff out). Successive government reports and policies in the UK and elsewhere have ignored the needs of home-based workers and businesses for affordable bandwidth to communicate, sell and deliver products and services.

“The home is the centre for production too”

This has to change. Fibre-to-the-home should be considered a basic utility that is mandated by public authorities. People need sufficient bandwidth to work and collaborate, and the demand is only going to increase. The home is the centre for production too.

The acoustic environment

People who work from home rather than the office often cite the ability to get on with work with fewer distractions. They can focus and concentrate.

That advantage can be lost in a household that has multiple activities going on at the same time. Being able to close a door when necessary is part of the answer. A noise-cancelling headset is another part of the solution. A good acoustic environment is important in the dedicated workspace, but also throughout the rest of the house to reduce the amount of unwanted noise overall.

The need for good acoustics is especially important when involved in virtual meetings. Sound bouncing off hard surfaces and outside noises can be distracting and can be particularly oppressive for people joining you remotely.

On the other hand, access to natural sounds when not on a call can lift one’s mood, increase focus and relieve stress.

Biophilia and access to nature/outside space

So following through from that, it’s worth exploring the biophilic possibilities for home workplaces as much as for the collective workplace.

“Biophilia” refers to humans’ innate connection to nature. There is considerable research evidence that access to natural light, sounds, smells and textures have positive impacts on wellbeing as well as supporting effective working.

In workplaces this can take the form of living walls or other greenery, water features and access to real daylight. And even the simulation of these in images or recorded sounds can give us a bit of a boost.

I’ve always thought it slightly odd that people are forced to travel from environments where they are naturally comfortable and may already be close to nature, to work in unnatural environments that are then retrofitted with a few plants. We can do better than that.


My alternative high-biophilia writing space

An escape from my tiny but functional home office, and where this article was written 🙂

We need to think about the access to nature in the home working environment, including the views and access to outdoor space. A few years ago, I wrote much of my management book Smart Flexibility (and a novel, Shades of Green) in the garden, under a patio umbrella. I certainly found it an aid to creativity and focus.

However, one feature of modern homes is that gardens are often tiny. Yet they are important for all kinds of reasons apart from working. Being able to grow one’s own food – to become partially self-sufficient – has also become of greater interest to people as a result of this pandemic. It would be a very retrograde step if providing additional workspace in homes came at the expense of gardens.

Learning at home

As well as supporting the needs of people working from home, there’s a need to support adults’ and children’s learning at home. Much of that learning is online, and increasingly it’s interactive and collaborative.

This requires the bandwidth, the screen technologies and often the separate spaces as well to carry out the learning uninterrupted.

Healthcare at home

We tend to think of healthcare being something that happens outside the home. But that is changing, both for people who deliver healthcare services and for all of us, as recipients of care.

It’s becoming increasingly common for people carrying out tasks such as analysing scans and x-rays to do this from home. As time moves on and robotics plays a greater part in healthcare, we can expect that tasks such as managing and programming will be carried out remotely. Providing telemedicine services or expert advice and diagnostics are also often capable of being carried out from remote locations.

For recipients of care, there is a growth in the kinds of robotic devices that can be located in people’s homes to provide support, whether advising people with dementia, dispensing medicines or acting as assistants for e.g. lifting and moving people.

Healthcare visitors in due course may well arrive with a robotic assistant to carry out the heavy lifting – will they have room to move? Generally, people prefer to be cared for at home rather than in a care home or hospital. And with the right kind of support, we can remain active for longer in our own homes.

Add to that another growth area, that of providing personal health services and therapies. In some ways this is a traditional form of mixed domestic use, e.g. the dentist, podiatrist, psychologist, masseur or personal trainer who has a treatment room or studio at home. We need to expand the number of homes that can provide a base for the treatments and therapies involved.

Adaptability over a “100 Year Life”

We’re living longer. Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott raise the prospect in their excellent book, The 100 Year Life – Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, of our having several careers over the course of a multi-stage life, with periods of working interwoven with times when we re-skill ourselves or just doing other things that interest us. The chronological work/life separation we’ve known is now changing too.

We need the homes that will support these longer lives and sometimes quite radical shifts in what we do. We may flex into and out of employment, self-employment, freelancing, starting a business, caring for others, being cared for, learning, teaching and more. Sometimes we might work at home, sometimes elsewhere, sometimes not at all.

The design of homes will need to incorporate some flexibility, so uses can be changed. But not all possible uses can be accommodated within the same building, so housing stock as a whole needs to be sufficiently varied so that we can find the kinds of accommodation that will best serve the uses we anticipate.

Types of home workspace

From the types of work and uses set out above, we can see the need for a range of different kinds of spaces for different kinds of work and other activities. These include:

  • Office – for primarily knowledge work, with good ergonomic set-up, adjustable-height desk, multiple screens, capacity for big wall-mounted screen for communication if needed, comfortable alternative place to sit away from screen (e.g. to read, watch broadcast, participate in less formal meeting etc)
  • Workshop – room with sufficient space for fabrication, whether high tech or in traditional crafts, with space for storage as needed
  • Comms room – space for more immersive collaboration, potentially with space and surfaces for 3D holographic work and participation in project or innovation work with distant colleagues. Could also be used for home-based learning
  • Sound-proofed studio – for music rehearsal and teaching, and audio or video production or broadcast
  • Treatment room – for those in health and beauty occupations, which may have particular requirements for patient privacy, safety etc as well as room for treatment chairs or tables and specialist equipment
  • Food and drink preparation area – this could be a larger kitchen, or a dedicated space for preparation and packaging/bottling for distribution
  • Shop front – for homes in town centres or in local centres, a space fronting on to e.g. a workshop or studio in which customers can be met and products ordered or sold.

These are just some of the kinds of spaces that would be appropriate. They could be within a house, or an adjoined or separate building in the garden or courtyard. For an excellent and illustrated global survey of different kinds of home work environments, check out Beyond Live/Work: The Architecture of Home-based Work, by Frances Holliss. There are plenty of precedents – we’ve just tended to ignore them during the industrial era!

In most countries these kinds of uses are hedged in or just plain prohibited by planning rules. We need to sweep these constraints away for the most part, a topic I will address in my next article.

Making great places to work at home, rather than just making do!

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen a huge boost in the numbers of people homeworking. This has tended to be a tactical rather than strategic response. In the UK we’ve seen our hapless prime minister urging people to “go back to the office” to save the economy (as if folk working at home haven’t worked throughout).

This return to an old normal just isn’t going to happen. Nor is it especially desirable.

We do need to be more strategic about it, though. This means both businesses and public authorities need to get their thinking caps on and address head-on the future of work in a fast-changing digital age.

So we need to think creatively and positively about making great places to work, wherever we work. We need to ensure homes are excellent, ergonomically optimal places to work, with a great sensory and biophilic environment and sufficient variety to meet a wide range of needs.

These homes should give us the flexibility and adaptability we need to live fulfilled and varied lives in the years ahead. And in any future crisis, they will serve as our shelter from the storm, while enabling us to remain economically active.

The third article will look at the policy context for reshaping homes and communities to provide the social infrastructure for 21st century work – how to make it happen

Andy Lake is Director of, and author of the Smart Working Handbook and It’s Work But Not As We Know It

As the nature of work changes and millions work from home, we need to rethink what homes are for as well as what workplaces are for