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Working models: changing work patterns embrace the home office

A combination of technological advance and economic changes in the 1990s paved the way for homeworking, and this continues to be part of changing work patterns

Changing work patterns is one of the most significant trends of the moment. People Management’s finding (8 Feb 2018) that one in seven of the British workforce is self-employed, growing from 3.3m in 2001 to 4.8m in 2016, lends a statistic to anecdotes about the growing ‘gig economy’ of zero hours contracts, portfolio careers and Uber-driving as a fall back. Most of these people need at least some facilities for working at home.

Many of these trends can be traced to the early ’90s. By then significant fissures in the former certainties of the modern corporate economy started to appear, at least in the context of the UK. Economic change and developments in corporate culture more or less ended the expectation of spending a career with one employer, though a loss in security was partly offset by opportunities arising from a more flexible business environment. 

A066 001[2]

A066 001[2]

In the 1990s, when home offices had to house computers, monitors and printers, compact spaces called for innovative thinking, as shown here in this 1992 design by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. Photograph: Dennis Gilbert

Many pension funds, still with significant surpluses from the asset price surge of the ’80s, could offer attractive early retirement deals to employees not far past middle age, while the recession narrowed employment opportunities for many young people. These two trends created the need for flexible and cheap workplaces which were made possible by the desktop computer, portable printer and fax machine. Scanners, laptops, the internet and email soon followed. 

For a couple of decades, several office providers have developed club-based models and spaces for co-working. Companies such as Regus, and more recently WeWork, have offered spaces as small as single desks for times as short as an hour, though they often require a subscription as well as payments for each instance. Less formally, self-employed people sometimes band together to split overhead costs like IT and cleaning: many readers will have started their careers in such circumstances, though their origins lie in barristers’ chambers which predate the corporate office. And they reinforce rather than unite the separation between home and work.

Meanwhile, the onward march of IT made almost anywhere a potential workspace. Once the internet and wi-fi became a usable reality, cafés started to be options for meetings, temporary work-places and locations where trustafarians could polish ‘first novels’.

But the home office offers advantages that none of these have. It has tax breaks, privacy and security. Its drawback though was that it is ‘home’, a concept whose sentimentalisation was captured by Ruskin in Sesame and Lilies: ‘… The true nature of the home … is the place of peace; the shelter, not only from all injury but from all terror, doubt and division’, which might be encountered at work. 

Dieter rams's home (id8538) ©vitsoe

Dieter rams’s home (id8538) ©vitsoe

Dieter Rams’ workspace, in the home he has lived in since 1971, is furnished with his Vitsœ shelving. Photograph: Ingeborg Kracht-Rams

Furniture became the key to adapting, or at least dividing one small part of ‘home’ to ‘office’. In some cases, it could be cheap, off‐the‐shelf units not necessarily designed specifically for workplaces, but easily adapted to their needs. Ikea, still relatively new to the UK in the early ’90s, served the bottom end of the market with ‘Skarsta’ desks, ‘Micke’ workstations and the legendary ‘Billy’ bookcase.

More affluent and style-conscious homeworkers could go for the exquisitely detailed Vitsœ range of shelving. Thanks to its neat connections, it incorporates desks and cabinets and even lighting in the same system; turning a shelf through 90 degrees transforms it into a magnetic pin board with a convenient lip to hold pens, magnets or spare batteries for mice and keyboards. High-end furniture makers such as Fritz Hansen, Vitra and Knoll all used ‘design’ to blur the difference between the imagery and association of home and office in their products.

Another option, and not necessarily the most expensive if the base building had opportunities for skilful design to exploit, was the completely customised home workplace. In 1992, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris designed a well-publicised version for a terraced house in south London where they took advantage of the one feature which was not standard – a high volume over the stairs. In collaboration with engineers Tim Macfarlane and Brian Eckersley, they managed to insert a comfortable workstation which both lifted the space and provided the worker (your correspondent) with a degree of separation from the small flat’s domestic realm. 

‘Whether facilitated by budget‐end Ikea furniture, those more expensive products from Vitsœ or Knoll, or by skilfully adaptive architecture, it is an ever‐growing reality in the uncertain employment conditions of the “gig economy”’

From those various sources was born the ‘home office’, an interaction between technology, economics and ‘design’. The trend seems unstoppable. In June 2017, Forbes magazine reported that there were at least four million ‘telecommuters’ (people in employment but working at home) in the US, about seven per cent of the workforce, an increase of 40 per cent since 2010. The number of people working at least half the time at home grew by 115 per cent between 2005 and 2015, and by 2017, 56 per cent of jobs in the US were ‘telecommutable’. Moreover, homeworkers earned on average $4000 a year more than their office-bound counterparts.

However, the home office is perhaps best characterised not as an entirely new phenomenon, but as a reconnection of working and living that had for millennia been closely connected, before the industrial revolution imposed a cleavage between them. The resulting huge changes in the nature both of ‘home’ and of ‘work’ give the contemporary home office very great differences to the weavers’ cottages or smiths’ forges of the pre‐industrial era. How these changes occurred helps to set the context for the home office and explain its cultural significance.

The etymology of ‘office’ is complex but revealing of its role in culture. Originally it referred to an administrative or ceremonial position, or a religious service. In the 1560s it starts to refer to buildings – Florence’s Uffizi designed by Giorgio Vasari dates from this decade, as does the first English use in the sense of a place of work. Over the next two centuries, ‘office’ came into more common use for government departments (Office of Works, Patent Office), while large City institutions like the Bank of England used the term for spaces with specific functions such as the ‘transfer office’ or the ‘income tax office’, rather than for their entire premises. 

Hrek2n

Hrek2n

Cafés and coffee shops are becoming increasingly popular places from which people work. Customers at Bean & Bean in Chelsea, New York, make the most of the free wi-fi when working ‘from home’. Photograph: Richard Levine / Alamy

It was in the private sphere that the term office changed most radically. As industrial companies emerged, they required more and more administration. At first this was accommodated randomly, with desk spaces fitted in wherever machinery was not located.

The finest architectural and clearest sociological expressions of these trends are in the US, and especially Frank Lloyd Wright’s seminal projects, the Larkin Building in Buffalo (1903, demolished 1950), and the Johnson Wax HQ of 1936 in Racine, Wisconsin. The Larkin Corporation wanted to consolidate its admin functions from ad hoc locations into one building. Wright’s design may resemble a factory but it provided for desks and humans rather than machines. 

Three decades on, his administrative building for the Johnson Corporation is an extraordinary architectural vision, while its custom‐designed furniture gives the numerous workers all the attributes that Antonello allows St Jerome in his Study – the painting cited by Frank Duffy as containing, in embryo, all the needs of the modern office. Here, architecture creates a working environment that is a perfect expression of corporatism – that evolved after the Second World War into the work of SOM, Eero Saarinen and his followers Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo, YRM, GMW and hordes of lesser talents.

A famous anecdote about Johnson Wax introduces the final strand in this outline of how the home office emerged. Wright, making a late-evening site visit, came across Herbert Johnson still at work. ‘Why don’t you go home?’, Wright asked. ‘This place is much nicer than my home’, the multi-millionaire countered. ‘Well then’, Wright expounded, ‘I shall design a home which will be just as good as your office.’ The result was Wingspread (1938). 

Wingspread 6.22.18 001 preview tc

Wingspread 6.22.18 001 preview tc

Wingspread (1938) by Frank Lloyd Wright, was designed for Herbert Johnson after Wright discovered him staying late in the office because it was a nicer environment in which to work than he had at home. Photograph: © Mark Hertzberg 2018

The idea that work and its horrors should be banished from the home runs through the Arts and Crafts Movement and its Continental offshoots, up to and including Adolf Loos. It embeds assumptions both about gender roles (men work and women run the home as a haven for their male co‐habitees) and class. Belonging to the leisure class (as defined by Thorstein Veblen) meant working, if at all, in prescribed forms of employment which emphatically did not include commerce.

Similar assumptions, that home and work should be locationally separate, trickled down the social order. They contributed to the success of ‘Metroland’ forms of suburban development, which used new technology (electric trains and motor cars) to create a greater separation than was possible when foot and carriage were the only means of transport. They even underlie the UK planning system, which with a few exceptions still enforces separation of function.

But the planning system never became so draconian that it was impossible to work at home, if it was just the home‐occupiers who did so. Just as technology was making homeworking possible, and economic circumstances were making it more necessary, the planning system permitted it. Whether facilitated by budget‐end Ikea furniture, those more expensive products from Vitsœ or Knoll, or by skilfully adaptive architecture, it is an ever‐growing reality in the uncertain employment conditions of the ‘gig economy’. 

What is certain is that technology will continue to evolve, and exercise an ever-growing influence on the nature of spaces we occupy. Already digital technology means spaces can change their character at the touch of a switch. Given the rising capacity of robotics, it will not be long before they can change their shape and configuration. Against a background where homes are increasingly unaffordable and offices increasingly fluid, it may be that the distinction between ‘home’ and ‘office’ will not just blur but disappear altogether. And that is good news for imaginative designers, whether working with space or furniture.

This piece is featured in the AR’s July/August 2018 on AR House + Furniture – click here to pick up your copy today