An estimated five million people work from home in Britain today, plus about a million more telecommuters who are connected to their employers by computer, modem and fax. As companies “downsize” in an effort to reduce property and staff costs, new technology has enabled work to spill out from the workplace, with the result that many more of us are spending our working days amid our own domestic clutter rather than in the traditional office high-rise.
Technology suppliers have not only seized the opportunity but have been proactive in creating the market. The development of mini-photocopiers, phone-faxes, laptops and the like – slim in size and price – have helped to support a trend given impetus by economic recession, by making it easier to work in domestic surroundings which were never originally intended to house office work. But what of the furniture makers and housebuilders who influence the 3D shape of the home office? Here, their efforts have been more tentative at best.
The prevailing image of the home workstation is still of a surplus wooden door slung over two filing cabinets, crammed into a corner of a room with the cat frequently knocking over the ancient Anglepoise. Improvised, inexpensive and unsatisfactory sums up the usual state of affairs. As designer Kathy Tilney of Tilney Lumsden Shane, who has been studying patterns of office and home working, observes: “The home office is the eclectic office. It’s granny’s old table and the ergonomics just go out of the window. Who can afford to buy a proper office workstation when they are self-employed?”
The problems are exacerbated, says Tilney, because many companies which employ homeworkers absolve themselves of responsibility for safety, especially in the areas of computers and wiring. Location is also an issue. “Some people who live in nice houses in the country may be happy to work at home,” says Tilney. “But what if you live on a grotty housing estate? You want to go somewhere else during the day. The issues surrounding working from home have been over-simplified.”
Psychological problems such as isolation and alienation are ever-present, as newspaper headlines such as “The loneliness of the long distance entrepreneurs” and such authorities as the Telecottage Association will confirm. But on a more practical and physical level, getting the right workstation is a headache too. More than five years ago, Frank Duffy of DEGW warned how ludicrous and inappropriate full-scale office workstations looked when you took them home and plonked them in domestic rooms.
But although homeworking is supposed to be one of the leitmotifs of the space- and time-pressured Nineties, neither the home design industry nor the office furniture industry could be said to have comprehensively cracked the problem. In both cases, caution induced by years of recession, with unlet office blocks, stagnant house prices and negative equity, has resulted in an understandable unwillingness to simply ride the crest of a new wave. This is particularly evident in the new house-building sector, where there is a belief that the homeworking trend is not yet concrete.
According to Wilcon Homes design director Roger Stubbs, the rise of homeworking has been slowed by the number of frustrated homeworkers seeking a return to office life so that they can mix with people. Wilcon, says Stubbs, will respond to market needs, but the message from the market is currently mixed.
Wimpey Homes, meanwhile, has just published its At Home Report 1996, which points to greater use of technology in the home and more flexible, customised, pre-fabricated housebuilding in the future. The report recognises the rise of teleworking, and argues that the home study has “become of practical importance when choosing a home, rather than simply being required for the snob value it affords”. Yet a spokesman for Wimpey says that the company has not felt the need to modify its house designs to accommodate the fully kitted-out home workstation.
Others, however, are less circumspect. Upmarket housebuilder Berkeley Homes makes a feature of incorporating a work studio of good proportions in its four- and five-bedroom homes, rather than forcing users to cram a workstation into a small area between rooms. Berkeley technical manager Keith Hampshire says that the large properties his company builds are often for clients who spend much of their time working abroad. But market demand tends to be requests for extra telephone lines for the fax machine, rather than a flow of requirements for properly specified office space.
One place to look for signs of a proper design response to the homeworking trend is the Ideal Home Exhibition. But at this year’s show at Earls Court, Bellway Homes summed up the attitude of much of the building industry when it said that it gave little consideration to the homeworker. According to Bellway’s sales team, many house buyers still believe that renting office space is a cheaper option than buying a larger house and fitting out a home office.
But other Ideal Homes exhibitors from the fitted furniture sector argue that there is a strong commercial future for the home office. Perhaps the highest-profile name is Neville Johnson, which began making office furniture for reception areas and boardrooms in 1986 and only moved across the domestic threshold when senior executives asked for pieces for their homes. As the office sector slumped, so the firm forged ahead in home furniture, advertising heavily in the Sunday supplements. Some of Neville Johnson’s fitted workstations are of the undoubtedly popular tortured mahogany variety, but there are also more modern, clean-lined designs in limed oak. Fitting awkward spaces is a key selling point.
While Neville Johnson and competitors such as Strachan Furniture Makers, with their “convert-a-room” workstation concepts, vigorously target the homeworker, others are more tentative. The office furniture giants have given several nods in the direction of the teleworker without being entirely convincing that their hearts are really in it. Costs are often too high for the fledgling entrepreneur and the style remains too clinical or corporate.
At this year’s Ideal Home Exhibition, only the German company Hulsta showed a range of home office furniture truly up to the task of providing a professional workstation amid the unevenness and tight corners of the domestic environment. Hulsta’s designs are homely without ever being cute. The company has targeted this sector for a while, and its extensive research has paid off. Meanwhile, even the most cursory glance at the catalogue of Swedish mass-retailer IKEA will show the inroads it has made into the home office with simple, self-assembly Scandinavian-modern workstation designs which are keenly priced.
But it is unlikely that the mainstream office furniture industry will sit back for long. In America, where an estimated 16 million people are now working from home (5.4 million of them classified as teleworkers), the trend is distinctly on the up because of environmental as well as economic pressures. The Clean Air Act of 1990 has forced companies with more than 100 employees to cut commuter journeys in order to reduce pollution. The result is a rise in homeworking – and the US furniture majors know an opportunity when they see one.
The long-term impact is that better workstation designs for the home will in turn influence the look of the office. “The eclectic office will start in the home and spread back to the office,” suggests Kathy Tilney. “People have more aesthetic control when they work at home. They aren’t just told, ‘that’s your desk and you’ll sit on that chair because it’s good for you’. When they go back to the office, they’ll want more individual control there too.”