Up until recently, few of us had dipped our toe into the water when it came to working from home. Overnight many of us have been thrown in the deep end – some of us are sinking but many are swimming happily and can see this becoming a permanent reality. While many of the changes imposed have been difficult there are some more positive and worthwhile aspects which may stay with us and ultimately tilt the scales of the work life balance. The key to successful home-working is careful planning and defining some boundaries. It needs careful planning and consideration.
The first consideration is the type of work to be carried out and the kind of workspace that makes that type of work most productive. Working from home does not suit everyone nor should it. Firstly identify if it is a viable option and then plan for what is needed to achieve maximum productivity. These can be summarised under a number of headings.
The full article from The Irish Times (26th April 2020) can be found here.
Space To Work
Distractions are the main enemy of productivity be it in the traditional office or at home. Having a separate space is always preferred but not always possible. A degree of separation will help to provide acoustic separation from the cacophony of family life. This can take the form of a retreat space such as a converted attic, a dedicated study or a garden room.
However, for those living in smaller houses or apartments this is not always a possibility. This is where a greater level of ingenuity is required and spaces will have to become multi-functional. Often the potential of a nook, a fireside alcove or niche can be exploited. The fundamental point is that it can be hidden away after 5 o’clock so that work life is kept ‘out of sight, out of mind’ of home life. A sliding door or folding wall manages this feat very discreetly but remember that it must be a good bit deeper than the desk if you want to hide the chair also. Another space saving solution is a fold over table top with built in shallow storage. Doubling up on use of spaces and functions are key – tiny homes can often generate big ideas.
To further counteract a shortage of space, clever storage solutions will take on a newfound relevance and become the new ‘must-have’. Where will all of the jigsaws, books and board games go when storage may now be needed for work related files and folders? Every nook and cranny will be utilised to full effect so that clutter is but a distant memory. No valuable space will be left unused – the full potential of attics, extra height around our rooms and the spaces beneath and above beds will all be exploited.
Children however are more difficult to store out of sight! In the longer term it is worth remembering that the largest distraction for many is home schooling. When this passes, working from home will become even more viable but conflicts between school homework space and the home office may remain. What is a certainty is that home workers now have a new appreciation of good house design. A house design with built-in flexibility of use that can adapt to the needs of the occupants over time has always been important but no more so than now.
Of course when the limits of the existing home are exhausted the possibility to extend still exists. Firstly make the best use of what you have before deciding to extend – as you will see below, gardens now have a new importance. The extension often presents an opportunity to re-orientate a house towards the garden, undertake wider renovations and create open plan living while retaining more private or cellular rooms to the front. For those whom moving or building a home is not an option, a well-designed extension for more permanent home working holds the next best solution. Sometimes there is no substitute for extra space particularly for larger households or those with special needs.
Wherever the workspace is located the fundamentals of light, good ventilation and a well-planned space is essential. A space with a window is a must – this provides the necessary air, light and hopefully a view. A window facing north or east will give an even and diffuse quality of light throughout the day without glare and perfect for reading. These rooms will also be less susceptible to overheating when the sun comes out. In contrast, the spaces for living and relaxing are better suited to the south and west facing windows where daytime and evening sun are enjoyed most.
Some level of investment is usually required to make working from home truly work. Aside from creating the extra space, that space needs to be well equipped and organised. This starts with the correct desk or even an adjustable standing desk, good screen and seating ergonomics but it also extends to adequate power and broadband capabilities. A reliable Virtual Private Network (VPN) is also essential to mirror your work computer to your home screen without the expense of doubling up on software licenses. A clutter free and clean space is also essential, again to avoid unwanted distraction.
Home Sweet Home
The most successful home offices will embrace the differences and opportunities that working from home brings. The home office can be personalised to a far greater degree. This might include a pop of colour in the space or some vibrant artwork – think of the backdrop for those virtual meetings. Often some personal family photos add the finishing touch which are often missing from the traditional workplace but expectetd at home. A good home office should combine the best that work and a home have to offer but without the distractions. If it is a welcoming and homely space it will be more conducive to working.
Alternative Co-Working Solutions
Working ‘Almost-From-Home’ may also provide the happy medium in the future. Some of us just need to get out of the house. Be it to engage with colleagues or just to hold a meeting, safe in the knowledge that a disruptive child will not suddenly appear! There is now likely to be an increased demand for small serviced office space.
I spoke with Chad Gilmer, the owner of The Glasshouses – one such serviced-office company based in Dun Laoghaire. He noted that many of their customers come to them ‘looking for this flexibility where they are closer to home yet well connected to like-minded workers – it’s the best of both worlds’.
Think of it like allotments only for working and within easy reach of the home. A small but efficiently planned work-pod within easy commute or perhaps within the local town centre. This form of satellite-working will almost certainly will have an increased demand post pandemic for those who like the taste of the work-life balance but are keen to avoid hours in traffic.
The Garden + Garden Room
The garden or covered outdoor space can provide the extra room most times of the year. At the very least it provides extra space to release the children to. It can also offer a change of scenery from the desk to ‘walk and talk’ or take a well deserved break. Fresh air and nature have well documented restorative powers and the back garden will now assume new importance. The garden will no longer be an afterthought but become central to the life of the home and the antidote to working from home. The correct orientation, design quality and size will become more important. As with the house, the organisation of the garden will be vital – ample storage, dedicated spaces for furniture, work, play and indeed growing vegetables will take on a new importance. Even the smallest of outdoor spaces can make a big difference.
Of course, it also presents the chance to build the perfect garden office. If designed correctly this can incorporate a hidden shed and act as a focal point at the end of the garden. Ideally the main glazing should face north or east to avoid glare and overheating in summer. Whether it is prefabricated or built from blocks and mortar will depend on access, budget and space available.
Environmental Quality, Comfort and Energy
Those now working from home will have a much greater awareness of the energy that their homes consume. Spending increased time at home brings an acute awareness of how warm or cold a house is or how difficult (or expensive) it is to heat and keep warm. Post pandemic there will be resurgence in home insulation retrofitting and thermal upgrades for greater comfort. Equally, home workers are now more aware of the cost of electricity and the increased amount we have been consuming to run computers, charge devices and light our adapted work environments. It is highly likely that there will be a new found interest in photovoltaic (PV) panels to generate electricity and home batteries to store that energy for use after dark. Existing government grants will receive new found interest. More home owners may look to move ‘off-grid’ entirely. The potential to offset additional costs associated with home working against tax may also be a possibility.
Technology + Connectivity
The information superhighway has never been busier even if the roads have never been quieter – it is what is keeping us connected and working from home. Therefore, a reliable and robust broadband service is absolutely indispensable for productive home-working. Homes will be designed to cater for WIFI, as a fundamental requirement, far better than they currently are. Reliable broadband not only keeps us connected but allows for cloud-based filing which is essential to avoid the clutter-effect of office files at home where space is more limited.
The place of Augmented Reality (AR) may take on a new and wider acceptance as a means to create virtual workplaces or experiences from the self-isolation of our homes.
Would be home-workers need to be mindful of current planning and working legislation that may be relevant. For instance, you should assume that planning permission is required for any building works or any change of use unless specifically listed as exempt. Working from home is not the same as operating a business from home in planning terms. There are limited exemptions for small scale home-based business particularly those which involve visiting customers or which may be a nuisance to neighbours. While an attic or garage conversion may not always require planning, the addition of a dormer to make the attic conversion work will. Single storey extensions less than 40sq.m are usually exempt but this includes the aggregate of any other post-1963 extensions. Garden rooms for ‘enjoyment ancillary to the house’ are exempt up to 25sq.m but again this includes the aggregate of all other sheds and garden structures. In all instances the remaining garden cannot be less than 25sq.m. There are no such exemptions for protected structures. It is always advisable to seek the professional advice of an RIAI registered architect on what planning exemptions you can avail of.
Aside from planning permission, using the home as a workplace also involves health and safety legislation. Not many are aware but the employer has an obligation to provide a safe working environment. This usually means undertaking an audit to ensure that the place of work is fit for purpose and that the necessary equipment for ergonomics and task lighting is provided. Furthermore, the stringent requirements of GDPR do not stop in the office. The use and protection of customer information will those working from home to adopt specific measures and extra levels of awareness.
When it comes to the idea of Working from Home we need to firstly understand the limitations and opportunities. If we plan for it and embrace it we will float and go with the flow but if we lunge into it headfirst we are likely to be swimming against the current and quickly sink. On balance the opportunities can be vast once the limitations are understood and anticipated. At the very least it offers an opportunity to eliminate the twice daily commute and use that extra time wisely for a better work-life balance. However, that work and home life separation needs to be maintained as much as possible otherwise the benefits of one can get quickly eroded by the other.
Alan Burns MRIAI
Bright Design Architects, April 2020
Bright Design Architects / Remote Consultations for Charity
Bright Design Architects specialise in transforming and creating homes and would love to share this expertise. No project is too big or too small. It might be ideas for a room makeover, a home office, perhaps an attic conversion, insulation upgrades or an extension. Now is a time when people are appreciating that quality spaces bring quality to life. We are available to give a 45 minute remote design consultation and advice on anything to do with your home in return for a donation to Pieta Darkness into Light – Cabinteely. This year’s Darkness into Light has unfortunately been postponed and at a time when mental health awareness is needed more than ever. However they still need funding and nationwide support for the rescheduled events later in the year.
The steps are simple:
1. Send Bright Design Architects an email to [email protected] to request a consultation
2. We confirm availability and send back a questionnaire with a link to the Pieta Darkness into Light Cabinteely donation page. Return the questionnaire with the donation ref number. There is no minimum donation (€102 is suggested).
3. We email a guide and confirm a slot.
4. The consultation takes place by phone or video call.
Full details can be found on this short YouTube video : https://youtu.be/aKvJtqnl-NI