2021 Trends: The Homework Revolution

Donald Rattner shares how the home will become more like the office and the office more like home in the coming years.

Left: Office commissary. Photography by Mengyi Hu. Right: Home office. Architecture by Dubinett Architects. Interior design by Jane Connell. Photography by Laura Moss.

Almost one year ago exactly, this magazine published a piece I wrote forecasting the increasing adoption of resimercial design as a strategy for shaping workplace environments. I had good reason for my prognosis. Whether it was the growing popularity of domestically-inspired program elements, new product lines combining commercial durability with a residential feel, or employee survey data affirming the demand for a hybridized workplace, the future seemed bright for the resimercial approach.

What a difference a pandemic makes.

Today, the discussion has reversed course 180 degrees. For the time being, at least, we’re less preoccupied with how the workplace will be influenced by the home than on how the home will be influenced by the workplace. Industry professionals and companies have already pivoted to address the shift. Office furniture giant Herman Miller, for example, recently announced that it’s opening several bricks-and-mortar showrooms to market directly to the home office customer. Expect to see other brands follow suit.

Whether these kinds of initiatives will prove temporary or enduring is hard to say. After all, accurately predicting the future is notoriously difficult, as these past months have painfully reminded us. We have to start somewhere, though, and if there’s one thing nearly everyone seems to agree on, it’s that homework of the adult kind is here to stay. So is the office. To my mind, the critical issues the industry should be exploring are therefore 1) how the two will interrelate, and 2) what role the workplace designer has to play if the new workplace reality includes a domestic satellite.

One widely-held opinion is that the two domains will prove complementary. In this view, the office will continue to be the nexus for activities involving the kind of collaborative work best carried out when participants occupy the same three-dimensional space. Involving multiple parties in hands-on prototyping of physical products, for instance, does not translate well to a digital experience. Group brainstorming sessions are similarly hampered when people work remotely, whether because of constraints in their physical movement, the difficulty in picking up on subtle visual cues like body posture and facial expression, or the occasional toddler or family pet that strolls into the picture, demanding attention.

Google offices, Amsterdam. Architecture by D/Dock. Photography by Alan Jensen.

Another workplace strength that designers could capitalize on in the coming period is its role as a locus of social interaction. Numerous indicators show the lack of opportunity for colleagues to fraternize with each other to be among the top complaints of home-bound employees. Ironically, the resimercial workplace was already assuming the guise of social hub when the pandemic hit, thanks in part to its advocating for domestic amenities such as music, nap, exercise, shower, and recreation rooms. Continued investment in these kinds of spaces and amenities in the post-vaccine era could entice people to spend more time in the office environment than might otherwise be the case.

So where does this all leave the home? More specifically, what can workplace designers contribute to the home-based work setting?

Here we are wandering into unfamiliar territory, with little modern precedent to draw on. Still, a few possible strategies come to mind. The simplest would be for the workplace professional to cede the home to the residential practitioner. There are strong arguments for this approach. For instance, despite the blurring of boundaries implicit in resimercial design, work and home remain quite distinct environments in many respects, from planning to programming, from construction to character. Both typologies require years of training and practice to master. It would serve neither client nor professional to engage on a project that might tax firm expertise.

Home office. Architecture by Caleb Johnson Studio. Photography by Trent Bell.

A second argument involves issues of scale and business models. A typical residential workspace entails a modest scope of work and often a set of unique conditions. It’s difficult to imagine a fee structure that would enable most commercial firms to realize a return on jobs of this size, unless it were folded into a larger undertaking, such as an extensive renovation or new build. In that case, it would presumably fall to a practice with strong residential credentials anyway. Moreover, while some companies are disbursing stipends to employees to help fund private workspaces, these are unlikely to cover the cost of a design professional, especially when executed on a one-off basis.

Nonetheless, there are steps workplace designers can and have begun to take to serve their principal clients as well as the public good in the new paradigm. Writing articles, white papers, and books for general and professional audiences on optimizing the home for work (my own contribution being a book about creative space). Developing guidelines tailored to a specific organization and its employees. Delivering presentations at company gatherings or conducting continuing education courses for colleagues. Designing products that bridge commercial and residential markets. Conducting research.

“The future ain’t what it used to be,” opined the late great sage Yogi Berra (and a few other people). That has never been truer than it is today. With a shift in fortune, however, comes opportunity, a chance to re-imagine the workplace from the ground up in order to meet the needs of a world greatly changed from the one we inhabited a year ago. The conversation as to what form the reconstituted workplace might ultimately take, and how it will connect to remote work, is well underway, thanks to forums like this. Only time will tell where it will ultimately lead.

See you next year.

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