By Regina Kertapati, Architect at dRMM
The relaxation of lockdown measures in the UK has signalled a return to work for some, but many employers and workers are continuing to embrace the benefits that working from home has brought about.
Nationwide and Barclays recently announced their plans to permanently transition to a work-from-home arrangement as an opportunity to reduce office space. Other companies are planning a slow transition back; it will be some time yet before most workers feel comfortable commuting on crowded public transport to get to work. Meanwhile driving, walking or cycling remain an unviable option for many.
The benefits to work-from-home include the increased family time; the end to commutes; and better concentration for tasks such as writing. But with the boundaries between work and home life are breaking down, work hours for many are up, and juggling childcaring and home-schooling with work is a nightmare for parents. Although there are benefits, there are elements of a work-from-home arrangement that are causing a negative impact on workers’ health and wellbeing.
To date, government regulations and guidelines for creating and maintaining safe and healthy work environments are written with a non-domestic setting in mind, but as many companies extend or permanently put in place work-from-home arrangements, there is a shortage of guidance that responds to associated health risks.
One of the aspects that have had a huge impact on our work-from-home experience is the space in which we work. Working in an enclosed room dedicated to work activities alone could help provide the physical and mental separation that workers need between work and home life. However, most workers, particularly those living in UK cities, where housing affordability is a point of conflict, will find that there simply isn’t the luxury to create a dedicated enclosed office space within their home.
Over the years, designers have explored innovative ways to incorporate a workspace within the home that allowed the user to ‘close off’ the workspace when not in use. Bureaus from the late 17th century feature a sloped lid to allow you to open and close the writing desk. Australian architect, Andrew Maynard of Austin Maynard Architects, devised the idea of the Design Pod; a compact fold-out and fold-away solution for the home office. The home office cupboard is a popular and widely used solution that can be neatly hidden behind cupboard doors.
But the truth is that most city-dwellers simply don’t have the space for a dedicated desk in their homes, with many having to sacrifice their dining tables or bedrooms for their new workspace. Without a physical way to separate work and living within the home, there is an increased risk that workers will find themselves unable to take a break, leading to feeling overworked and mentally exhausted. By allowing the workspace to enter our home and dedicated living space, our place to ‘switch off’ from work disappears.
And creating a healthy work-from-home environment involves more than just thinking about spatial divisions. It also involves evaluating whether we have the right tools to work from home, such as a suitable seat and desk, and it’s important to consider how to avoid workers from feeling socially disconnected from their colleagues.
As highlighted by the Workhome Project, a research team based at Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture & Design, London Metropolitan University, ‘Home-based work is beneficial to society in many ways, but home-based workers also report disadvantages, primarily social isolation and a lack of exercise. We need to create a culture and a built environment that encourages and supports this working practice while reducing the impact of its potential drawbacks.
What can employers do to help workers improve working from home? Employers should look to establish a work-from-home strategy that not only supports productivity, but also the wellbeing of employees. By acknowledging that everyone’s home environment is different, employers should have a conversation with individual employees to find out how their work-from-home arrangements might be improved. At the same time, employers must accept that not all workers can work effectively from home.
In the long term, if working from home is to become more prevalent, then perhaps there needs to be further strategic planning and government-supported design guidelines. Previous UK government housing guidelines such as the London Housing Design Guide and the Code for Sustainable Homes encouraged the inclusion of a dedicated desk space area within the home, but neither guidelines are a national requirement, nor seek to address the associated health risks.
At present, the most effective way to maintain spatial separation between work and living is for workers to return to the office. However, this ignores the benefits gained from working from home. Before employers begin to embrace work-from-home as a permanent or even hybrid arrangement, there needs to be better awareness and understanding of the associated health risks and a strategy in place that tries to mitigate the potential drawbacks.