Are we seeing the workification of home or the homification of work?

flexible workingThinking and theories about working environments continue to be much debated, of course. As part of this ongoing discussion, Bisley recently hosted an event at its London showroom to continue the aspects of the debate that focus on how offices seem to be morphing in to homes, and how our homes are, conversely, functioning as places of work. The panel discussion was led by Professor Jeremy Myerson of The Royal College of Art and WORKTECH Academy. He was joined by Kirstin Furber – People Director at BBC Worldwide, Sebastian Conran – a leading product and furniture designer, David Barrett – Head Buyer of Living, Dining and Home Office at John Lewis and Amelia Coward – Founder and Creative Director at Bombus.com.

Jeremy began by reminding the audience that home working is not a new concept; over 150 years ago our places of work and homes were one and the same. It’s a commonly held perception that prior to the Industrial Revolution the majority of the people ‘lived’ without recognising the difference between work and play. The birth of factories and offices meant that ‘work’ became a destination and these two major elements of our lives diverged, often referred to as the ‘separation of the spheres’.

Fast-forward to today and the digital economy has enabled the ‘work’ function of our lives to once again be economically viable in the home (well, not just at the home, virtually anywhere).

The rise of the freelance economy, tech start-ups, mobile technology and the trend for co-working has undoubtedly penetrated the culture, design and expectation of where, when and how we want to work. This brings new pressures and choice for both workers, when it comes to balancing work and personal life, and for organisations as they try to meet the expectations of being a ‘great place to work’.

‘Work/life balance’ or ‘work/life blend’ which Jeremy thinks is now a more appropriate term, is a phrase that has infiltrated the everyday rhetoric of many workers and businesses. Working from home is a seen as a way to achieve the equilibrium we all, apparently, crave. It gives individuals the opportunity to manage all the stuff that gets in the way of work, family, hobbies and general ‘life administration’ by working at places and times that suit them, and it allows organisations to reduce their physical space and be a considerate, modern employer. But is it the solution? Trends indicate that whilst we are willing to make space in our homes for work, we also desire to be able to ‘shut off’ after a days’ work…

According to David Barrett, John Lewis has seen a 15% growth in the home office market. Whilst it can often be hard to define what constitutes home office furniture, a consol table is slim, subtle and the perfect size a laptop for example, he is seeing increased interest in professional ergonomically designed products, indicating that people are willing to invest in quality products that will get well used.

Sebastian Conran highlighted the difference between a job and a vocation. He considers his role as a designer to be 24/7, and he’s prepared for that. Although he has an official office/studio and has created a work ‘nest’ in the corner of his kitchen, he knows that you don’t have to be in one of those spaces to be working effectively. ‘Eureka’ moments can happen anywhere and at any time – and when you have the right technology, sharing those ideas instantaneously is simple.

Technology, along with the resulting mobility is encouraging individuality and empowerment, a point made by Kirstin Furber. She’s observing an increasing trend in individualisation; people expecting, and being encouraged to work in a way that uniquely suits them. Presenteeism (the practice of always being present at the workplace and often for more hours than required) is becoming a thing of the past and is being replaced by output. Of course, for work to be an activity, not a location, there has to be culture of trust running though all levels of an organistion. Luckily, many businesses have now moved well beyond the notion that working away from the office is akin to bunking off school!

Amelia Coward shared her experience of starting a business at her kitchen table and how Bombus made the transition from home to an office. Their workspace evolved, subconsciously, along the lines of a family home – the team eat together in the kitchen and even change into slippers when they begin work in the lounge-like workshop. Amelia is in no doubt that these domestic traits are beneficial; decisions are made by the whole team, much like a family discussion, and because of this her employees feel connected to what they do and are highly productive.

As happiness and well-being moves further up the agenda for many workers a sense of purpose and fulfillment is possibly the next big challenge for employers. Jeremy suggests that we are perhaps moving to a higher mission after “feeling burnt-out, bottle-necked and bored in the knowledge economy” (New Demographics, New Workspace: Office Design for the Changing Workforce by Alma Erlich, Jeremy Myerson and Jo-Anne Bichard 2010, Hardcover).

A sense of purpose or connectivity to a cause often manifests itself from collaboration and working towards shared goals – and that can be very difficult to achieve or recreate it in a home environment. Connectivity comes through face-to-face conversations. Can those who join in remotely using technology wholly participate and contribute effectively? Will they ever be able to understand what is making their business, and colleagues, tick? Employees aren’t going to want to go back to ‘office 9 to 5’ so organisations have to find a way to make flexible working work.

It appears we’ve come back to balance. Forward thinking organisations use the workplace as a carrot and not a stick. They will create spaces that people want to be in and where they can absorb the culture and values and work closely with colleagues. They will also allow people to work where and how they want to and there will be an explicit mutual understanding that the employee chooses.

It seems the future success of our workplaces is not about being in a specific location, but the creation of cultures of care, trust and empowerment to let individuality thrive.

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19814f6Anna King is a freelance writer and marketing and PR consultant. www.informare.co.uk

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