Opinion: The future of work, part III
The 2020-2021 Pandemic taught us a number of lessons. Whether we learned from them only future historians will know. One of the lessons that seems certain is that work will be different, starting now. I think that the very wealthy people who actually work have had the luxury of working when and where they please. The poor have never had a choice, and it’s doubtful that they will in the near future. The two extremes of the working continuum will not change soon.
However, for the well-educated middle, there may be numerous possibilities, and prognosticators of the business world have elaborated on the various combinations of home and office that might emerge. I’d like to take a different look at the immediate future and the nature of houses. Because designing houses has been an interest of mine since high school, I’d like to speculate about the “home” aspect of the new work environment.
The articles that I’ve read about what to expect between now and the near future nearly always include the concept of working from home. However, the way that houses are designed is poorly suited to this purpose. The average middle-class American who owns a house generally has three bedrooms and two baths, a living room, family room, and kitchen. Sound familiar?
If the rooms are large enough and the house is well designed, this is generally sufficient, and it used to be affordable, at least for two salary-earners who have or hope to have one or two kids. Architects, residential developers, and building contractors know this, and they compete to design the conglomerate in new and interesting ways. But is this concept of a home conducive to the home-office that many people have needed over the past 20 months and may well desire in the near future?
I thought that I made up this term, but it can be found on the Internet. I took the German word for office and tacked on the German word for house, intending for it to describe a private residence that was well adapted for working at home. (I chose German because the language often combines terms, creating tongue twisters like “entschuldigung” for “excuse me” or “Geldautomaten” for ATM). I don’t speak German, but the few articles that I can find seem to describe office buildings (mostly in Germany) that have some of the comforts of home. I’m advocating the opposite, homes that have adaptability to the tasks that are needed for the office.
This idea occurred to me a month ago when I stumbled across statistics that I cited in “The Future of Work,” (Madera Tribune, 8/7/21), which turned out to be the first part of this series. According to the survey that I reported, most people who worked from home during the pandemic used a dedicated desk. But 14 percent used the kitchen table; 11 percent did their work from a couch or sofa; 8 percent from bed; 2 percent, garage; and 6 percent from some other location. It seems to me that some better type of accommodation is needed.
Several years ago, I wrote a column about houses known as brownstones that were being planned for a section of Sacramento. A few of the images that I have been able to find of new houses in the state capital resemble, at least in concept, the three-story structures that were commonly built about 200 years ago in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia. The ones in Sacramento are not made of “brownstone,” but of wood and stucco, and they conform to modern notions of style.
The key feature of the traditional brownstone was that entry to the main part of the house was on the second floor. That part of the house contained a parlor, living room, and kitchen. Bedrooms were located on the third floor. The part of the house that could be entered from ground level was basically a basement, although many people repurposed it for some other use, usually some sort of game room.
While the design is great for expensive urban space, the three-story house is not compatible with the modern ethos of making everything accessible to the handicapped. I’ve been unable to determine if the new three-story houses in Sacramento have solved that problem.
With a “brownstone-design,” the “basement” would be an ideal place to devote to one’s job. It could be equipped with wi-fi, optic-fiber cable, and communication lines. A desk with lots of counter space could be built into one wall. All cable connections could be also be built in so that the place is not littered with wires. Areas could be designed specifically for computer, printer, monitor(s) enabled for online meetings, and perhaps secondary digital or spatial storage.
Another possibility is to stick to the more common two-story structure. One side of the first floor could be family room, dining area, and kitchen. The other side would be a two-car or three-car garage. Office space could be located above the garage; bedrooms would be above the “home” side. I’m not sure that a formal living room is very functional anymore. In my own home, the formal living room is one of my two offices. And a “great room” often combines the traditional living room and family room. The problem with this design, however, is that it requires a large footprint in increasingly expensive urban and suburban areas.
The ideal solution might be something that’s modular, with the modules being arranged to suit the needs of the residents. I’m sure that a professional architect can come up with more practical and aesthetically pleasing concepts. My point is not to recommend any specific design, but to bring attention to what the future of work may be like and to suggest that our homes may need to be adapted to a changing work environment.
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Jim Glynn, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.