Home working and its impact on spaces and habits

Introduction

Smart working is a revolution that is changing cities, workspaces and homes. Working from our homes, we have to rethink and outfit spaces with comfortable, functional systems for remote activities. At the same time, offices will be reorganized to adapt to different levels of physical presence of workers, calling for larger, personalized spaces and new layouts for shared activities. The facts and trends in various part of the world seem to coincide: in many countries contracts and guarantees for facilities are emerging to respond to these new needs. Large multinational corporations are supporting their employees and collaborators, also in economic terms, to permit them to have domestic workstations suitable for the tasks they perform, but also decentralized locations with respect to the headquarters, offering alternative work situations. In the meantime, the infrastructures that ensure reliable, speedy connections for smart workers all over the world are also changing. Nevertheless, it is clear to all that our contentment as remote workers – and hopefully smart ones – does not depend on the speed of data, but on the quality of the spaces in which we operate.

Zurich Insurance, Cologne, Germany, architetti Aukett-Heese Frankfurt. © Jörg SeilerZurich Insurance, Cologne, Germany, architetti Aukett-Heese Frankfurt. © Jörg Seiler

I The case of Germany: forerunner of a trend?

The other side of the coin of smart working is space. Shifting labor from the office to the home opens the way for an inevitable revolution, first of all in architectural and real estate terms. In Europe, one outstanding case foreshadows what will happen in other countries: the German Minister for Economic Affairs, Peter Altmaier, will soon be illustrating his proposal for legislation to oblige companies to permit home working for all employees who request such an arrangement. For the real estate market, according to a study conducted by Deutsche Bank, this represents a true paradigm shift. Half of the German labor force works in the office; if only half of these workers apply for permission to work at home two days a week, the demand for office space will drop by 13%, meaning 2.4 million square meters less in a market accustomed to reporting growth of one million square meters per year. The shift of demand away from commercial spaces towards residential spaces will cause an abrupt increase in prices. It is possible that the German government will rely on a form of legislation that will oblige companies to provide workers with the means and spaces required for their remote activities: a room of 12 square meters, the legal minimum for a workspace. The result would be an enormous real estate conversion; 100 million square meters would be needed for homes, while 180 million square meters of office space would become surplus.

Hana coworking, Dallas, USA. © JJ JetelHana coworking, Dallas, USA. © JJ Jetel

II In the United States BigTech
encourages home working

Facebook has extended smart working for its employees until July 2021. The company founded and helmed by Mark Zuckerberg will introduce other important new developments: employees working from a distance will receive 1000 dollars to cover home-office expenses: furnishings, connectivity and technological outfitting.
A few days ago, a similar initiative was announced by Google. Again in this case, employees will be able to work from home until the summer of 2021, as explained by the CEO of Big G, Sundar Pichai. The decision has an impact on 200,000 employees, who were scheduled to return to their offices starting in January 2021.
Then comes Twitter, the first to examine the hypothesis that remote working might last forever. According to sources, the extension of smart working at least until the summer of 2021 will also be announced soon by Apple and Amazon.

Nevertheless, as Simon Sinek, the American author and motivational speaker suggests, man is a social animal, and the building and nurturing of relationships at a distance requires much more energy. The value of the relationships that are made in the office has been underestimated, perhaps, by the BigTech companies. But Sinek believes that the question is not the formulation of new alternations between the home office and work at the headquarters, but ways of granting freedom of choice to workers, because this sense of individual responsibility will be the key to finding new balances and workspaces.

Casa sulla collina, architetti Menichetti+Caldarelli, Gubbio, Italia. © Paolo TostiCasa sulla collina, architects Menichetti+Caldarelli, Gubbio, Italy. © Paolo Tosti

III Pandemic: changing real estate
market scenarios

The Italian real estate market, according to the president of Scenari Immobiliari, Mario Breglia, will not stop attracting investments in 2021, with a particular focus on the residential, logistical, industrial and service sectors in Milan, as well as in Rome, where niche markets will also account for a sizeable portion of the overall turnover. This view summarizes the forecasts of over 200 entrepreneurs and managers who gathered at the 28th Forum organized by Scenari Immobiliari in Santa Margherita Ligure, on 11 September. In particular, the survey indicated that the aftermath of the health crisis will take concrete form in a rebalancing of real estate values, with a drop in revenues over the short term and more long-term investments, and in new design approaches to buildings, with a greater focus on quality in terms of comfort, room size and intermediate spaces. The findings show that properties in poor condition will be penalized, leading to an increase of abandoned structures on the market. Offices will have to be reimagined in terms of smart working, with even greater emphasis on the safety and health of workers. There will be a marked slowdown of activities until the end of the pandemic – Breglia continued – after which the market should go through a strong rebound. These forecasts jibe with those on a wider scale, which over the medium term call for recovery of confidence and an increase in income.

ÖBB Corporate HQ, Vienna, Austria. © pierer.netÖBB Corporate HQ, Wien, Austria. © pierer.net

IV Covid effect: the future of collaboration

We have seen how the German government is grappling with a legal definition of smart working which will also determine methods, means and spaces to be provided for workers  by the companies that employ them. In Italy, during the pandemic the government issued a decree urgently sanctioning smart working without any prior agreement with employees (notwithstanding current legislation in act no. 81/2017), with the aim of limiting and countering the spread of Covid-19, blocking physical presence in the workplace for millions of citizens. The state of emergency for Coronavirus has been extended until 31 January 2021, in a choice that will have further impact on the rules for “simplified” smart working. The health crisis, which has prompted companies to experiment with new modes of work organization, has led to the need to apply existing flexible methods, while altering their original aims: from a pathway of organizational versatility, designed to reconcile the needs of companies and their employees, to an all-around practice set in place to protect personal health while guaranteeing continuity in the company’s activities.  

© Marco Covi© Marco Covi

V Is smart and mobile working
also creative and productive?

Flexible work has many positive aspects: it can improve productivity and competitive advantage of companies, reduce corporate management costs, help to combat absenteeism, and offer support for those who do their jobs in situations far away from home. These are factors that have emerged, with a certain consensus, over the last few months of resumption of business. Companies have reorganized functions and processes, but they have also understood the major economic savings generated by having fewer workers in the office. As Mariano Corso, director of the Smart Working and Cloud Transformation  observatories of the Milan Polytechnic, has repeated said: “Smart working is a managerial philosophy based on the concept of restoring autonomy to workers, as well as giving them flexibility in the choice of workplace, working hours and tools to be used, and with more responsibility for the results. Too often smart working is confused with teleworking or is associated with welfare and mediation policies. The real change that comes from smart working is much deeper than that: it is a shift from management based on presenteeism and control to management based on trust, cooperation, flexibility and delegation.”
In contrast with this position and the new credo of BigTech, JP Morgan is not so sure about the efficacy of home working, especially for younger staffers. A recent in-house study indicated that “traders working from home are less productive.” The report comes from Bloomberg, and explains that the American banking giant shared the findings of an in-house survey carried out with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, a New York-based investment banking firm that is part of the Stifel group.
The report shows that the employees of JP Morgan working at home demonstrated a total lack of “creative combustion.” Later, the spokesman for JP Morgan Michael Fusco clarified that the drop in productivity extended to staff “in general, not just younger employees,” as the initial findings seemed to suggest. He added that “younger workers could be disadvantaged by missed learning opportunities” as they were not in offices, and thus unable to share in experiences.

Ufficio in Barcellona.© Salva LopezOffice in Barcelona, © Salva Lopez

VI Not just homes: the relationship
with the city is changing

As Stefano Boeri stated in a recent conference of IFEL, Fondazione Anci, Associazione Nazionale dei Comuni Italiani, “The new players created by the pandemic will leave a new, widespread awareness, above all in the design of the timing of work – the architect and urban planner explained – reconciling it with a very strong demand for a different life cycle, also by way of neighborhood shops, which have been rediscovered and re-experienced, a strong demand for a different relationship with nature, not only digital, which has been eroded over time.” These concepts were reiterated by Cristina Tajani, Councilor for Policies of Labor, Productive Activities, Commerce and Human Resources of the City of Milan, in an interview with Network Digital360, regarding the document “Milano 2020, strategie di adattamento”. She spoke of the contribution the municipal government has made to the discussion with the city of the idea of a rebound in the direction of a “new normality.” “We have focused on two dimensions: space and time. Space: how to re-imagine neighborhoods and territories that make up the metropolis on the basis of the idea of a city that can be experienced in 15 minutes on foot, linking back to the suggestions the city of Paris and other metropolitan areas are already implementing. The idea is that of a metropolis that can have services available to residents in a reduced amount of space, meaning a different distribution of public services, but also a different idea of commercial activities, with forceful emphasis on neighborhood shops, community, proximity.” The second dimension is that of time, in an attempt to also construct a timing plan for the city, where the question of desynchronization is not just a response to the health crisis, but also a new way of experiencing urban areas. Tajani asserts: “The idea that work activities and life activities can share the same spaces is also a way to rethink the temporal organization of the city, its circulation flows.”

Ufficio in Barcellona.© Salva LopezOffice in Barcelona.© Salva Lopez

VII Wellness for home-based workers

Mobile workers, or namely those who use mobile devices for work activities, have reached a level of about 13 million individuals (as reported for the year 2020 by the research institute IDC Italia),  and now represent over 54% of the national workforce. If, on the other hand, we examine the various categories of mobile workers, the most interesting areas of growth can be seen among home-based workers, a category that includes people who operate from a home office, such as professionals and freelancers, and corporate employees who work from home at least three days per month, involved in various types of smart working initiatives.
Almost half of Italian workers are reorganizing to be able to work from home on a permanent basis; the same is true of most of the European countries. To create the conditions for their wellbeing, they have to be able to rely on certain parameters regarding the spaces in which they work.

Ufficio in casa, Brooklyn, USA. © Mark MahaneyHome office, Brooklyn, USA. © Mark Mahaney

Those who spend long hours on smart working have to be able to count as fully as possible on natural light, which not only ensures savings on power bills, but is also decisive for human health and eyesight. Whenever possible, it is best to place the desk near a window, and in any case to make use of efficient technical lighting solutions. Research also shows that having plants in the work area can boost enthusiasm and optimism. Small corners of greenery add beauty to the workspace while releasing oxygen and humidifying air. The theme of correct ventilation, like that of natural lighting, is essential in the correct choice of a working position. It is not always easy to concentrate when working at home, especially if we are not alone there. It can therefore be crucial to clearly border the space, using mobile partitions that also work well as a backdrop for the many video calls. The organization of the home office should include everything that is needed within easy reach, without having to constantly stand up and/or go elsewhere. In spite of Wi-Fi solutions, even in small work areas there are always lots of wires; for a home office it is important to find a way to channel the cables, placing sockets, ports and switches close at hand. As for the general reorganization of the space, accessorized furnishings with special wiring solutions can be very helpful.

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