The Home Office Is Disappearing—What’s Taking Its Place?

This article originally appeared on Realtor.com. As more and more people work remotely, it turns out that “working from home” is becoming less about actually working from the actual home. 

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I work from home. Not a coffee shop, not a co-working space with free microbrew. I work in a dedicated, IRS-approved workspace with the requisite Ikea desk and drawer of supplies I never use (I mean, who staples anymore?).

And yet, on the days when my husband telecommutes, he sprawls out on the living room couch, laptop perched on his stomach. And an informal poll of others who work from home shows they do so in all sorts of unconventional places, from kitchen tables to beds and any other nook or cranny so long as it’s not an actual office.

So what’s caused the traditional home office to disappear—and what’s taking its place?

How technology killed the home office

Recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 24% of employed people did some or all of their work at home.

“But even with the move to more work-from-home situations, few people seek a traditional study,” says Glenn S. Phillips of Lake Homes Realty.

Chalk this up to shrinking square footage (U.S. Census data show the median square footage of a single-family home fell 73 square feet this year) and the rise of open floor plans which blur defined spaces. Phillips also notes that in days of yore, people needed a whole lot of stuff to work: not only staplers, but also physical reference material, files, landline phones, and desktop computers hooked to modems to access the internet. Remember those days?

Now, all you need to work is a laptop and Wi-Fi, which can exist pretty much anywhere. So, it’s no wonder today’s WFH folks roam.

Another reason workers shun formal offices? Doors. People I interviewed described feeling “trapped,” “tucked away,” and “stuck” when in a home office.

Sarah Tippett, editor of Homeschool Base, says of her old dedicated home office, “I never wanted to go in there!” The Asheville, NC, resident adds, “I really think my creativity gates open up when I’m not caged in.”

Sarah Tippet loves working in her sunroom: “The light is so pure and bright.”
Sarah Tippet loves working in her sunroom: “The light is so pure and bright.”Sarah Tippet

So where do people work, then? The options are endless, from easy chairs to dining tables and beyond. It all depends on your home’s layout and where opportunities lie.

When Marcia Noyes, director of health care technology company Communication for Catalyze, bought a new cottage in New Braunfels, TX, the small third bedroom was already an office. But she found herself drawn to work on her porches instead, explaining, “I love going outside and feeling like I’m part of the rest of the world.”

Meanwhile, Jessi Carr, managing editor of the website 365 Business Tips in San Diego, also has a designated home office, but her go-to work spot is the kitchen island.

“Not only is it the perfect height to be a substitute standing desk, there’s also enough counter space for any extra papers,” she says. “The change in location helps break me out of any problems that I may have run into.”

Marcia Noyes’ “office”
Marcia Noyes’ “office”Marcia Noyes

Challenges of the roving worker

But let’s face it, typing on a laptop on your couch all day can be just as uncomfortable as sitting at a desk—and it could wreak havoc on your back. Working in bed? Even worse.

Given the ergonomic perils of working from home, people who do so should be particularly aware of any aches and pains that can develop. If you’re working in an armchair, use a footstool to elevate your legs and ease pressure in your lower back. And in bed, use a TV tray to support your laptop, like Jessalyn Duncan, vice president of Benediction Web Consulting in Houston. A keyboard that’s too high can put stress on your wrists; use the tray to keep your laptop on the same level as your forearms.

Storage is another challenge. So what should you do with any of those papers that haven’t quite become digital?

Jamie Novak, expert organizer and author of “Keep This Toss That,” suggests using an ottoman for storage: “The person can sit in a comfy spot and have everything they need right there.”

Finally, there’s the question of concentration. Being where the action is frees the trapped worker. But a central location—with amped-up noise and activity—can also present challenges for even the most agile multitasker. For this reason, while Duncan has a favorite comfy chair in the media room where she can power through the bulk of her work with the TV on, she heads to the TV-free living room when it’s crunch time.

What about the home office tax write-off?

People who work from home may also be tempted to take their home office tax deduction. The good news is, the IRS does not require a home office to be its own room; it can just be a corner you’ve carved out of a bigger space.

But here’s the bad news: Your “office” does need to be used exclusively for business. So, your kitchen table where you eat, the bed where you sleep, or living room couch where you watch TV won’t count. But hey, if that’s where you work best, then it will obviously pay off in the long run!

Margaret Heidenry is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, and Boston Magazine.
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