Welcome to November’s instalment of Dear Urbaneer, where I open my virtual mailbag and field real estate questions from my ever-inquisitive clients! This time around, I’m responding to a client who is wondering about the impact of the Work From Home (WFH) movement set in motion by the pandemic, and how they might create the ideal workspace at home through renovation or outbuilding.
It seems that, of all the lifestyle changes we’ve had to embrace as a result of living through a pandemic, the one that is most impacting and likely to stay is the shift to working from home. For me, working from home has become a permanent arrangement, at least for the foreseeable future. As such, I am re-evaluating my living space at home to accommodate both my professional and personal lives. I do have some options, including reconfiguring an existing space in my home. Alternatively, I have heard about the emerging popularity of constructing an outbuilding as a Home Office zone. Any recommendations on how to create the perfect space?
Signed, Work From Home Wish List
Dear Wish List:
As we collectively move through the COVID-19 pandemic, I've discovered more and more of my professional clients are finding themselves working at home more often - or even as a permanent arrangement. In fact, from my lens in the Toronto real estate trenches, I would say it's one of the biggest motivations that have prompted many to climb the property ladder into larger spaces.
This article from the Globe and Mail "The Future Of Work? You’re Living It'" has some interesting insights. According to the data in this article, Stats Canada estimates that nearly 39 per cent of Canadians have jobs that could be done remotely; in March, when the shutdown hit, that is nearly exactly the number of workers who began telecommuting. That worked out to nearly 4.7 million additional Canadians working at home in March 2020. According to a survey referred to in the article, most workers felt that the work arrangement was productive. As many of us already know, the scope of this shift could be dramatic, depending on your circumstances.
COVID-19 has impacted certain the way we live, but it has also impacted how we design our homes, real estate trends, and our awareness of our built environments. Have you seen my COVID-19 Series, which covers a host of topics, like The Season Of COVID-19 & Canadian Real Estate, The Movement To Hipsteading During The Covid-19 Pandemic & Toronto Real Estate, and The Need And Demand For Live/Work Properties In Toronto? I even touched on the rise of the home office in How COVID-19 Will Likely Change How We Design Our Homes.
With lockdowns swiftly imposed in the spring, employers quickly pivoted towards widespread support to work at home. Many employers learned how productive and cost-effective remote work arrangements can be, while employees found benefits for work-life balance and flexibility with their schedules.
What we did see quite commonly, due in part to the speed with which this change was thrust upon us, people throwing up makeshift offices in their homes - from kitchen tables shared with partners and families, corners of bedrooms or basements, or even out in garages. Those without existing dedicated home office space had to make it work.
However, given the likely permanence of this shift, there is a growing need for homeowners to make their work at home spaces more functional so that they are comfortable and support productivity. Of course, as a homeowner, there should always be an eye ahead to growing your home’s asset value, creating features that would be coveted by future buyers.
So - what are the best way to create that office space at home to suit your needs today and lure Buyers down the road?
*For a look into what some other Canadians are doing, check out this brand new Globe & Mail article "Backyard Pod Spaces Spring Up As COVID Forces Homeowners To Expand", in which I'm interviewed!*
The Necessity Of Separation Or Division
Those who have worked at home successfully will tell you that one thing above all else can heavily influence your productivity and success: physically and mentally defining your workspace.
Operationally, that means getting up and preparing for the day in much the same way you would if you were heading out to work. I’ve heard this commonly from people who have been working successfully at home for years. I’ve even heard anecdotes of workers who get up, get ready, and hop in their car for a quick zip around the block to signal the beginning of the workday, and then the reverse in the evening as they “return home" from work.
That might be a bit extreme, but the concept is valuable.
If you blur those lines between work and home without strategy and definition, something will suffer - be it work productivity, mental health, and the ability to switch off at the end of the day, your family life, or your overall work-life balance. And depending on where in your home you choose to have your Work From Home space, there could even be implications for your physical health.
Combining your living space with your working space takes not only the proper physical environment but also the proper mental environment, which is why creating a separate space dedicated to work is so important.
Supporting Psychology And Physical Needs Working At Home
Working from home takes tremendous self-control; you’ve got family interruptions, domestic tasks, the fridge, and pantry nearby to satiate your cravings, surrounding you while you are in the “workplace”, so focus on your work is essential. While self-control can lead to positive changes in one’s life, living in a constant state of an aggressive assertion of self-control (as you could potentially encounter when you merge your work and home lives) can be detrimental to mental health.
Although successfully working from home may have a lot to do with an individual’s personality (i.e. propensity to procrastinate, need to socialize at work, etc.), researchers advocate that one of the best ways to mitigate this and to support productivity for work tasks as well as harmony in your home life is to create a physical division between work and home - even at home.
These four articles provide great insight into the benefits of creating an optimal work environment, including the need for physical detachment in a workspace: "Working From Home? Why Detachment Is Crucial For Mental Health." posted by TheConverstion.com, "Psychologists’ Advice For Newly Remote Workers" published by the American Psychology Association, and "Why Are Some People Better At Working From Home Than Others?" - a question posed by the BBC. and this article "Thinking About Permanently Working From Home?" comes courtesy of the Globe and Mail.
The reality is, given the speed with which many of us set up our home offices, there were a number of people who randomly grabbed corners of their homes for their offices, strictly because they provided a modicum of privacy.
There are loads of anecdotes around to support this. A friend of mine was on a video call with her team and she noted one of her group working in a dark damp basement in a make-shift office. He said it was the only place he could escape from his kids and focus. We’ve also seen people working in garages or other areas which may not be really suitable, and using furniture which may not be intended for office use (I’ve seen rocking chairs, dining room chairs, bar stools, and even cardboard boxes for temporary desks), creating potential health and wellness issues.
It may seem like a reasonable idea at the moment to occupy a corner of your basement, attic, or outside in a shed or garage, in the name of productivity, and keeping on task for work. However, it is important one pays attention to staying mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually balanced.
After all, you're working to earn income to sustain your loved ones. In this regard, I think it is important that people try to avoid making their WFH space secondary to their living space if they're working several hours each day in a compromised space.
A dark dank basement can not only be counter-productive to working at your highest and best, but it can fuel depression and isolation. Plus let's not forget a formerly unused or uncared for space in a home may be prone to issues like mould, radon gas, asbestos, and other ills like sick building syndrome if poorly ventilated. Have you seen my Healthy Home series that discusses these and other household hazards?
So - back to your question. You have a few options when looking to create that optimal office space.
Buying A Larger Home With More Room For Office Space
There is a rising trend for people to be on the hunt for their “Forever Homes’- homes that will suit homebuyers in the years to come in family-friendly neighbourhoods. This segment, particularly those already living in their neighbourhood of choice, will happily pay top dollar to secure a home in which to truly grow their roots in a desirable location.
Also, in part of this trend, thanks to the pandemic and the WFH movement, people have been buying bigger homes to get more space as they need a dedicated workspace. I talk about the rising trend of the purchase of Forever Homes in Demand For ‘Forever Homes’ In Toronto’s Downtown Family Neighbourhoods Persists Despite COVID-19.
However, what if moving isn’t an option, or if you’d prefer to stay put and make your current home better suit your work from home needs?
Staying Put And Adding More Square Footage With An Outbuilding
People who are limited in their capacity to move are exploring how to increase their square footage by adding what might have been initially considered an ancillary structure but are now more essential in need. What might have been a 'She Shed' for yoga or a workshop for gardening implements and household tools are now being considered as the new Home Office Space. You may even be lucky enough to have sufficient land to build a separate structure on your property to serve this purpose, or the as-of-right to construct a laneway dwelling you could use as a secondary suite. If that's the case, you'll want to read my post called About Laneway Housing In Toronto, By Sustainable And Urbaneer.
After all, these days it's about finding separation from your partner who is also working from home, and/or your kids/pets who are a laughing barking brood - which is ok when you come home from work but maddening when it's every waking moment.
So if you are considering venturing “outside the box” (i.e. outbuilding on your property), there are a few structural and pragmatic things you should consider in the conversion of spaces, not just for the sake of comfort and productivity, but also keeping in mind that, when making changes to your home, it is always best to do so with an eye for resale.
For example, a property owner should always do their homework and confirm the building code criteria in terms of size, setbacks, and materiality. After all, an illegal structure that is not built safely does nothing to increase one's resale value. In fact, it might be better for resale to place a movable structure (or tiny home) on a trailer that can be placed on a parking pad (and relocated if required), rather than building a permanent structure that is not legal.
If one is constructing a secondary structure it's important to pay attention to size, scale, and proportion (is it functional?), the use of suitable materials for the climate you're in including wiring, insulation, heating, roofing etc. (is it safe, warm and dry?). Is it easily accessible? Does it have excellent ventilation and natural light (I will discuss the role of natural light in design more below)?
Be sure to pay attention to essentials like access to wi-fi (do you need to install a dedicated line or router?). Do you need plumbing? Would taking a more sustainable approach in materials and design serve you? Perhaps a small wood stove and/or a composting toilet would work, assuming the governing authorities would approve?
Although our pivot to work-at-home was fairly reactionary as the pandemic arrived, creating a longer-term workspace at home offers a good opportunity, not only for your immediate needs but as a resale feature, which is why considerations beyond your needs are important.
If you are leaning towards finishing an area inside your home to accommodate a home office, rather than physical outbuilding, employ the same criteria. Make your space, warm, cosy and inviting. Even if you aren’t exiting your door to go to work, finishing a lower level or an attic lets you leave your 'zones for living' to go to your ‘zone for working'
The Role Of Natural Light, Good Ventilation & Other Design Tips
There are design considerations to include to make your work at home space highly functional and pleasant to be in. Comfort = productivity, which will not only improve your mental state; it will help make this space more alluring to future buyers. Eschew traditional “office” colours and embrace a palette that is neutral, but invigorating (think soft blues, greens, or other earthy tones). Light colours are particularly useful if you are in a small space. Place artwork that inspires. Be conscious of things like shelving and storage, and include these items as an integral cohesive part of the décor.
Invest in proper office furniture, with special attention to your chair. You could have the most beautifully built or renovated work at home space, but if your furniture isn’t ergonomically supportive, your productivity is doomed. Streamline your décor by hiding cords under carpets, or use pretty fabric covers to make cords for your printer, computer, etc. more visually attractive. Include greenery and natural scents to lighten the mood and create calm in your workspace.
Here are some posts by HGTV and TheSpruce for inspiration: "10 Tips For Designing Your Home Office", "3 Beautiful Home Office Ideas" and "8 Creative Office Decor Tips To Maximize Your Productivity"
Perhaps most important in the design of your home office space is the role of natural light. Access to natural light is an essential part of maintaining good mental health over the longer term. If you are in a structure that had an alternate use (i.e. garage or shed) or if you are occupying a part of your home that may not be particularly well-lit (i.e. an attic or basement) take steps wherever you can to integrate windows or operable skylights. It’s even better if you can include a view of the outdoors from these windows - and if they open, letting you bring some breezy fresh air into your day, even better.
If including lots of windows isn’t structurally possible in your intended workspace, pay particular attention to lighting. Go for soft lighting that will enhance mood and be less strenuous on the eyes. Think lamps, string lights for ambience, or task lighting with dimmer switches as you need.
Here are some posts outlining the relationship between natural light, home office design, mental health, and productivity: "The #1 Office Perk? Natural Light, Study: Natural Light Is the Best Medicine for the Office" and "Where you sit or stand at work can boost your productivity".
If you'd like to dish on design and renovation some more, try these additional Urbaneer.com blogs!
I am also the proprietor of Houseporn.ca and a mentor for the student writers that populate the site with content on exclusively Canadian architecture, design, and products.
Here are some relevant topics recently explored on Houseporn, specifically discussing creating functional or more efficient space in your home or keeping house in the age of COVID-19.
With decades of experience in Toronto’s real estate trenches, I delight in providing private consultations to homeowners to show the possibilities in their spaces and helping dwell hunters find homes that support their lifestyles in the most dynamic of ways. As our workplace behaviours shift, having a smart space in your home is more essential than ever.
May the Urbaneer team be of assistance to you?
Thanks for reading!
-The Urbaneer Team
Steven Fudge, Sales Representative
& The Innovative Urbaneer Team
Bosley Real Estate Ltd., Brokerage - (416) 322-800
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