What are the implications of the shift to working from home for the design of domestic spaces? Maram Shaweesh and Annalise Varghese argue that this involves a shift in the perception of home – from a place of respite to a place of economic production – and that there is much to learn from those who are already adept at navigating this conjunction.

Maram Shaweesh working and home schooling in her small apartment.

With a surge in Australians working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic comes a surge in the challenges faced – the biggest of which is in changing the idea of what a home can be. What was once a place of respite is now also barracks, boarding school and boardroom.

The sheer logistics of this shift can be overwhelming. Much of the current advice has been created as a direct response, with news outlets, the internet, and social media all clamouring to offer the best work-from-home solution.1 But for select groups, working from home is the old normal. Looking at the way these people have dealt with, or are actively responding to, these challenges can help stimulate new ideas about what working from home might mean.

Australians already working from home include people with disabilities and their carers, the elderly, under-employed, casual and freelance workers, parents with small children (particularly women) and those who have already chosen to home-school their children.2 Many of these groups are already shouldering the same socio-economic burdens we now all face, but their longstanding efforts to adapt to working from home have often gone unrecognised. How can researching the lives of these people who already work from home allow us to rethink home as a place of production? How can a rethink of a household’s spatial layouts, separation of functions and its physical amenities work towards shifting the perception of home as a place to both live and to work?

Why do we need to rethink home?

Even in calmer times there have been calls to improve the quality of housing being delivered, especially for disadvantaged Australians.3 Poor housing can contribute to worsening health conditions as well as furthering the social and economic disadvantage of Australians with existing illnesses and disability.4  What remains to be researched in depth in the contemporary Australian context is how housing impacts on the capacity of people to work from home.

Various groups are already navigating relevant circumstances. Many people with disabilities may have no option other than working remotely from the office. Casual and under-employed individuals may face challenges when working online, with various factors such as privacy and access to technology conspiring to make this more difficult. Prior to the pandemic, an increasing number of Australian parents chose home education for their children. This might be due to religious and cultural reasons, geography or simply being dissatisfied by mainstreaming schooling.5 All these groups have had to adapt to overlaps in professional and private spaces, finding ways to deal with social isolation while juggling their family and work lives.6

The design of a home can be directly traced to the quality of life lived in it. Since the 1990s, a growing body of literature has investigated home-based work; however, there has been little practical response from the housing industry, a lack that is reflected in the ongoing struggles faced by those who work from home.7 People in poor housing conditions may find the physical constraints of the house impossible to work comfortably in. The elderly or disabled may feel isolated due to the design of their dwelling or a lack of proximity to communal spaces.8 Parents or carers of individuals with high attention and energy requirements may find their neighbours complaining about noise or disruptive activity, while multi-generational households may find separation between public and private zones extremely difficult.9 All of this provides fertile ground for research into how these groups deal with the challenges, and for speculation about how the spatial organisation of a house can better support the integration of work and home environments.

What aspects of working from home warrant a rethink?

Considering the ongoing circumstances of these groups, along with the new struggles we face under quarantine conditions, reveals a clear need to rethink the spatial organisations of residential architecture. This raises a number of preliminary questions for the design of homes:

Do we need to rethink social connectivity at home beyond the use of technology?

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, many tried to limit screen time after working hours. Now, people find themselves tethered to devices for work, while outside working hours electronic communication has become a lifeline to the world beyond the home. However, this reliance on technology as a means to communicate and connect socially may not be feasible for the elderly, disabled or economically disadvantaged.

How can design solutions enable people to feel socially connected to others in their apartment building, street or suburb?

Do we need to rethink privacy and separation?

Researchers such as Moira Munro and Ruth Madigan describe the need for “privacy in the public sphere” at home.10 Recent “affordable” apartments and houses tend to relegate private spaces to the bedroom or bathroom. These zones can be places of refuge; however, people working privately may still wish to be connected to the rest of the household. Likewise, the disabled or elderly, especially if they require supervision, may require space for personal activities without feeling distanced from the household.

How can rethinking the spatial organisation of a home better allow for public and private pursuits within a shared space?

Do we need to rethink children’s engagement with residential architecture?

Children studying or playing at home may drive some parents up the wall.11 Access to outside play areas may be limited, especially if such activity is dependent on a parent’s free time. This may only be a temporary issue for many school-aged children, yet it is a daily one faced by home-schooled or disabled needs children. Current research demonstrates the importance of access to outside spaces and natural environments in productivity, creativity and wellbeing.12

Can the design of space at home be rethought in terms of connection to the outside world, whether visually through views to nature or physically via access to private or semi shared gardens, patios and greenery?

Post-pandemic outcomes

The above questions invite new ways of thinking about the home as a place of production. The pandemic may be temporary, but outcomes should be long-term: shortening the gap between the disadvantaged and the advantaged in our society, as well as facilitating an easier shift for groups that may wish to continue to work at home. Moreover, the importance of these design solutions needs to be prioritised. Strategies and speculation around working in a post-pandemic home remains open to further research.

Maram Shaweesh is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland, School of Architecture. Her research project investigates the residential experience of the Lebanese community in Australian dwellings. The study explores the overlap between the social, religious and cultural needs of the Lebanese community members as reflected/experienced in their domestic settings.

Annalise Varghese is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland. Her research orbits conceptual architectural practices, with specific regard to the architectural pavilion and its rising presence in the contemporary design sphere. Annalise holds a Bachelor and Master’s degree in architecture from the UQ School of Architecture.

Further references

Libby Callaway and Kate Tregloan, “Bringing the NDIS Home: Smarter Housing Design for People with Disability.” The Conversation (2015). Accessed April 11, 2020.

Sophie-May Kerr, “With Apartment Living on the Rise, How Do Families and Their Noisy Children Fit In?” The Conversation (2018). Accessed April 11, 2020.

  1. Ruchi Sinha, “6 Strategies to Juggle Work and Young Kids at Home: It’s about Flexibility and Boundaries.” The Conversation. Accessed April 11, 2020.
  2. Linda N. Edwards and Elizabeth Field‐Hendrey, “Home‐Based Work and Women’s Labor Force Decisions,” Journal of Labor Economics 20 no. 1 (2002): 170–200.
  3. Bruce Judd, Diana Olsberg, Joanne Quinn, Lucy Groenhart, and Oya Demirbilek, “Dwelling, Land and Neighbourhood Use by Older Home Owners,” AHURI Final Report No. 144. (Melbourne, 2010).
  4. Emma Baker, Andrew Beer and Rebecca Bentley, “Why 100 Years without Slum Housing in Australia Is Coming to an End.” The Conversation (2016).
  5. Rebecca English, “Homeschooling Is on the Rise in Australia. Who Is Doing It and Why?” The Conversation (2019).
  6. Barbara R. Rowe, and Marion T. Bentley, “The Impact of the Family on Home-Based Work,” Journal of Family and Economic Issues 13 no. 3 (1992): 279–97.
  7. Kathleen Christensen, “Working at Home,” in Women and the Environment, edited by Irwin Altman and Arza Churchman (Plenum Press, 1994): 133–66.
  8. Kath Hulse and Lise Saugere, “Home Life, Work and Housing Decisions: A Qualitative Analysis,” AHURI Research Paper No. NRV1-7 (Melbourne: 2008).
  9. Elyse Warner, “Apartment Life for Families Means Living at Close Quarters, but Often Feeling Isolated Too,” The Conversation (2019). Accessed April 11, 2020; Bruce Judd, “Housing Design for Multigenerational Living” in Multigenerational Family Living Evidence and Policy Implications from Australia, edited by Edgar Liu and Hazel Easthope, 136–59 (Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2017).
  10. Moira Munro and Ruth Madigan, “Privacy in the Private Sphere.” Housing Studies 8 no, 1 (1993): 29–45.
  11. Marisa Young, “Working Parents Dealing with Coronavirus Quarantines Will Face Psychological Challenges,” The Conversation (2020). Accessed April 11, 2020.
  12. Brendon Hyndman, “Let Them Play! Kids Need Freedom from Play Restrictions to Develop,” The Conversation (2019). Accessed April 11, 2020.