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1st Floor Lona House
212 Upper Buitengracht
Bo Kaap, Cape Town, 8001

Jaime-Lee Gardner
072 171 1979

Louise Martin
073 335 4084

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Work-life balance

Creating effective home workspaces

By Jennifer Stern

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Work-life balance

Creating effective home workspaces

By Jennifer Stern

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We’ve all spent a lot more time at home recently, and – for some of us – that’s put quite a strain on our work-life balance. But what’s interesting is that so many people are realising that they don’t need to go in to the office as much as they thought they did. Chances are anyone who works at a desk can work from home – and that creates opportunities and challenges for developers and HOAs respectively.

Do we really need to leave home to work?

The concept of being contracted to be present at a specific workspace for a specific period of time originated in the first Industrial Revolution, because factories needed people to tend the machines constantly throughout the production day. If one person left their workstation for a wee or a smoke break, the whole system would break down. Really, it would. Widgets could be made without necessary bits, Gizmos may not be properly doo-datted, and whole production lines might clog up as thingamajigs got jammed in the works.

Factories were (and some still largely are) hierarchical places where workers clock in, and are supervised all day; and, obviously, some people – like dentists, miners, farmers and plumbers – need to be in a specific place in order to work, but much of the work that many people do can be done from anywhere. Also – let’s face it – no-one who spends eight hours in an office actually does a full eight hours of productive work. It’s just not possible, and the time that is not productive is wasted – daydreaming, dozing, taking smoke breaks, making tea, checking Facebook, or just staring blankly at a screen with nothing happening in your brain. People who work from home, on the other hand, use those ‘unproductive’ moments constructively because nothing improves mental concentration more than a short burst of physical activity – and it doesn’t have to be intense. Many home-based workers pop in a load of laundry, work until they feel their minds wandering, whereupon they hang up the washing, and return to their desks mentally refreshed. You can substitute any domestic chore for laundry – dead-heading a few roses, doing some weeding, clearing away the breakfast dishes, unpacking the dishwasher, prepping vegetables for supper. An on-site worker would have to deal with all this after spending the whole day in the office, and upward of an hour in the car.

That, along with the increasing cost of fuel, the undeniable effect of carbon emissions and the acknowledged dangers of extended periods of sitting, has made working at home very desirable, and the decreasing cost of technology, as well as the development of Fibre to the Home, has made it feasible. And COVID-19 has forced the last few reluctant employers to adapt to the new reality of the working world. Also, now that so many people have had a taste of this productive freedom, it’s going to be hard to get them back into the office.

So how do we create good working spaces?

Most of our homes are designed as ‘single family homes’ in which we live – and perhaps play – but not as places in which we work. So people who do work from home usually make do by creating a more or less dedicated workspace, ranging from a time-share on the dining room table to a dedicated home office in what was probably originally a spare bedroom – or perhaps a converted garage or staff quarters. Even before SARS-CoV-2 chased us screaming into our houses, many people would bring work home – usually to the dining room table, or even the kitchen counter.

But, now that many of us are seriously considering making what was a necessary anomaly into the new normal, we need to rethink the division of workspace, play space and living space. Surprisingly, one of the pioneers in this thinking is a retirement estate. Groenkloof, in George, markets what other developers might call two- and three-bedroom cottages as one- and two-bedroom cottages with a study because, says Jan Pienaar, CEO of Groenkloof Developments, ‘everyone needs space for a computer, a piano or a sewing machine, or a place to paint.’

Of course, it’s really not hard to simply change a three-bedroom home into a two-bed, one-study unit, but perhaps there is a market for homes with a dedicated workspace. Unlike bedrooms, studies do not need cupboards with hanging space, and they certainly do not need en-suite bathrooms, but a wall of shelves might be nice.

The perfect space in which to work

One thing a dedicated workspace definitely needs is lots of natural light. It should be an inviting space – cool but bright in summer, and sunny in winter, perhaps even with a fireplace. Something cheerful. You would be amazed how many people choose the darkest, pokiest room in the house as a ‘study’, while their bedrooms (which they only occupy at night) enjoy bright sunshine, and then they wonder why they hate sitting at their desk.

More important is the way studies relate to the rest of the house. Most houses are subtly divided into public and private spaces – the lounge, kitchen, etc., as opposed to the bedrooms. A work-from-home space has specific privacy needs. Ideally, it should be separate from the bedrooms, and relatively close to the kitchen (because no-one can work without coffee), and it should also perhaps be near the dining room so that, if you need to hold meetings, you can commandeer the dining room table for a few hours. If you do lots of meetings, perhaps a dedicated meeting table in the office/study. (We will be able to do this again one day.) In a double-storey home this would probably be on the ground floor.

Also, ideally, you should be able to shut the work area off from the rest of the house so that you can ‘draw a line in the carpet’ for times when you really need to put your head down and work without distraction.

Some clever, space-saving workspace ideas

Homes are getting smaller, so you may need to be quite creative to fit a workspace into a compact home.

  • An office-in-a-cupboard can be very effective, if it is well designed, and well positioned for light, access, etc. Preferably not in a bedroom.
  • Unless you have an orphan wizard living with you, the space below stairs is often wasted, but it can make a great workspace – either permanently open or able to be closed off, much the same as the cupboard office.
  • We tend not to use our roof space much but, with some effective skylights and windows, these lofts can be made into fabulous workspaces.
  • Most garages are a lot bigger than they need to be just to house the car, so there is room to build a workspace in at one end. This can double up as a workshop for handy people.
  • Also consider the use of clever multipurpose furniture such as room dividers that combine a desk on one side with cupboards or an entertainment centre on the other.

What your home workspace needs

However you carve out your workspace, there are some non-negotiable necessities.

  • You need a work surface – a dedicated desk, a table that can do double duty if necessary, or a fold-down work surface.
  • Even if you have good natural light (and you should), lighting is something you should not skimp on. Fit sufficient, good-quality, bright, well-positioned lights so that you can work any time of the day or night without eyestrain.
  • The paperless office is a myth – you need lots of storage space for files and things, but much of what we consider essential, e.g. tax records, documentation for completed projects, can be stored ‘off-site’, i.e. in the garage.
  • The wireless office is also a myth. You need sufficient power outlets for laptops, lights, and various chargers. Really, more than you think. Plan carefully, and build work surfaces so you can run cables invisibly.
  • You need to ensure that you have a dedicated spot for your router – you don’t really want to knock it off your desk all the time.
  • Absolutely non-negotiable is the necessity for super-fast, super-stable fibre and Wi-Fi.
  • Something pretty – you want to make this space inviting, so include space for plants, paintings or – best of all – a great view.

Shared spaces

Right now everyone is hunkering down in their own space, and this pandemic has taught us that we need space in our homes in which we can work. But, once it’s all over, we will want to get out of the house, but probably not out of the estate. A year or two from now shared workspaces in estates may well be in great demand, so it’s worth planning for it.

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