Nick Molfino is sitting in his car, waiting in a parking lot outside his next meeting after having lunch with a client. The 39-year-old president and CEO of Herndon, Va.–based L2 Construction Management had spent the early part of his career being the first one in and last one out of his office, hoping to impress his superiors by clocking 12-hour workdays.
Now, the father of two manages his own general contracting firm, where he and his employees work from home almost 100% of the time. On a typical day, he’ll send his kids to school on the bus around 7:30 a.m., and head back to his office in his home in Ashburn, Va., a suburb outside Washington, D.C. Depending on the day, he will go out for a few client meetings or head to the 450-square-foot office space he rents to meet with his co-workers. Then will return home to pick up his daughters from school by 3:00 p.m.
“If it’s a nice day out, I’m going to work much harder to get things done by a certain time to enjoy the rest of the day,” he says. “This is coming from someone who used to get up at 4:30 in the morning and come home at 7:30 or 8 at night. I work fewer hours than I used to but probably get twice as much done in that time.”
Millions of Americans are now working from home like Molfino does, without clocking hours in an office building. According to Gallup’s February 2017 State of the American Workplace report, which surveyed more than 15,000 adults, 43% of employed Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely, up from 39% in 2012. The number of American workers reportedly working four to five days a week remotely grew from 24% to 31% during the same time period.
Working remotely cuts commuting time and costs, creates flexibility for employees, attracts top talent to firms, and increases employee productivity. These benefits are part of the growing popularity of the “live-work-play” lifestyle that translates into a greater balance between the spheres of work and home life.
The Live–Work Lifestyle
Especially popular with millennial workers, this type of untethered lifestyle pairs telecommuting with opportunities for connection. Though remote workers in this demographic may not have an office to go to, this group seeks out camaraderie among other remote workers by renting spaces in co-working offices, such as those offered by the company WeWork, or setting up workspaces in an apartment work lounge. They want to live and work in the heart of the action, where friends, restaurants, nightlife, and entertainment are all right outside the door.
But not every telecommuter can live in an urban area. High housing prices in urban centers paired with the need for more square footage for growing families mean many professionals live in the suburbs or even farther out, so home builders must find creative ways to satisfy the demand for a vibrant lifestyle outside of the city.
Neerav Vyas, a 35-year-old at the tip of the millennial generation, prefers the live–work lifestyle he’s able to enjoy as a remote employee with the federal government. He views the ability to telecommute as more than just a perk—for the new father, it’s a total lifestyle change, and one that allowed him to purchase a single-family home in the Ashburn Village development, located about 30 miles outside of Washington, D.C.
“At the time, I lived closer to D.C. and [my family was] looking for a house. I was originally looking for something in Arlington or Fairfax County because of the location and proximity to the city, but we were able to go with something further out because I have the telework flexibility,” he says. “I was able to buy a single-family home with a full office of my own. I still get that separation of work and the house, and I can step out and have my normal day-to-day activities without feeling like I’m at work all day.”
As a millennial transitioning from urban to suburban life, Vyas got the best of both worlds—he was able to purchase a single-family home that fits the needs of his family, and though it’s located outside of the city, the walkable community he lives in still offers the amenities that satisfy an “on-the-go” lifestyle.
Vyas describes his neighborhood as a “community within itself.” He’ll often take a break from work to go to the neighborhood gym, get a change of scenery by working for a few hours at Starbucks, go for a stroll on the community’s walking paths, or meet his wife, who works close by, for lunch.
Working from home on a full-time basis may make some homeowners stir-crazy, which means the community they live in and its nearby amenities are significant factors in choosing a home location. For example, Hector Sanchez, a 43-year-old creative art director, has worked in a number of rented office spaces and travels a few times per month to client sites, but for the past six months he has worked primarily from his home office in McAllen, Texas, a space he shares with his wife, who is also a remote worker.
While Sanchez cites many benefits to working from his home—such as the ability to work for longer periods without distractions and therefore finish his work earlier in the day than he believes he would in an office building—he still feels the need to get a change of scenery and socialize by working in a coffee shop or at the local library a few times per week.
“The biggest challenge working at home is that you’re in the same place all the time,” he says. Like Vyas, Sanchez’s neighborhood and its proximity to other places to work, exercise, or run errands meets his need for a change of scenery if he starts to feel antsy in his home office.
“We are very close to the town’s main artery. I can walk to the grocery store, or take my dog for a walk into town on the main strip. Everything you need to get to is accessible, either walkable or a short five- to 10-minute drive,” he says of his town. “We were initially attracted to this neighborhood because the elementary school is about three blocks away, so we can walk our children to school. For me work wise, there is a Starbucks and the library nearby, and otherwise there is a gym within walking distance that my wife goes to often and we can walk to a number of restaurants.”
The Wireless Revolution
Because wireless technology allows telecommuters to work from any room in the house, builders may question whether home offices are still a necessity in new-home construction. The professionals interviewed for this story who work out of their house even just one or two days a week say a designated home office is important.
Molfino purchased his home in the Willowsford Farms community of Ashburn a few years go. When working with his builder, Camberley Homes, a division of Winchester Homes, one of his key requirements for his new space was a home office where he could mentally “go to work.”
“I used to leave my office ahead of traffic to hang out with my family, but then I would go back to work at night. It was driving my wife nuts to have the laptop on the kitchen table and have drawings out, so we both knew I needed my own space where I could close the doors if I need to and not worry about having my kids’ crayons all over my stuff,” he says. “When we built the house, we set aside a room that would be an office, so now I have a room with two doors I can close it if I need to, and I have a full desk set up in it.”
While laptops may provide owners with the freedom to move around the house at their leisure, work still needs to be done without the interruptions of family life or daily distractions. As Manny Gonzalez, principal at national architecture firm KTGY Architecture + Planning, puts it, the home office becomes more important once homeowners form a family, and the space still provides the privacy that is necessary to actually work without family distractions.
“I used to work from home and I would just end up working in my living room. You’re just not as effective,” says Vyas. “There are more distractions in front of you, like the television or the kitchen. Having your own dedicated workspace is a huge benefit, and it’s the one thing I wanted knowing I’d be working at home full-time.”
For many homeowners with families, having a door to the office space is key. Sanchez remodeled his home three years ago to convert the garage space into an office for his wife, who works from home. The couple shares the space, which is near the kitchen and living room area, but the office doesn’t have a door—something Sanchez says he wishes he would have thought about prior to finishing the remodel.
“You just walk into the room, and we should have designed it with better separation. If [the space] was something that could be closed off and my family wouldn’t see me, I could get more work done,” he says. “If you go into the project thinking you’re just going to work casually in the space sometimes, that’s probably a mistake. If you’re going to work in there at all, you need that space to be closed off.”
The Flex Space Solution
A flex room makes sense for buyers who aren’t sure if they need a dedicated home office, designers say. The multifaceted space can be turned into a child’s playroom, a guest bedroom, a den, or a home office. Providing homeowners with a space that they can envision suiting their individual need is essential, and doesn’t limit the perceived uses of that room to only one function.
“Some buyers may want an extra bedroom or formal dining room and you don’t want to build a home that is 600 square feet bigger than it needs to be to include all of those uses,” says Gonzalez.
“A good flex space that can serve any one of those needs is a benefit to builders because it lets the home buyer customize the home to meet their own needs without building more home than the buyer needs. There is no reason a room can’t utilize movable walls and furnishings that allow that flex space to serve as an office or a guest room.”
Sanchez wasn’t working with unlimited space when he renovated his home to fit his family’s changing needs. The remodeled garage not only became a space for him and his wife to work remotely, but it also doubles as a playroom for his children. In a characteristic example of the flex spaces architects tout as the home office solution, the large room is a place where the whole family can spend time together while engaged in different activities, with the children doing homework while the parents finish up their work projects for the day.
These flex spaces allow homes to adapt to the current needs of the owner, and like Sanchez, many homeowners like the idea of having a space that has multiple uses, or that can be modified over time with lifestyle changes.
“Home buyers don’t want to commit to a set room title with these spaces, so show them all the options,” says Deryl Patterson, president of architecture firm Housing Design Matters, located in Florida. “Locking down the room designations may limit buyers on a floor plan."
Home offices can look different for different demographics, says Patterson. While it’s not uncommon for baby boomers to want a more traditional and closed-off home office space, many millennials tend to be multitaskers and are less likely to need complete isolation while working. This makes a compact “pocket office,” or a small desk or workspace that is designed to serve as an owner’s office, a good compromise.
“The pocket office that is right in the midst of the action may be the right size for [millennials] as they go paperless and rely more heavily on their electronic devices,” she says. “But when millennials start having children, they, too, may need to retreat to a more private space.” In addition to his office, Molfino’s home also features a pocket office of sorts that he’s dubbed his wife Alicia’s and kids’ “command center.”
“We have a mudroom off of our garage where the builder originally had a laundry room, but I wanted a built-in desk,” says Molfino, who had the laundry room moved to the second floor instead. “We have a laptop permanently set up there as a dedicated space.”
Multipurpose workspaces will only become more critical for builders to include as owners across all demographics spend more time working out of their homes and less time in traditional office buildings. At the crux of the attraction to a live–work lifestyle is the idea that a job is only one aspect of a modern worker’s life. Eliminating a commute gives workers hours back in their day, and flexible schedules that don’t tie them to a desk during specific hours allow them to build their lifestyle around their job, instead of the other way around.
“I used to think that being the first one at work was what was going to earn me everyone’s respect and present the right image,” says Molfino, getting out of his car and heading into his next meeting, after which he’ll head home with enough time to pick up his daughters at the bus stop. He’ll spend the rest of the evening with his family, a luxury he didn’t have when he stayed at his office until 7 p.m. to avoid rush hour traffic.
“I think generations behind mine are getting away from the idea that your job is your identity, and people just don’t want to work 10 to 12 hours a day,” he says. “People’s identities don’t seem to be tied to their work anymore.”
Additional reporting by Kayla Devon