From House to Home: Bringing work home

Changes in the world of work can help reshape the home and make it an ideal school of life.
Charles Handy | Oct 15 2008 | comment  



Charles Handy. Photo: Elizabeth HandyWhat makes a house into a home? And what kind of home today best fosters the wellbeing and development of all the individuals who share it? These and other related questions will be addressed at a conference in London in November, the second in a series organised by the Home Renaissance Foundation and entitled Excellence in the Home: From house to Home.

Among the key speakers is management and social philosopher Charles Handy, whose books on the changing shape of work and its effects on our lives and organisations are known well beyond the United Kingdom. He will address the upcoming conference on the topic, The Home of the Future: Work in the home. His wife, Elizabeth Handy, a portrait photographer using a distinctive "joiner" technique to convey her subjects in the round, will mount an exhibition at the conference on the home and the people who make it.

In this interview for MercatorNet, Catherine McMahon of the Home Renaissance Foundation asked Charles Handy about his vision of the home as a place of work. The photographs are by Elizabeth Handy.

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For some time now the home has tended to be a place where people recover from work, briefly, before setting out again to spend their productive hours at the office. How do you envision the home of the future?

For a start, it’s going to be more than a sleeping lodge, which to some extent it has become in the last generation: a place where people came home to sleep, occasionally feed, and go out again.

I think in future it’s going to become a place where people live and work and eat and sleep and play; more of a community base. Partly that is because some people are finding it convenient to bring some of their work home, and partly because it is more expensive for organisations to house people during the day when much of their work can easily be done away from the office. Also, travel is becoming more expensive and difficult and so more people are going to do more of their work at home, if they can.

Some things you can’t do at home: somebody’s got to go out and serve in the supermarket. However, more people are going to be checking their own goods out, so you won’t need as many people serving there. If you have to do hairdressing, you’ll have to go out for that. But a lot of the work in future is going to be information based, and since anything to do with information can be done at home, more and more people will do that -- for some of the time, not all the time, because they’ll want to get out and meet other people.

This trend is already having an impact on house design. An architect we’ve been talking to says every house she designs now has a study because increasingly if you’re working at home you need that space. But also you need a common area and increasingly people find they want to combine the entertainment area with the eating and cooking area. So you would have a living area where you might have some people cooking, some eating, some watching, some people shouting, playing -- and that will be a big area, the main space.

At the moment urban design more or less pushes people out of their homes to work and they can spend a lot of time commuting. How do we go about persuading the powers that be to recognise the rightful place of the home in a person’s life?

I argue that commuting to work is a very expensive thing to do -- expensive for the organisation, expensive for the individual. When you think that most office buildings are occupied for only 40 hours a week out of the 160 or so available, it’s incredibly expensive. Obviously, then, it is in the economic interests of the organisation to have as small an office possible, and the way to you do that is to make it a place of meetings rather than of people sitting down doing work. The idea is to push people back into their homes to work and bring them back -- perhaps to a hub office -- when you need them together to collaborate personally rather than through telephone or email.

In other words economics, which is the major lever for change in society, will increasingly say, Please don’t travel so much. It’s bad for the economy, bad for your purse, bad for the environment and so on.

Elizabeth Handy

You would need a lot of virtue to work from and actually do it in a structured sort of way. Can we trust people to work conscientiously at home?

Oh yes, you have to learn to work at home, and you have to learn to manage people who work at home. But you have to trust them to get the work done, and when they do it is up to them. Not everyone will start work at 8.30 in the morning. Some will work through the night, because that’s when the children are in bed and it’s all quiet, and during the day they might go to the races. I’m saying, that’s OK.

If you are starting to ring up your employees every hour to see whether they are working, it’s silly. You just tell them: ‘I want to see that report on Monday; I don’t care whether you do it on Sunday or Saturday or Friday.’ To me, this is the best form of management: Is the work done? Is it up to quality? Is it on time? Is it what we wanted you to do? When you do it, how you do it, who you talk to is up to you. I think that’s freedom rather than tyranny.

Children, teenagers anyway, are spending more time out doing activities or hanging out with their friends than at home with their family. What will make the house into a home for kids?

It’s good to be out doing things; young people don’t want to be with their parents the whole time. But I like to think of meals as the punctuation points in life, and the children ought to be at home for meals -- some meals. I really think that the family that eats together stays together. What saddens me about a lot of modern life is that kids graze; they get food out of the fridge and take it up to their rooms. There are homes I’ve been into that don’t have a table, so there is no place for the family to share a meal -- they pick up a plate and some food and sit on the sofa in front of the television to eat. That’s fine some of the time. But I do think that sharing a meal is what makes a family.

For that there would have to be a common table, preferably in the kitchen -- not in a separate room which makes it too formal. The kitchen needs to be a place where you eat and not just cook, and ideally it would open into a communal living space. But people need privacy too, so you need spaces for private work, spaces for private sleeping, as well as space for communal living and eating.

Do you think today’s trends in housing are generally good, bad, or indifferent? What do we need to do better?

In my book I describe how we moved the kitchen in our last house seven times over 25 years, because the function of the kitchen changed as the family grew up. We were able to do that because we had an old Victorian house and the rooms were not designated for any particular activity, they were just spaces. The trouble with a lot of modern housing is that it’s quite clear which is the bedroom, the living room, the sitting room, the kitchen and so on, which allows very little flexibility, so that as the family grows and changes you have to move house. I want multi-functional rooms. Families change; children leave home; children come home…We have to make the space we need, not let the space make us.

Whether it’s a mum or a dad, it is important that someone takes care of the children and the home. Do you think society should give more recognition to that work and, not necessarily pay for it, but value it more in some way?

Absolutely. We’ve just done a study on family carers in Suffolk, a county in England where there are 98,000 of them who have given up their lives, their working lives, to care for somebody in their family. They get a carers allowance, which is a minimal amount of money from the government, for what is incredibly valuable work; it saves the country an enormous amount of money. Then there is the rearing of children, the cooking and all the rest of it -- incredibly valuable work. From time to time people say a housewife or househusband is worth 20,000 pounds a year, but how do you really evaluate it?

What we desperately need is a way of formally recognising it some way, and I’ve been thinking for many years about how one can do that. The answer is, I don’t know. But I think everybody recognises, particularly now that more men are doing it, that this is work, not a sort of leisure, so the culture is changing and more and more women, and some men, are saying, My work is looking after the kids.

In one of the families we photographed for the conference theme the husband is a full time house-husband. He does a bit of part-time work on his computer, but his primary job is looking after the home, looking after the children and doing the cooking during the week. His wife cooks at weekends. I think that the more men do that the more it will be recognised that this is real work.

For more information on the conference, Excellence in the Home: From House to Home, visit www.homerenaissancefoundation.org

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