dwp logo

Work & Money – Working at home

blurred profile photograph

Working in the home is a growing economic practice right across the adult population. Historically, in agrarian societies, all work took place in the home. Then the industrial revolution led to the spread of mills, factories and, in the 20th century, offices. Work evolved outside the home. Today work is being reintegrated in the home, especially as a way of giving older and disabled people access to paid work. However there are a number of design challenges to be faced.


In the industrial age, there occurred what historians have termed ‘the separation of the spheres’ between home and work. The home became a sanctuary from work – a repository of domesticity.

Today, in the information age, the separate spheres are becoming reunited. More and more economically productive work is re-entering the home – a trend driven by social, economic and technological change.

This is creating a host of design problems and opportunities related to user need.

Who are the home workers?

Home workers range widely in terms of age, ability, job security, motivation and financial rewards:

- corporate employees or consultants might spend a day or two each week based in the home, working primarily with computer, internet and phone – these are typically well-paid teleworkers

- industrial pieceworkers carry out manual or assembly tasks within the home, often for low rates of pay while minding children – their work can be dirty, hazardous and they can be among the most vunerable groups in society

- professionals in fulltime jobs, such as teachers, regularly take work home to do in the evening

- people with physical disabilities who are unable to access the conventional workplace use the home to combine paid work with the care and support they require

- older people close to or past the official retirement age use the home as the base to maintain a link with the world of work, as working lives are extended on a part-time or special assignment basis

- young, start-up entrepreneurs in creative fields choose to live and work in the same space, with developers providing low-cost live-work properties to meet this need.

Borders between home and work

Despite the many different types of home worker, it is possible to generically define four conceptual models of user behaviour based on the temporal, social, psychological and role borders that people set up to protect and enable work within the home. The first two models represent successful if contrasting approaches to work at home; the third and fourth models illustrate common problems:

Contained Work: Solid borders are constructed around work. Physical areas for work are clearly demarcated (eg a special room or garden shed). Hours of work are well defined and strictly adhered to. Role borders keep other householders at bay while the person is at work. The contained model is often expressed as a mini sweatshop or cloned office within the home environment.

Permeable Work: Borders are permeable and constructed to allow a planned integration of work and home activities. Work is often not confined to the workspace, and people and objects move selectively between the two spheres as domestic and work activities become intertwined or run in parallel. Temporal and role borders are kept open and flexible to enable different priorities to be addressed at different times according to need. Psychological borders are complex and ambiguous in this dual world.

Overflowing Work: In this model, work has burst its banks and flooded the home. Uncontained by spatial or physical or role borders, work totally dominates and other functions of the home become neglected. Time management is often poor and work activities chaotic and intrusive.

Imploding Work: Here the opposite of Overflowing Work happens. In this model, work is dominated by the demands and distractions of home life eg caring for an elderly relative. Motivation, planning and discipline diminish; workspace shrinks practically and psychologically until very little can be achieved.

>Disabled home workers

For some people, working in the home is a lifestyle choice. For many disabled people unable to spend long hours in the conventional workplace due to problems of access, there is no choice involved.

Research into the needs and aspirations of disabled home workers has revealed the following:

Ambivolence: disabled home workers recognise the benefits of being able to work, rest and be cared for in the private sanctuary of the home, but are ambivalent about those benefits because of the social isolation and diminishing contact with people outside the home.

Transition: work at home is often tied to a particular circumstance and period of time, and many disabled people regard it as a stepping stone to work outside the home – therefore work at home is often viewed as a developmental phase.

Sensitivity to design: where disability is severe and movement restricted, whether due to age or disability, the implications for design become even more critical. There is a need for equipment, tools, files and materials to be accessible, visible and ordered; and for furniture to be adaptable and comfortable.

Inclusive design for home workers

As in so much inclusive design, the needs of disabled and older people act as a barometer of all people’s needs.

All types of home worker are sensitive to design requirements, especially full-time home workers and industrial pieceworkers who sew, glue or assemble goods in the home while minding children.

Industrial processes which can be dirty and dangerous do not fit easily into the domestic environment, and there is urgent need to address issues of safety and hygiene in much design for home working – although some of the worse affected workers are also the poorest paid and least able to fund improvements.

Recent advances in information technology, such as wireless networks and slimmer, flatscreen machines, have removed some of the worst aspects of design for teleworking – spaghetti junctions of wires and obtrusive computer monitors and printers in living rooms.

But new technology has also introduced new problems, such as home workers addicted to their screens and living constantly in an online world so that they lose grip on reality.

As the separate spheres of home and work are progressively reunited, designers will need to be vigilant in monitoring changes in the user behaviour of all home workers.




‘It is good as I do not waste time travelling to work. Can do a few hours of work in the evening without having to plan it’ – creative entrepreneur

‘I work mostly in the kitchen. There are more surfaces to work on so I can spread out more. We’ve got the radio on there and it’s warmer too’ – Teacher

‘It’s boring and monotonous and produces lots of dirt. Sometimes ten big boxes are piled up in corners of the kitchen floor’ – industrial pieceworker

‘It is fine for now but I can see myself needing to separate work and live areas more in the future’ – creative entrepreneur

‘We work on the kitchen table and eat standing or in the living room watching telly’ – industrial pieceworker

‘The materials on the table always remind us of work and drive us mad’ – industrial pieceworker

‘I must admit I never paid a great deal of attention to my physical workspace…I spend far more time getting the virtual workspace on my computer to my liking’ – home worker

‘Away from the office I can concentrate better – the office can mean lots of distraction’ – teleworker

‘I put the machine in the living room and when I worked my girl was sitting behind me in my chair. She grew up like that’ – industrial pieceworker

‘The children get much quieter as they come towards the office’ – home-based entrepreneur

‘You go out, scold a child, come back and do the accounts. Being a mother and working at home, I am multi-tasking constantly’ – home-based entrepreneur

‘I am around the house but I am never available, for a chat or cup of tea. I am just physically there’ – home worker on piecework rates

‘What are we having for tea? I say, oh I’m too tired. And we end up having a takeaway which takes away the profit of the day’ – home worker on piecework rates

‘It’s hard, because people knock on your door and they don’t accept that you are doing work. They think, they’re at home, let’s visit and bring the children. I don’t say anything but I can’t continue working’ – older home worker

‘I work as many hours as I feel able to and that for me is the whole idea of working from home’ – disabled home worker

‘I forget about my back when I’m working on the computer. I get so involved’ – disabled home worker

‘Files dotted around the house, box files under the table over here, files on the coach. It’s really irritating at times. If I had one wallspace where I could see what was there…’ disabled home worker

‘Freedom to work unchartered hours, wear your favourite old t-shirt, listen to horrendous music on repeat, take unlimited coffee breaks and induce caffeine poisoning…freedom from the twice-daily commute…the knock on the door could be a neighbour, a fresh fish delivery, a client or your parents asking when you are going to get a proper job’ – designer

Case studies

casestudy icon
Home Industry

A design study to create new tools to help low-paid manual pieceworkers in the home.

Read more

casestudy icon

This project explored ways to design furniture to help disabled teleworkers participate in the digital knowledge economy.

Read more

casestudy icon

This project conducted a design audit of Britain’s first live-work social housing scheme at Westferry in London Docklands.

Read more

casestudy icon
Off the wall

This project looked at domestic innovations that could support the growing trend to take work home.

Read more

casestudy icon
Home/work: rethinking home office furniture

This project developed a new workstation for home workers that could sit in the domestic environment.

Read more

casestudy icon
Futurescapes of work

This project looked at the future of work, creating a pseudo documentary film in which future inhabitants of a district called Little Brinkland enjoyed more flexible and fluid patterns of working.

Read more