Look at the style of an office in any given era and you’ll get a glimpse of the defining themes in white-collar workers’ lives at the time.
In booming postwar America, for example, the profusion of GI Bill–educated office workers wore suits, and many workplaces were sleek, serious, and formal. The goal was to signal prestige, according to Louise Mozingo, a professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at UC Berkeley and the author of Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes. “White-collar was a serious distinction because your father was probably a farmer or a blue-collar laborer,” she told me.
These days, most workplaces are much more casual, but their design is no less revealing. Lately, many offices have started to look distinctly less like offices and more like homes. They are filling up with furnishings and flourishes such as comfy sofas, open shelving, framed artwork, mirrors, curtains, rugs, floor lamps, coffee tables, and materials such as wood and linen.
The office-design experts I recently interviewed kept using similar adjectives to describe how many employers want their workplace to feel: comfortable, inviting, familiar, casual. Those are welcome lodestars in an area of design that has historically been utilitarian and drab, but the incorporation of domestic touches into the workplace is a bit unnerving: Even before the coronavirus pandemic, work and home had gotten uncomfortably mushed together for office workers. And with the rise of remote work for this population over the past year and a half, they have only become more so.
The office-design industry has an ungainly made-up word for this aesthetic: resimercial. (That’s a mash-up of residential and commercial.) Natalie Engels, a design principal at the architecture firm Gensler, doesn’t like to use that word herself but explained the look to me nonetheless. “It’s not like you’re going to walk in and it’s going to look like a true living room, but at the same time, [there are] elements from it,” she said.
Those I interviewed said that resimercial design emerged as a trend in offices in the mid-2010s, and that it gained broad popularity near the end of the decade. Employers that favor it hope that a more charming and comfortable physical space might help attract talented workers and help their employees do better work. (This style of design can’t be deployed in many non-office workplaces, though some businesses, such as coffee shops and retail stores, have made spaces homier for the sake of customers.)
Engels noted that at home, for instance, people can improvisationally move furniture based on their moment-to-moment needs. She suggested that bringing this dynamic to an office setting, where furniture has typically been heavy and hard to move, can allow workers to modify their environment and better collaborate.
Domestic spaces also provide some inspiration for solo office work. “In your home, you have the comfort of choosing whatever you need—you can work from the couch, you can work from your bed, you can work by a window where you have great light,” Alejandra Albarran, the vice president of workplace strategy and design at Room, a company that makes enclosed soundproof spaces for offices, told me. Offering people the same spatial variety at work might be helpfully stimulating.
Bringing domestic design into offices may well be conducive to work, but this merging of aesthetics is unavoidably strange. It feels particularly uncanny as, over the past 18 months, many living spaces have doubled as work environments—the home office and the homey office are ascendant at the same moment.
Though resimercial design predates the pandemic, it may take on new resonance for workers who have been doing their job from home this year and last. Remote work has been extremely stressful for many people—particularly mothers—but others have grown accustomed to certain domestic comforts. Nick Tuttle, the president of the Collective, an office-furniture dealer, told me that some employers are aware of this. “How do we bridge that gap [and] bring people back to the office? Maybe if we design it in a way that is more resimercial, more homey, they’ll feel a little bit more comfortable in coming back and using the space,” he said.
Of course, many of the people who have come to prefer remote work will not be swayed by a sofa and a throw blanket, no matter how tasteful. In a survey earlier this year by the remote-work job site FlexJobs, the two most popular answers to the question of what respondents most liked about working from home were not having to commute and spending less money on dining, gas, and dry cleaning. Some things simply can’t be designed into an office, and for this reason, Albarran advocates for the hybrid model of partially remote, partially in-person work that many companies are now considering once pandemic conditions allow it. That way, workers wouldn’t have to give up these benefits entirely.
And while the aspects of home that can be replicated at work do look and feel nice, they ultimately serve businesses’ needs. The end goal may be to “capture the employee for the longest period of time during the day, in the hopes that that translates to productivity,” Mozingo, the Berkeley professor, told me. “If you have a swanker office than your home, theoretically it’s easier to stay in the swanker office.”
More subtly, making work look more like home could disturb people’s sense of separation between those two aspects of their lives. “I think there’s a lot of value that employees have had in separating work from home for many years, [and] in the formality of professional work as a location, because it creates standards of behavior,” Melissa Gregg, the author of Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy, told me.
She thinks that disposing of some of “the cues and the props” that set work apart from home could play into dynamics that hurt workers, and compared this to the rhetoric that some employers use when referring to staff as a family. This language is sneakily toxic—it can suggest that a company deserves the same kind of sacrifice and loyalty that people reserve for loved ones.
Of course, for workers who are expected to be constantly online, the border between work and home has been eroding for a long time. And in that respect, homey offices are more a symptom than a cause. In the possible near future when hybrid arrangements become normal and many workers split their time between homelike offices and officelike homes, the distinction between work and home life will become almost meaningless.