COVID Turned the Home Into the Office, So Israelis Transformed Their Living Spaces

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Michal Yechieli Coppenhagen
Michal Yechieli CoppenhagenCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Yael Belkin
Yael Belkin

Michal Yechieli Coppenhagen works as a high school teacher and also has her own business helping other businesses automate their work processes. Over the past year, she’s done both jobs from the same location: her home office. “After the first lockdown, we realized that working from home is not just a constraint, but that it’s going to become a significant part of our reality,” she says.

Last June, Yechieli Coppenhagen, her spouse and their two children moved from a three-room apartment to a four-room one. The extra room became her new office. “We created this room from scratch. We had this desk – in previous apartments it was in the living room, and suddenly we had the space for it,” she says.

Yechieli Coppenhagen is one of many people who over the last year, given the constraints imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, found themselves permanently working from home, and in need of a private place where they could work, hold phone conversations and Zoom meetings. Not all renters could afford to move to a bigger apartment and not all homeowners could upgrade their home, so people had to maximize the space they had.

A work corner Credit: Planning and design

Some already had a room in their apartment that they could turn into an office, while others had a corner of the living room that could serve a new role for several hours a day. In some families, both the adults and the children needed comfortable spaces for working and studying, which demanded some flexibility. “At first, it was my work corner, but gradually it was partially taken over,” says Yechieli Coppenhagen. “Now, my partner and I share the space, with one of us working in the living room or at the dining table on some days. The room only has space for one of us, since it also has a sofa for guests, a closet and a piano. It’s a multi-functional room. In the meantime, the children draw at the dining table. We prefer that they come into our office as little as possible.”

When it comes to interior design, the pandemic has changed consumer priorities, revealed a survey conducted by the American Institute of Architects. The survey, conducted among architects and companies that work in construction and renovation, examined changes in consumer demand between the second quarters of 2019 and 2020. The survey found a 68% increase in the demand for home offices in 2020, compared to a 29% increase in 2019. “I won’t say it was unexpected,” Kermit Baker, the institute’s chief economist, told The New York Times. “I’d say surprising in the sense that the pandemic response was happening faster than we might have expected.”

Another survey was conducted by the British real estate firm Savills during that country’s first lockdown. It found that 49% of respondents said they would lean toward working from home after the restrictions were lifted. Accordingly, 44% of them said that the importance of a separate space serving as a home office had increased significantly. This figure was 61% for those under 40.

While many people have to find creative solutions with the space they already have, others take the need for a home office into account when they purchase a new dwelling, when calculating the number of rooms they’ll need.

“The coronavirus crisis has changed consumer patterns among people buying housing. Many people need to work from home and are therefore looking for apartments with a room designated as a home office, or for similar solutions,” says Uri Fleischmann, vice president of marketing and sales at the Levinstein Group. The company has made adjustments to meet the needs of their customers, such as starting to market six-room apartments in a project in Rishon Letzion as “5+1” apartments – five rooms plus an office. “Today, a work corner is no longer adequate,” adds Fleischmann. “People want a spacious room with a nice atmosphere that is suitable for long periods of work, a room to replace an external office.”

Interior designer Ariella Berkovitsh also notes that clients’ preferences have changed in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, with people often making changes to their original plans on the go. “People want to introduce as many options as possible for working from home into their apartments,” she says. “They want to make them as functional as possible. Once the first thing customers wanted was a large shower head or a huge TV screen, but now people ask for a home office.”

Galit and her family started refurbishing their apartment around the time of the first lockdown in March 2020. Over the course of the renovations, the original plan changed due to challenges imposed by the pandemic. Her five-room apartment was designed by interior designer Keren Gans, who created a large and well-lit common space in the living room. The original home office was gutted and replaced by an efficient, two-person work corner as part of a multi-use room. This corner is modular and also serves Galit’s children when they are doing their homework after the parents’ work hours.

“We arranged for every child to have their mini-office at home, so that each one of them has their quiet corner for Zoom meetings and for doing their work,” says Galit. “We designated the central area as a work space for the two of us, letting us better oversee everything that’s happening around the house. In the evening we play in the living room, and in the morning we work there without disturbing one another. Having a common area is important to us, as is having the work space in a central area. That way, we’re together but separated. The house is quite quiet in the morning, and just before noon, when the children have breaks from studying, there is more noise in the kitchen and living room, but we have headphones, and it works for us.

“We started renovating before the coronavirus crisis, but it continued after the whole mess started, with the work finished by April or May. We weren’t sure about having a room for each child, but ultimately, we realized that each one needs their own space. Since then, we’ve been working from home, and we have everything we need. When the crisis is over, we’ll probably want to return to our regular office for some days of the week, simply because there is more social interaction there, and it’s more convenient to hold meetings at work, rather than from your home office.”

Shlomi and his family also had to change their interior design plans on the fly. They had moved into their garden apartment one week before the first lockdown. The work corner was originally designed to be a play corner for the children, but after the parents started working from home, the open space was closed off with a glass partition, allowing it to feel open and illuminated while giving them privacy. Their apartment was decorated by interior designer Odelia Barzilay.

“My wife and I started working from home, and we had the idea of designing our work corner using the WeWork model, which is based on shared workspaces. We’d have a corner from which we could observe the children in the living room, but it would be closed, with quiet and privacy. The doors are transparent, but they block the noise,” says Shlomi. “The corner has room for two people, and we try not to disturb one another. If one of us needs to hold a Zoom meeting, the other one goes into the garden, which has a table that we’ve turned into a desk. But when we work on our computers, there’s no problem sharing the space.”

The corner is for the entire household, whether for studying or working, he says. “In the morning, it mainly serves me since I have meetings. At noon it’s my wife’s turn. In the evening, if a tutor comes for one of the children, or if one of them needs the corner, they go there. The children also have their rooms during the day, where they have their Zoom lessons, but if they need to study for a test with someone else, they prefer this corner. After the coronavirus crisis is over, I’ll be working from my office again and my wife will split her time between home and the office, so the corner will remain a workspace. That’s one of the things we liked most about this apartment.”

Sharon Ben Zvi always had a home office, for times when she took her work home with her. But when she became self-employed between the first and second waves of the coronavirus, she decided to upgrade the room so she could spend all day in it. “There was always something, like finishing a task or going over emails, so the work room was like a way station for an hour or two,” she says. “I didn’t bother to completely design it, probably on purpose, so I wouldn’t be tempted to spend too much time there. Now, it’s my kingdom.”

Sharon Ben Zvi's officeCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

With the help of interior designer Dana Schwadron, Ben Zvi started upgrading her home office. “I enlarged the window facing the garden and turned my desk so it faced the apartment, giving me a clear view of what goes on inside. I replaced the wood door with a Belgium [Crittall-style] door with a glass window, and I hung a TV on the wall. It’s comfortable, effective and pleasant to work in,” she says. “I go in with my coffee at 9 A.M. and come out at 6 P.M.”

But Ben Zvi is not sure she won’t go back to working from her regular office in the future: “At this point in my life it’s convenient, but if I decide that I want to set up a company with employees, or to go back and work for a regular company, then obviously an office is the right option. It’s important for the flow of information and for contact between employees; it has many more advantages when the economy is stable, compared to the disadvantages. There is something healthy about separating home from work. Right now, the option of working in the room I’ve created for myself is very convenient, but I don’t rule out the option of returning to a comfortable office with a team to work with. But one way or another, this room remains; it was always here, and it’s mine.”

Sharon Ben Zvi's at her home officeCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

The hybrid apartment

Not all apartments have an extra room that can serve as an office, but sometimes space still needs to be found. One possible solution is the hybrid apartment, developed by the applied anthropologist Tamir Leon and Orly Robinson, who writes books on architecture and is a researcher of the culture of living. “In order to organize a hybrid apartment that contains an effective work environment, you need more than a desk and chair; customary solutions in interior design will not provide the complete and inclusive solution,” explain the researchers. “One has to examine and understand the hours family members are active inside the house, the manner in which things are conducted, the various activities, and then plan pathways of movement as well as the timing and location of all these activities. The idea is to allow for movement within the house while looking at new routines that will make it easier for all household members, giving each one the feeling that he or she is getting the optimal solution.”

The aim of their method is to create as many interchangeable work corners as possible. “When working from an office, employees have diverse experiences. They meet people in hallways, they enter a conference room. One has to find a way of bringing this to the home setting as well,” says Robinson. “There is now a need to create three work stations at home, each serving in different situations. For example, you may need to write something on your laptop in private. This could take place in your bedroom, even in bed.

“In other situations, you have a Zoom meeting with colleagues, and then you have to move from that corner, so you need to create a corner where you can talk privately, with no one passing by and interrupting you. This could be in the room of a daughter who’s in the army, who only returns home at 5 P.M. The room is tidy and well-lit, you can talk out loud there, and then return to your own corner. In another situation you may need to show a PowerPoint presentation, and you need a different 'energy' from your environment. In extreme situations, I’ll open the presentation on the TV, stand with my cellphone on a tripod and conduct the whole conversation while standing. You have to find a way of creating different work experiences within the home; sometimes it’s intimate work, sometimes it’s a boardroom.”

The division between work corners involves balancing the needs of all household members, since they work and study at different times. “The solution is not just functional or esthetic, it has to take into account the schedules of all family members,” says Robinson. “You have to think about the house using a WeWork model, thinking of when a particular room is unoccupied, when you can use it for two hours, even if only because there is good sunlight there. For that, you need to be aware of all the schedules and the technology used by all family members. The idea is to create a space that accounts for the entire space of the apartment. You could have a decorative and beautiful corner which in practice does not deliver the goods, since it’s noisy and lacks privacy, and you can’t talk there without disturbing the rest of the family,” she says.

Robinson explains how her ideas are realized in her own home. “We have breakfast at 8:30 A.M., and by 10 A.M. the kitchen is clean, since it becomes a WeWork area that we work in. At 4 P.M. we have a communal meal, upon which the work vibe disappears from the kitchen, with the kitchen resuming its normal function. We create a separation which applies to time, space and smells – you’re only allowed to cook things before 10 A.M. and after 4 P.M. The conception is not individual-oriented, it’s a collective one.”

Designer Merav Fenigstein GizbarCredit: Avi Jacobson

The sacred vs. the profane

Designer Merav Fenigstein Gizbar offers a few tips to people who want to upgrade their home work spaces. “One of the more important things for me is that every object has its place, meaning a space for each object and a well-defined space for each activity. This means a table for eating and a desk for working; a corner for reading books and a place for sleeping. There is something in mixing these that makes it difficult for us, both physically and mentally. I need to know where my computer is, to know that at any given moment, I could sit at it and start writing without a glass of water spilling on it or without taking over half a wall with my charger. I need to know that when I come to eat at the dining table, there won’t be a pile of books or newspapers on it.

“If there are children in the house, it’s better to try and create a set-up where each child and each adult has a defined corner they work and study in. This could be a roving corner or a permanent one, with a comfortable chair to sit on, where it’s easy to put a laptop or use a tablet; with headphones that belong only to that device, without being moved, with a mouse and keyboard. I’d put all of these in a basket and write a name on it, clear a shelf in the living room for this purpose, put the baskets of all the family members on it, and put a tablecloth on the table in order to distinguish between eating and other activities.”

Another work corner in a homeCredit: Planning and Design: Foundation

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