The Home Office Is Open: Shifting trends in the smart home ecosystem

Published On
Jun 15, 2021

Just two years ago, the typical home was dedicated to eating, sleeping and recreation. Bedrooms, kitchens and living spaces were built to accommodate such narrow actions, but that model was put to the test during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 2020, many households have one or more members conducting meetings, studying, attending conferences and just plain working in the same house.

The shifting environment for America’s office workers means new paradigms for home building. Today, residential construction must accommodate dedicated work spaces—sometimes more than one—in homes. Some analysts and technology providers see a trend that will have multiple permanent impacts.

For electrical construction, the changes mean providing spaces geared for connectivity, large data exchange and uninterrupted power. Many spaces may need to be individually monitored according to power use.

There are other residential trends being fueled by the pandemic, too. Overall, residential building is up, and the population is moving further from cities as workers find they don’t need to commute to downtown offices as often.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the home automation system market was growing. According to New York analyst company MarketWatch, intelligent systems for homes are expected to increase by $85 billion by 2023. The 2021 study, “Home Automation System Market,” finds that the trend is in fact being driven by advancements in technology and the vast increase in internet users during the pandemic. The challenge for technology companies is providing solutions that home residents actually need and that will age with the home as technology upgrades and changes.

Meanwhile, the population may be rethinking how it works. This year, San Diego-based research firm Global Workplace Analytics (GWA) polled office workers to find that only about 10%–15% of people are eager to return to the office full-time, and 20% want to work entirely at home. It will be necessary to find hybrid schedules—with employees seeking three to four days of work conducted at home and employers aiming for two to three days—that appease both sides.

“So it’s likely to be settling out in that half-time area,” said Kate Lister, GWA’s president. And in the next year or two, as work returns to a new normal, “We predict when this shakes all out, we will see 25% to 30% of the workforce at home, up to three days a week.”

If working from home becomes a permanent arrangement, employers and employees have expectations that will need to be addressed in the home’s infrastructure. For instance, Lister explained, in the future, employers may require a dedicated office space in the home. That means less tolerance for shared spaces in dining rooms, kitchens or bedrooms. In the past, while companies had rules against personnel conducting work at home while their child was present, there are more realistic expectations today—children need to share the home, but can’t cause a disruption. That means some employers need the worker to have a quiet space, with appropriate technology—no more sharing a laptop with a school-aged child.

A dedicated home workspace not only provides quiet to keep the employee productive, it provides some psychological benefits, too.

“It helps bridge that gap of overworking,” Lister said, by keeping people from working on their dining room table. “Having a door to close at the end of the day is an important ritual.”

In fact, people with a dedicated space at home report being more productive, less stressed and happier.

Remote work technology company Owl Labs, Somerville, Mass., in collaboration with GWA, surveyed 1,202 full-time U.S. workers at companies with 10 or more employees. The survey found 69% were working remotely during the pandemic. About 77% of those surveyed said they would be happier to continue working from home, and almost half would look for another role that allowed remote work if working from home was no longer an option after COVID-19.

For the 20%–25% of workers who want to work remotely all the time, Lister said, there is an exodus underway, with house prices going up in suburban and rural areas.

Safety and energy consumption

One issue faced by home builders and homeowners centers around safety. A homeowner or facilities manager today may have to consider plug load and whether enough power is wired in for the devices being used.

Then there is the issue of tracking power consumption and differentiating energy used for work versus home. Some employers have begun reimbursing employees for the electricity required to conduct their jobs at home, and that may become more commonplace. To accomplish this, homeowners will need a way to identify how the power is being used.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see dedicated plugs or devices” that track power usage within the house, Lister said. She pointed out that while the average worker saves $3,000 to $4,000 per year in commuting costs, they still can’t afford to have their energy bill soar.

Some places have begun building in laws that require employers to pay for expenses employees incur to do their work. One example is California, where Section 2802 of the state labor code requires employers to pay for “all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee as a direct consequence of the discharge of his or her duties.” That means new homes may need separate, metered systems to differentiate power use, and some homeowners may need to renovate that feature into their existing house.

Home automation companies are developing solutions for homeowners’ changing demands.

As spaces that were once dedicated to family time have become multifunctional, “Technology has played a foundational role … by giving homeowners the ability to control their environments like never before,” said John Clancy, executive vice president, residential for Crestron Electronics, Rockleigh, N.J.

Beyond entertainment

While homeowners have adopted smart technology to enhance their entertainment experience, the focus has now shifted to include work.

“This process started slowly, but as smart home technology became more intuitive, accessible and aesthetically attractive, homeowners and builders began to embrace its utility,” Clancy said.

As people get used to controlling their home from phones or tablets, features such as voice control, remote management and automated scheduling are becoming an expectation, and they can also help with the home office.

Platforms, such as Amazon Alexa and Josh.ai, have changed the way consumers interact with their devices, systems and homes, “so there’s no reason to expect a return to a more manual way of living,” Clancy said.

According to research by Parks Associates, Addison, Texas, the percentage of American broadband households with a smart home device has nearly doubled in the last five years, with an average of two devices per home for these households. The proliferation of smart home technology began before the pandemic, but it has accelerated over the past year. Technology providers have been developing these solutions to be easier to use, install and service, making it possible to meet the demands of these growing trends.

“Service in particular presents integrators and contractors with considerable motivation to integrate smart home suites like Crestron Home,” Clancy said, either as a retrofit or into a new build, while “remote management and maintenance can dramatically reduce the number of physical service visits they will have to conduct.”

That, he said, will save contractors time and money while supporting a more positive opinion of their brand in homeowners’ minds.

Technology vendors also expect that, as homeowners build out their network of smart home devices, including those dedicated to work, they will expect these devices to include a level of interoperability and synchronization. Homeowners are interested in smart solutions as a way to make their lives easier, more convenient and more controllable, but face a disparate array of technology platforms, apps and interfaces, Clancy explained. To deliver the best possible experience to their customers, contractors, builders and integrators should prioritize giving these customers a unified smart home network rather than a loose assemblage of tenuously connected devices from different providers, he advised.

“This is where a smart home ecosystem stands out, because users will only have one place to go to set the scenes in their home,” Clancy said.

He added that interoperability also makes life easier for contractors and integrators, as they’ll face smoother installations, maintenance and support processes when working with a single provider rather than several.

Though students and homeowners are already returning to school and the office, the rise of remote learning and work is not a trend contractors and integrators should expect to reverse in full. That means interest and demand for automation and intelligence in the home is here to stay.

On the move

Just where new homes are being built is changing, too. Today, workers have indicated they could stand a 90-minute commute if it’s only a few times a week, while a full time, five-day-a-week job would need to be closer to home.

“There’s a category of employee we want to have coming into the office every day,” Lister said, adding that this will define a different place to live.

Others can move out further to find less expensive homes. The move to rural and suburban areas has already led to a construction boom, fueled by the work-from-home movement. According to the National Association of Home Builders’ Home Building Geography Index in 2020, outlying counties of smaller metro areas saw a 20.7% growth over the year. Large metropolitan suburbs saw a 15.1% increase, as opposed to in-city growth of 15.7% in small metro areas and just 9.1% in large cities.

For contractors, some trends are starting to take shape, while others pose uncertainties. What we do know is that homes will require more intelligence and accommodation for home offices, while the movement out of cities, for now, continues.

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.