With the gig economy staying hot, demand for in-home work space — and furniture — keeps growing

April Product Focus-webThe Carson writing desk by California-based Martin Furniture features two utility drawers, a dropdown keyboard tray, a charging shelf and three USB outlets.

The home office is getting smaller. Those who work from home aren’t consuming as much paper. The equipment they use continues to shrink. And manufacturers of home office furniture in recent years have taken a more minimalist approach with their product lines.

Those old metal file cabinets? File them, along with other pieces of traditional office furniture, under “obsolete.”

“There’s not as big of a need for file cabinets,” said Peggy Farabaugh, founder and president of Vermont Woods Studios in Vernon, Vt. “It used to be that when we built a desk, there would be a file drawer on one side, and on the other side maybe some pencil drawers. But people also don’t use pencils as much anymore or pens or yellow stickies.”

With more people telecommuting and working in the “gig economy,” though, manufacturers say the market for home office furnishings is one that’s also ripe for growth.

“Home office has been a very good category for us,” said David Stewart, vice president of sales at Virginia-based furniture maker BDI. “With a lot of companies giving their employees the option to work from home, it’s important for people to have that space to get their work done. And you see more home businesses. That’s also been a driving factor in this category.”

The market for home office furniture is growing. According to a 2017 Gallup report, 43 percent of Americans in 2016 worked remotely “at least some of the time,” up from 39 percent in 2012. The report stated that 31 percent of those who worked remotely did so at least 80 percent of the time, up from 24 percent four years prior.

In a 2018 International Workplace Group survey, 91 percent of respondents said they believed having a flexible work space allowed for greater productivity. Another Gallup report, from last year, stated that 36 percent of the American workforce, or about 57 million people, are part of the “gig economy,” which encompasses “nontraditional, independent, short-term working relationships.”

A 2017 study by financial software company Intuit predicted that 43 percent of American workers would be participating in the gig economy – a free-market system in which temporary positions are common and organizations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements – through 2020.

Such work runs the gamut from driving for Uber, to freelance writing, to consulting, and often necessitates having some sort of work space at home.

“Since the recession hit, which was 10 years ago now, people have tried other ways to work, they’ve been working from home more,” said Dee Maas, vice president of retail sales for the San Diego-based Martin Furniture. “And that has caused an increase that we’ve seen on the residential side for offices. But it’s a different kind of office. At home, people don’t have those big offices that have to be full of furniture.”

Farabaugh said home office furniture sales make up roughly 20 percent of business at Vermont Woods Studios.“In the last five years, we’ve really started to see it growing,” she said. “People of the younger generations are wanting to have a space they can feel comfortable in, a space that reflects the quality of their work.”

The number of people working from home, along with the role of technology in their work spaces, has presented “a great opportunity for us,” said Lisa Cody, vice president of marketing at Twin Star Home.

Cody said Twin Star has had a good deal of success with its Ashford Collection, which includes adjustable-height desks, bookcases and storage cabinets in gray and white with a contemporary look; and with the Genevieve Collection, which features home office pieces with a weathered pine finish.

Ashford Collection
The Ashford Collection from Florida’s Twin Star Home.

Twin Star has also added office pieces to several of its other collections. When people are setting up an office at home, Cody said, they want pieces that are multifunctional and that blend in well.

“Home office furniture may not necessarily be in a dedicated space, whether you’re in a house, or a space like a loft,” she said. “Not everybody has a door closing off their office. And in some cases, people may be eating at that desk, along with working. So, we try to design our furniture so that it can live wherever you want it to live in the house without it looking out of place. People want to take great pride in their home, and they don’t want to sacrifice style for function.”

Consumers also want to be able to easily integrate their technology with their furniture.

“They don’t want to have a gazillion cords coming out, going into outlets in the wall,” Cody said. “With our desk, people can power up to three USB devices. And some furniture, you can put a three-prong plug into. Or you might have reminders telling you to stand up, telling you to use your adjustable height desk.”

Martin Furniture offers the Avondale and Carson lines, which feature desks and writing tables with weathered finishes and natural grain. They have a traditional look, as well as touches like power wells, into which people can plug their electronic devices. “You get all your connections that way, you get some wire management,” Maas said. “But the old-world look is still popular, like the distressed finishes. We have some wire-brush finishes with grooves in it. We didn’t think people would want a desk with grooves in it, but maybe they’re not writing as much with pencil and paper, so it’s not a big deal to have grooves.”

Gone are the days when a good bit of acreage was needed to hold a big CRT monitor, a landline phone and stacks of documents. “We used to sell a lot of large credenzas, hutches, executive desks, file drawers, a whole group that was going into a room for a home office,” Maas said. “And now those kinds of sales are going more toward our commercial side. For the home, people are looking for something smaller-scale, something that flows well with the rest of the furniture.”

Farabaugh said desks have gotten more streamlined in recent years. “You don’t have to designate a whole room in your house anymore for your office,” she said. “Oftentimes you’ve just got your phone and your laptop. You can set up an office in the corner of your kitchen.”

Most of the desks Vermont Woods Studios sells have simple, clean designs. “They might have a small drawer going across the front face of the desk, like a three-inch-high drawer,” Farabaugh said. “Mid-century modern style is popular right now. And it fits nicely into most decors.”

BDI’s Stewart said adjustable-height and standing desks have become popular in recent years. The company offers a variety of such desks with glass, walnut and high-pressure laminate tops. When people are shopping for desks to use at home, he said, they typically want something compact.

“People don’t usually have those big computer towers anymore,” he said.

“Most people have either a laptop or a tablet. They don’t have a requirement at home for a huge desk. But they do want somewhere where they can do small amounts of paperwork, pay their bills, have a little bit of a work space.”

Adjustable desk
Virginia-based BDI manufactures adjustable-height and standing desks, above and right, with space for limited paperwork.

Furniture makers have also seen a trend toward customization with home office pieces. “People want exactly what they want,” Farabaugh said. “And customizing is something that’s easy for us to do, since we’re a small company. But customers will say, ‘I have this space, it’s 42 inches wide in my kitchen, in my living room or in my bedroom, and I need my desk to fit in there.’ I would say probably half the time we’re asked to customize something in order for it to fit in a certain space. They might also ask us to put in USB ports.”

The desk has always been the centerpiece of the office, but some of the accessories are changing, Stewart said.

“With people using more and more electronic filing, you’re seeing less and less use of paper,” he said. “The filing cabinets, all those filing cabinets that you might have used for storage, you’re seeing a shift with that. You’re seeing less file storage and more storage for electronics and other supplies.”
But even as sales of filing cabinets have receded, bookcases remain a popular item.

Bookcase
This bookcase wall has sold well for Martin Furniture. “It’s a bit nostalgic,” says Vice President of Retail Sales Dee Maas.

“People often like to use them as showcases,” Farabaugh said. “You can put a lot more things than books on there. People put photos on there, art works.”

Maas said Martin Furniture has a library wall that has sold quite well.

“That may seem counterintuitive, since people seem to be doing everything on screens,” Maas said. “But people like putting things on there or using them for various types of displays. It’s a bit nostalgic.”

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About the Author

Robert Lopez
Robert Lopez is a freelance writer based in High Point, N.C. A native Hoosier, he spent 12 years as a daily newspaper reporter and has written for a number of publications around the country. He can be reached at roberto.lopez79@gmail.com.