Updated: Aug 19, 2022
People around the world may be working remotely in earnest right now, but in the early 1930s, the word "earnest" and working remotely uniquely applied to Ernest Hemingway, a renowned writer who was also a notable home office pioneer. While Americans flooded factories and the earliest "white collar" workers congregated in the chaotic environments of America's budding business districts, Hemingway clicked away at his typewriter in a picturesque French Colonial home in the Florida Keys.
Now a National Historic Landmark in Key West, The Hemingway House is open to the public as a museum, and while purveyors will likely be taken by the stacks of books, 1800s architecture, vibrant gardens, and a flurry of cats scurrying around the property, the most prescient exhibit for today's world is a panel about Hemingway's daily commute.
Unlike the exhaust filled, and exhausting, commutes of office employees in the decades to follow, Hemingway walked a different path. Specifically, he walked along a wooden catwalk slung over his gardens to a writing perch connected to his main residence. This was the quintessential "Home Office."
Digital workers across the globe have one today in some form – spurred by the necessity of Covid-19 and now treasured amidst welcomed work-flexibility – but Hemingway's was a mecca compared to some of the more rudimentary setups employed today.
Hemingway's office resulted from the conversion of the second story of the property's carriage house and was connected by a catwalk prior to its destruction during a hurricane. In symbolic form, the office being in a separate "tower" from the main residence was like a microcosm of a downtown hub and suburban sprawl.
Unlike the offices of the time, which took the form of factory-style production lines – laden with rows of workers in elongated desks – Hemingway designed his home office like a study, and as a writer, he had the luxury of working from his own home in the same way a tech programmer does today.
Instead of typing out scripts of code on a monitor while wearing a conferencing headset, Hemingway typed the likes of acclaimed novels "To Have And Have Not" and "Islands in the Stream" to the backdrop of local birds and roosters rather than Zoom chatter.
While BedSideHustle offers an array of mid-century modern and industrial chic decor, Hemingway likely would have wanted an e-commerce platform offering Art Deco and traditional antique furniture, as his office was comprised of sturdy wooden pieces, iron light fixtures, wall clocks, and some of his prized hunting trophies – namely a mounted deer's head.
And of course lines and lines of delicately bound books.
What Hemingway got right with his home office that eludes some remote employees today, was his ability to create a distinction between his work setting and spaces of leisure.
With an entire room dedicated to functional workspace, Hemingway had a practical and psychological luxury. He could work from the comfort of his home, enjoy his "catwalk commute", and effectively unplug.
Today, real estate developers, architects, and home builders face a similar mandate or challenge in organizing space for modern users – especially when it comes to the future of work.
Whereas a "home office" or study used to be sold as a perk in suburban homes, or even offered as a converted bedroom to those with a hefty kid count, it's now a fulcrum for any prospective buyer.
In fact, during a recent trip to Northwest Indiana – an outer band on the edge of Chicago's metro – a community of stylish new-builds made certain to stage one of its model homes with an impeccably decorated home office right off the foyer. There was no mistaking the requisite use-case. And in areas where land cost is lower relative to city centers, home offices are bound to be firmly built into residential floor plans.
But Ernest Hemingway can provide inspiration to multifamily developers as they flesh out how the future of work will influence their site plans too. Or rather, he can offer a critical lesson: the distribution of work-from-home space does not have to be applied unit by unit, but instead can be delivered via an efficiently distinct space.
Where square footage goes at an absurd premium and density leads to stacks of studios and one bedrooms, the answer may not be carving out "mini desk" space against a bedroom wall or off the kitchenette. While that is one solution, merging proportionate square footage into a shared, designated space may be far more efficient.
High-end residential towers, of both condo and rental variety, have been voraciously adding in-building amenities like they're ice cream flavors on the 4th of July.
Despite the introduction of theaters, pools, coffee bars, and golf simulators, settings like conference centers and lounge space are long-held fixtures of any such building. The answer may lie in simply expanding this proven programming.
Imagine taking two slices of a 30-story tower and outfitting it not just for remote work, but for purpose-built at-home work, where the space exceeds that of the local coffee shop in execution – like creating privacy cubes for Zoom calls, ample collaboration zones, and offering ultra-high-speed internet.
It's like the WeWork of yesterday, but instead of the premise being that freelancers and entrepreneurs will coalesce, it would instead apply to neighbors already living in the same building. These towers often aim to instill community and camaraderie among their residents, and what better way than through dedicated coworking space.
This even presents an intriguing arrangement for key players like WeWork or Industrious to design, build out, and manage these spaces, with subscription "fees" already priced into monthly rental rates. Call it "embedded coworking" if you will.
Like any amenity, it's an investment for the developer, but given that demand for these buildings typically comes from white collar young professionals or dual-income households, where both partners may desire a "home office", such generous space allocation could give a development an edge up in the marketplace.
But maybe Hemingway's home office inspires an even greater vision. Imagine Hemingway's main building, catwalk, and carriage house manifesting in the form of a slender residential tower and catwalk-connected "office" cube, which could be exclusive to residents or divvied up between residents and external users, all managed by a conventional co-working operator.
This would be a nuanced change to urban cores, which have already become more and more mixed-use, but under this design would be truly serving the same users — embedding communal workspace such that it’s a truly demarcated portion of the development.
It would be distinguished in the same way Hemingway's writing studio was. It would provide that ability to unplug and "leave" work but with the same comforts of home and convenience of proximity.
It would take the city-centric "Live Where You Work" marketing plug to its purest definition, where single buildings — not just neighborhoods — now encompass live/work/play. Wouldn't that be a Hemingway-esque, novel idea.