Updated: Oct 13, 2021
Working from home for ‘Generation Rent’ and the unique challenges presented to young people in flat-shares
As of 2020, the average age of a first-time house buyer in the UK is just over 32-years-old (34½ in London). Most Millennials and Generation Z-ers spend their late teens, twenties and early thirties renting. Not only are they renting, but they are largely sharing flats and houses with partners, friends, or even strangers – well, they’re strangers to begin with, at least.
Generation Rent can now add ‘lived through a pandemic’ to their growing list of identity markers (beside avocado-eaters, eco-conscious, digital-natives, post-9/11, anxiety-sufferers, student-loan-debt-havers – what a lucky bunch!).
One of the biggest changes in socio-economic behaviour to come out of the pandemic has been the rise of working from home, which for most people has been a huge positive. Broadly speaking, it's more disabled-friendly, it's more flexible, and it has allowed people to better manage their time. Whilst the working from home model is being used by more people than ever before, an outdated and problematic image of the 'home office' erases the reality of working from home for a significant portion of the working population: the renting flat-sharers who have suddenly found that their small multiple occupancy flat is now an office, and their housemates are now their colleagues.
The Alternative Home Office
When we think ‘home office’, we tend to imagine a dedicated room in the house with a desktop computer, a corkboard, a desk-tidy, a phone, a pot plant. In short, a well-equipped, purpose-made space that wouldn’t look out of place in an Ikea showroom. This is not what the home office looks like for the majority of young people flat-sharing in a rental property. In fact, the inclination of landlords to maximise occupancy means even the lounge is often turned into a bedroom. In my experience, the ‘lounge’ has tended to be a strange table and chairs in a kitchen area, or a generously-named ‘snug’. The designated home office is the stuff of dreams. Even if the flat did have an office space, I certainly can’t see there being one for each tenant!
In reality, young people in house/flat-shares have their bedroom, and then perhaps one communal area. If this home is now an office too, it presents a unique set of challenges for the tenants:
Stretching the bandwidth – If there are over three people all needing to Zoom at the same time, that’s going to seriously stretch the bandwidth of the Wi-Fi. Do you all deal with the buffering wheel on your screens, or do you enter into negotiations about priority meetings? Which brings me to the next challenge…
Importance top-trumps – With limited space, thin walls, and Wi-Fi device-capacity, there will inevitably be times where flatmates end up playing ‘importance top-trumps’ – that is, flatmates competing for space and time for their work engagement, depending on who pitches their appointment, meeting, or task as more important.
Hotspot dibs – There will inevitably be spots in the flat or house with a better Wi-Fi signal. And sometimes boosters just won’t cut it. Does this mean the person all the way down the hall just has to deal with it? Or do you rotate spaces?
I'm a photographer and filmmaker and it has been a nightmare switching between all my different pieces of equipment each time the next flatmate needed their room back for a zoom call or other engagement - C Hurst
Incompatible working hours – If you and a flatmate are only separated by a thin wall, and one of you is working a phoneline shift at 11pm, and the other has a 5am start, what do you do? The phoneline employee is working their designated shift, but the early-starter has a right to consideration when they need to sleep. Incompatible shifts can be very hard to live with. This is where professional problems can bleed into being personal problems.
Sleeping and working in the same space – The limited space in flat and house shares means that often tenants will be forced to work in the private space of their bedrooms. Some rooms won’t even have a desk, and people may have to work from their actual bed. Having work in the same space as where you sleep and relax is linked to insomnia and poor mental health.
I remember my first homeworking location – a 2x3m room in London with barely enough space for a bed, desk and wardrobe. With a 9-5 job, I worked out that I was spending at least 96 hours a week in this tiny room. I always thought cabin fever required more than one person to be present, but it turns out you can get cabin fever just by staring at the same four walls for so long. VH Harris
The curse of the ‘magnolia’ wall – Renting means that no matter how many soft furnishings you buy to try and personalise the space, no real structural or decorative changes can be made without the owner’s permission, and even then, that is rarely granted. This means that creating a purpose-built working space can be extremely difficult.
Working from Home with Flatmates: Making it Work
Until there is a significant improvement in the gap between average wages and average house prices, flatmates becoming accidental colleagues is going to be a persistent and widespread phenomenon. There aren’t solutions to all of the challenges this presents – sometimes, it is simply difficult. So how does Generation Rent make the flat-share home office work for them?
The upside is that they are by and large the most tech-savvy generation, so working from home has come with the tech know-how and upper hand when it comes to troubleshooting. It’s also worth remembering that a café or similar public space can be a welcome change of scenery for remote working too. Although this doesn’t work for every job role (and probably isn’t ideal if you’re taking video and audio calls throughout the day), working off-site can help assist with work-life balance, separating home and work hours.
Generation Rent are also well versed in having to adapt. They have lived their lives moving with advancing technology and are the first generation to pretty much abandon the instruction manual. Adapting to fast-moving change is a skill, and this aptitude for adapting can be employed in a flat-share home office. Three key practices should help with this:
· Open and effective communication about needs and boundaries
· Balanced compromise
· Mutual respect
A commitment to these three approaches should help lubricate the frictions of flatmates becoming colleagues. And even where it may not always be optimal, it can, at the very least, be functional.
 Statista.com, 2021: https://www.statista.com/statistics/755701/average-age-first-time-home-buyers-england/  Finder.com, 2021: https://www.finder.com/uk/working-from-home-statistics  The Sleep Foundation, 2021: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-hygiene/remote-work-and-sleep