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Home Truths: How does your garden office grow in a pandemic?

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Making it work: Shomera saw a 400pc surge in enquiries for garden offices during the first lockdown in March

Making it work: Shomera saw a 400pc surge in enquiries for garden offices during the first lockdown in March

Making it work: Shomera saw a 400pc surge in enquiries for garden offices during the first lockdown in March

Now that we've reached the highest level of Covid restrictions, the language of lockdown is giving me brain fog. From terms like 'Zoom fatigue' and 'flattening the curve' to the 'R number' and 'circuit breaker,' hardly a week goes by without corona-speak creating some new piece of jargon for us to get our bewildered heads around.

The world of work is no exception, with WFH now part of the lockdown lexicon, not to be confused with another catchy three-letter acronym beginning with 'W.'

WFH (working from home) certainly sprang to mind when Google recently gave a clear indication of its collective view on the continuing relevance of the traditional workplace office. Amid reports that it was pulling the plug on plans to lease 202,000 sq ft of office space to accommodate a further 2,000 workers in the seven-storey Sorting Office in Dublin's docklands, a source close to the tech giant said Google was taking time to "look at what the future of work looks like".

Never mind the future. Right now, Nphet and the Government's message on how we should manage our working lives is crystal clear: if you can work from home, WFH.

But there's a catch. Unlike the first wave of restrictions early this year, cabin fever is now setting in for many people begging for an escape from the intensity of being cooped up together all day, every day. We're not chickens. Most of us like a bit of time to ourselves to think, to dream, create - or simply to work.

At a time when the mental health consequences of WFH are increasingly coming into focus, the need to draw a clear line between work and family life is more important than ever. Long-term, tiptoeing around each other while one partner struggles with a box bedroom office and the other sits at the kitchen table is not a sustainable way to live.

When Virginia Woolf wrote her essay A Room Of One's Own in 1929, she could have been writing the tag line for the manufacture and supply of garden rooms, one of the few industries that's thriving through Covid.

During the first lockdown earlier this year, garden-building installation company Shomera reported a 400pc surge in enquiries. Over the past few months, it surveyed new customers, asking why they wanted a garden room. Privacy? Flexibility? Fewer distractions, maybe? It turned out these were not the highest priorities. The key factor for more than a third of respondents was "dedicated work space to make a clear delineation between home and work life".

"It's the single biggest, most important reason people give us for wanting a garden room," says MD Frank O'Sullivan. "When we set up this business over two decades ago, we could see there was a demand for the product, but the pandemic has catapulted that to a new level. We're inundated with orders and doing all we can to increase capacity, but delivery dates are now going into next year."

Among other suppliers are Garden Rooms, whose website traffic has increased by 75pc in recent times, and Pod Office Solutions, with enquiries up 200pc, while Steeltech Sheds' slogan of "Your shortest commute ever!" has never rung so true, as more and more people appreciate the simple act of being able to physically close the door to everyday distractions and open another to focus attention on work.

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Steel garden rooms are well insulated, low maintenance and don't need planning permission if their floor area is kept under 268 sq ft and leave a minimum of 268 sq ft of garden space after construction. They come wired with sockets and lights and have their own door, window and flooring.

Prices typically start from around €15,000 for an 8ft x 10ft unit. When fitting it out, obviously a desk and fit-for-purpose office chair are critical. Some owners add a sofa and TV so it can double up as a teen's den in the evenings. Many are portable and can be transported if owners decide to move house and want to take the office with them.

But there's more going on here than discussions about construction, fit-out and price. Compared to a gleaming multi-storey city centre modern office block, even the most well-appointed garden office may appear humble. Look again though, because those sheds and Shomeras are heralding nothing less than the arrival of a fourth industrial revolution.

Pod Office Solutions MD Kara Cramp has no doubt about it. An economist by profession, she studied the socio-economic implications of the WFH phenomenon in 2015 before launching her business two years later.

"I realised we were entering a new era that would create a growing demand for flexible work environments," she recalls. "Working from home was already being adopted as an option by firms, but the scale and swiftness initiated by the pandemic is unprecedented. No economist saw that coming!"

Since setting up Pod Office Solutions, Cramp says sales doubled year on year, but this year they're going through the roof.

"Now that it's dawning on us as a nation that we're in this for the long haul, people don't want to lose valuable living space at home," she says.

"The number of phone calls I get from working mothers or fathers asking me to create a distinct space away from their property is increasing every day. Screaming kids and doorbells ringing with deliveries were initially part of the acceptable dynamics of working from home during the earlier months of lockdown, but not so much now that WFH has become more normalised."

To date, lack of broadband has hampered the prospects of many rural areas joining the revolution any time soon.

It remains to be seen if the Government will deliver on its promise to make WFH a reality for 540,000 rural homes and businesses by speeding up the rollout of the National Broadband Plan from seven to five years. Communications Minister Eamon Ryan got the ball rolling with his recent announcement that the first tranche of 7,900 rural homes under the scheme would be ready for high-speed fibre within the next 10 weeks.

Some things are moving fast. A garden office - let's add it to the lockdown lexicon as GO - can be erected on site within two weeks and, if all goes well, there'll be a broadband connection to service it.

The only fly in the ointment is that due to unprecedented demand, you might have to WTNY (wait till next year) to get one or the other, or possibly both.


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