Williams, 32, found running his social-media marketing company, KOMI, from his dining table, worked fine for the first few months of the pandemic. But when it became clear this was a longer-term arrangement, he needed a more permanent workspace. “I was basically living in the dining room. It’s an open-plan kitchen-diner, so the kids were playing there some days,” he says. “Every day when I finished work, I had to pick up the monitor, put all the chargers away.”
Williams decided to buy a ready-made home office pod for his garden. He chose a sleek, fully-furnished cube made by a company called SkyPods. “It’s a little bit different from your old garden summer house,” he jokes.
At £12,500 ($16,700), it was “a bit of an investment”. But once in place, it simply needed to be plugged in and it was ready to go. Williams says the investment has paid off; now, he’s able to make a clearer distinction between work and home. He can work uninterrupted – and out of everyone's way – and leave the job behind at the end of the day to spend time with his family, too.
Of course, the idea of a drop-in-anywhere office isn’t new. Companies making small, self-contained office pods say the industry was booming even before the pandemic – though their customers were companies looking to add focus spaces to open-plan offices. Since Covid-19, however, demand has skyrocketed amid a surge of interest from private homeworkers looking to redesign their work and home life.
Rise of the garden office
The benefits of using pods for focused work in offices have been clear for several years. Companies have realised that open-plan office designs are not always conducive to a productive work environment, and so have invested in a raft of solutions aimed at providing quiet spaces for workers who need privacy for their task.
But the pandemic also brought a surge in demand for home-based workplace solutions – something that looks set to continue in the new hybrid era. One recent UK survey found 85% of working adults currently based at home wanted to continue doing so at least some of the time.
Manufacturers say they've seen a significant rise in interest for pods to be installed in domestic settings. "People started looking at the spaces in their homes a bit differently, [like] if you had a really big balcony but felt crowded in your living room,” says Jon Lynn, who started London-based My Office Pods four years ago. "They were just trying to find out how they could utilise the space more.”
Lynn does occasionally sell pods for use inside people’s homes, citing soundproofing as their great draw. He had one customer desperate for a place to take phone calls away from his children, for example. The noise inside the pod is also contained, which he says appealed to one man whose wife was tired of his guitar practice. But Lynn says the high cost and corporate appearance of pods designed to sit inside offices – as well as the fact that even the smallest pods would easily dominate an average living room – tend to put most people off.
That means the domestic market focuses on pods designed for garden use. But where once having a garden office meant having a slightly superior shed, emerging companies promise all the technology and comfort of an office within a tiny, self-contained square footage.
Mark Currie, in Putney, south London, says if his garden pod is a shed, “then it's a really expensive shed”. He and his wife Rachel took delivery of their pod in May, having realised they wanted to continue running their video production agency largely from home.
“It’s got big sliding doors, it’s got a little window, it's warm, it feels insulated,” he says. It also provides all-important extra storage for their business materials, and space for two desks. "It’s a nice little house in the garden.”
For Currie, investing in the pod was “a big commitment”. He and his wife had been working from the kitchen table, but knew it wasn’t a sustainable solution. Now, he says, they also know that should there ever be another lockdown, “the business can continue comfortably because we can just move into the back garden and do what we need to do”.
Currie and his wife had to wait six months for their pod to arrive, due to the level of demand. And given the obvious potential for growth in the home-office market, it's no surprise that new innovative designs are emerging all the time; floating pods, budget plywood pods, intricate origami-style pods or bright, angular cabin-style pods all promising to create than all-important third space.
Mike Hyde, who runs SkyPods from Barnsley in northern England, says he set up his company in November 2019 to provide a “bespoke luxury” alternative to traditional garden rooms. As well as cube-style pods like the one Ryan Williams bought, Hyde also makes pods using upcycled segments of old aeroplanes, which means they are extremely durable, well insulated and have excellent soundproofing.
“We take the fuselage off a retired aeroplane that’s had all its engine and other parts stripped off and instead of it going to the crusher, we turn it into something else,” he says. The pods even come complete with the tail number and certificate from the original plane.
Hyde admits that the cost of pods puts them beyond the reach of many people. But he says while they might well cost the same as an extension on a house, crucially, if you do move house, "for relatively little cost you can just take it with you, plonk it in your garden and get up and running before your house is even finished”.
Right now, most designs target the mid-to-high earners who have the career flexibility to work from home, the space in which to install a pod and the income that allows them to do so. Yet Melanie Williamson, on Australia’s Gold Coast, believes more workers are thinking about how they can arrange – or even change – their living space to embrace the flexibility of hybrid working.
Williamson set up her company, Backyard Pods, in 2015, in response to what she saw as a gap in the market for affordable flatpack garden offices and outbuildings. Her flatpack kits start at around A$5,000, (£2,729, $3,660) and she says that at times over the past few months, orders have been three times higher than normal.
She says she’s noticed a lot of interest among city-dwellers who are moving to smaller towns so they can benefit from cheaper property prices and bigger gardens with room for outdoor workspaces. “Sometimes they start consulting with us before they buy their property because they are buying the property with the intention to do this,” she says.
Sometimes, she says, customers do have space for an office inside their houses, but they want an entirely separate space to help them preserve boundaries between work and home. “There’s something psychological about kissing your loved ones, grabbing a coffee, and shutting the door behind you,” says Williamson. “That effect doesn’t occur if you just cross the threshold of another room.”
Right now, experts suggest, home-based workspace solutions will remain focused on garden pods. There are barriers to installing pods inside residential buildings, says Lynn, and companies who make pods for offices are concentrating on the strong corporate market. But he believes that when manufacturers see a domestic market developing, they’ll likely focus on creating something that can be assembled easily in smaller spaces.
Ryan Williams, however, is happy with the solution he’s found. While he may not have “the biggest garden in the world”, giving 2sq m of it over to his pod has been life-changing. He’s fully embraced the flexibility it offers, telling himself that if he ever stops needing it for work, “it can always be decked out as a garden bar in the future instead”.