Home offices are becoming the new must-have for Australian downsizers, in line with the COVID-19 ‘30 second commute’ trend and improved digital proficiency and workforce participation among older Australians.

Developers are reporting increased demand for study nooks and multi-purpose rooms, to allow downsizers to work from home, catch-up with friends and family online or enjoy a hobby. 

“I think COVID will create a bit of a frameshift with our customers about working from home,” said Lifestyle Communities CEO James Kelly.

“This is all due to the fact that employers have had demonstrated to them in no uncertain terms that employees can be just as productive, if not even more when working from home.

“I think we will see more people, who are still working, start to look at the opportunity to downsize earlier, free up equity and work part of the time at home.”

Home offices a sign that more older Australians are working

During COVID-19, research shows that around one in three Australians have been working from home. This social revolution has spawned the #WFH (work from home) hashtag and the catch-phrase about the '30 second commute'.

As James Kelly explains above, the practise is likely to be attractive to a new breed of younger downsizers, who see remote working as a pathway to move out of the city - and into a regional or outer suburban area - and begin their transition to retirement plan.

Irrespective of COVID-19, more older Australians than ever before are continuing to work and therefore need office space when they downsize.

The last 30 years has seen a near-doubling of the percentage of Australians over 65 who are employed, from just 5.3 per cent in July 1989 to 14.8 per cent in July 2019. (Since COVID-19 has struck in 2020, this ratio has dropped slightly to 13.4 per cent in July 2020). 

Among Australians in their 50s and early 60s, the ratio of workers to overall population is even higher, as the figures from July 2020 below show.

The demographic and workforce changes, and COVID-19, is challenging the traditional notion of “retirement communities” - as places where residents enjoy only leisure but no work - and requiring developers to create spaces where people can continue to be industrious. 

At the same time, many downsizers have been increasing their online activity to keep in contact with family and friends, and enjoy entertainment, as a result of COVID-19 related physical distancing restrictions. This means they need a place to place and store their computer.

Developers say how they are responding to these trends

Aura Holdings’ Director Tim Russell says study nooks and office spaces have soared in popularity amongst buyers at the company’s vertical-living retirement villages in southeast Queensland.

“A dedicated desk area or space for a home office has become a much appreciated addition and we’ve really noticed a rise in demand in the past few years,’’ Mr Russell said. 

“The majority of our residents are retirees so a study nook for a laptop suits those who don’t need a large space to work from home. 

“But we do have residents still in the workforce, or employed as consultants, so a dedicated office space is essential for them. Others are keen writers, historians and authors so an area for this purpose is really appreciated.

“Our sales consultants also report that a multi-purpose room is highly desirable. A very popular floor plan is one with two bedrooms and a study/multi-purpose room. A multi-purpose room is larger than a study nook but doesn’t have a window so can’t be a bedroom."

Mr Russell said Aura villages all have boardrooms, libraries, communal areas, coffee shops and Wi-Fi available for residents to host business meetings. “Somerset Indooroopilly, under construction in Brisbane’s Indooroopilly Golf Club, will have a ‘business centre’ for residents to hold meetings or meet clients,’’ he said.

Valerie Merwood is a resident of The Avenue Maroochydore, who used her study nook area to write a collection of non-fiction anecdotal short stories during the COVID-19 shutdown. 

In the stories, which Ms Merwood has self-published, she writes about the stunning mountains, landscapes and rural lifestyle of New Zealand, and how she interacted with them while living in the country.

“We chose our apartment in part because we liked the fact it had the study nook and that this area was not removed from the rest of the unit,” Ms Merwood said. “It is set in the heart of the apartment and very much part of the functioning of the apartment, and is a valuable space.”

Valerie Merwood writing in her home office area of Aura's The Avenue retirement living project

Lifestyle Communities is marketing its new St Leonard's community in the Geelong area south-west of Melbourne as being for "working, semi-retired and retired over 50s".

"We think that a sea change (to this project) will be high on the priority list for people seeking a new work from home/lifestyle balance," a Lifestyle Communities spokeswoman said. 

The company says its home offices are typically separated from living areas by being positioned at the front of the home, which helps with work-life balance and allows workers to look out to the street.

Meanwhile, nationwide retirement living operator Living Choice is building screened study nooks at its Fullarton and Woodcroft villages in South Australia. Brian Lynch, South Australian Regional Manager, says they are greatly valued by both residents and prospective residents.

A study nook with sliding doors at Living Choice Fullarton

In some of the larger Living Choice homes, including those found at Twin Waters and Kawana Island in Queensland, and Glenhaven in NSW, residents are using their third or fourth bedrooms as dedicated studies. 

 According to Suzie Gray, Queensland Sales Manager, study areas are definitely an attraction. 

“Even if they are not working, they still want a separate study or study nook. One of our residents, Graeme Preston is an engineer and is still working, after 61 years in local government”.

Living Choice Twin Waters sales consultant, Suzi Morland, says the village has two professional artists who have converted a four-bedroom home to include two studios. 

“We also have another resident in a four-bedroom who works from home, a psychologist who still consults on an academic level and a piano teacher who gives lessons. The majority of people who enquire are pleased to have a study available, especially couples,” she said.

Gail Eyres, NSW Regional Manager, says the study areas at Living Choice Glenhaven are highly valued. “We have residents who work from home and many residents also have roles in the clubs they are involved in.”

“A few years ago, we decided to convert all our laundries in our two-bedroom designs to allow for a study space. This was an excellent design change choice for our clients and sales,” Ms Eyres said.

A spokesperson for Queensland land lease community operator Halcyon says all the company’s homes come with a multi-purpose room, which many use as a study, media room or craft room, or also as a butler’s pantry.

The spokesperson said the number of working residents varied from community to community, with around 20 per cent of Halcyon Greens homeowners continuing to work in some capacity.