The recession has brought into stark relief the effects of internet shopping on the viability of the high street. This has raised big questions on how the nation ought to reconfigure its built environment. This in turn raises big questions for those who build and maintain it.

What has been less in our faces during the recession is the marked rise in working from home. This potentially could have an even bigger impact on the built environment and on what we build and where.

Naturally the recession has not been the prime mover of these changes. The spread of broadband and the changing mix of work are bigger drivers. But the recession has been one catalyst prompting both firms and workers to rethink how they work.

Among the changes we are seeing is a more flexible notion of the workplace, prompted by more reliable and faster Internet and the adoption of cloud computing allowing among other things more hot-desking and remote working.

The ultimate effect of the current shift in working patterns at this stage can only really be in the realms of speculation. It’s hard to say how dramatic the impact may be in the built environment.

But two sets of numbers released recently caught my eye. The first findings of the intermittent, but nonetheless fabulous, Workplace Employment Relations Survey and yesterday’s Office for National Statistics focus on self employment.

They show two different aspects of home working. WERS shows how home working is increasing among the directly employed and the self employment study shows a striking growth in self employment, which implies an increase in home working as many of the self employed are home based.

Here are the stats. You can do the speculative futuristic analysis and judge whether we are on the cusp of a revolution and if this suggests, as it may do, the need for a profound rethink of the built environment.

The latest three WERS surveys are from 1998, 2004 and 2011. They show an interesting pattern. In 1998 9% of employees said they could if they wished work from or at home. This rose to 14% in 2004. The 2011 first findings show 17% of employees actually working from or at home as part of more flexible working arrangements. This suggests that far more could if they chose, how many we can only speculate at this time.

Interestingly, answers to the 2011 survey from managers suggest an increasing willingness among employers for staff to work from home. In 2004 25% said home working was an option for staff. This increased to 30% for 2011.

Now these people working from home need not necessarily be working from home all the time, but the figures crudely put suggest that maybe a million or more direct employees are working from home on occasion than was the case in 2004.

Now let’s look at the ONS statistics for self-employed. They show a rise of 366,000 in the number of self-employed from 2008 to 2012 and a fall in the direct employed of 433,000.

We need to remember that a big slice of this shift is in construction workers and similar folk who may be based at home but who actually work elsewhere. That said, this data all suggest a rise in home working given the self employed are more likely to work from home.

The data show 15% work from their own home, 5% from same grounds or building (shed workers I guess the term is), 38% from different places with home as a base (the coffee shop contingent etc) and 42% separate from home.

These are fairly woolly descriptions for what is a fairly woolly area and they are self selected by those quizzed. They are also for 2012, but I am told by ONS that the proportions have remained steady over the years.

So it may be reasonable to suggest that there’s an extra 100,000 to 200,000 self employed folk working permanently or semi-permanently from their home (albeit a shed outside) than there were in 2008.

In the grand scheme of things we have not seen a huge swing given there are about 30 million in the UK workforce. But given that the trend is in the early stages it is certainly worth keeping a close on eye on it.

Personally I think we have reached a point where we should be prepared to fundamentally rethink the built environment and its fitness for purpose.

The changes need not in the end be that profound. But if we don’t react to changes that are reshaping the way we work, rest and play we may be left in 30 year’s time with buildings best suited for a remake of Life on Mars.