We can’t talk about the office of the future without talking about the worker of the future—or the worker of the present, for that matter, often in a radically different position than even a decade ago. In 2016, for example, 35% of the U.S. workforce was made up of freelancers, a number expected to climb to 43% by 2020. With so many workers moving, and being moved, into the gig economy (and with the number of people who telecommute part or full-time having increased fourfold since 1995), traditional office spaces serve a rapidly decreasing number of employees.
We need radical new visions of what, exactly, constitutes an office. Bypassing urban glass and steel towers, ex-urban office campuses, the local coffee shop, or the home office tax write-off, one proposition for a mobile office would likely have appealed to Buckminster Fuller. Jie Zhang’s FoAM—inflatable office bubbles of various sizes and shapes—even includes a geodesic dome model, perhaps in tribute to the great architectural innovator. (Other concept designs include an umbrella shape and what appears to be just a bubble that inflates around one’s head.)
“It is impossible for architects and designers to ignore the needs of 30% or more of the US workforce who are freelancing,” Zhang, co-founder of design startup OPT, told Metropolis magazine of her proposal. FoAM‘s ingenuity earned it the runner-up spot in Metropolis‘ Tomorrow’s Workplace Design Competition, which asked the question, “what will the workplace of 2021 be like?” A massive shift in workforce demographics “presents tremendous opportunities, but also a challenge for us to think beyond the conventional client-designer model for office designs.”
Zhang’s quirky design anticipates a need to recoup urban spaces like parking lots, notes Metropolis, which may become largely abandoned “with the widespread use of shared autonomous vehicles.” FoAM might also be called maximally biophilic design, if set up in the right environment, offering “office” space with a direct experience of nature. Each FoAM would be equipped with wireless charging options, powered by a transparent solar cell. Additional amenities include a “360 projector/camera,” a “radiant floor pad” for heating and cooling, and “modular inflatable furniture.”
Anyone who has gone camping will immediately note some of the possible problems. These include not only the hassle of set-up and tear down, but also concerns about long-term structural integrity, and the nuisance of lugging around a massive lump of heavy plastic that may never fold neatly enough to fit back in its carrying case. But the intentions behind this brief acknowledge societal shifts taking place outside the office that may render most traditional spaces obsolete in the near future.
The winner of the Tomorrow’s Workplace Design Competition, Co-Gen Flex Space by Ethelind Coblin Architect, also began with a demographic shift, this time toward a multi-generational workforce comprised of seniors and semi-retired people and working parents in need of childcare. The architects designed their co-working space by “taking into consideration that there is also a growing number of seniors that are not simply retiring but that choose to (or have to) participate in active social and work life.”
A “co-generational work environment,” proposed for New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, the Co-Gen Flex Space incorporates a coop-funded daycare facility, “work spaces of varying privacy and size,” and all of the technical services any modern office might need, including on-demand 3D printing and conferencing technology. In both the Co-Gen Flex Space and FoAM, we see office design that begins with the reality of a rapidly changing workforce—increasingly mobile, contingent, multi-generational, and with a variety of needs and schedules that cannot be easily accommodated in outdated 9-5 office spaces.