Reimagined workplaces prioritize safety and well-being

Workplaces will not look the same as the country rebounds from the coronavirus. Graphic: Kristian Rodriguez/University of Miami
By Michael R. Malone

Workplaces will not look the same as the country rebounds from the coronavirus. Graphic: Kristian Rodriguez/University of Miami

Reimagined workplaces prioritize safety and well-being

By Michael R. Malone
University of Miami architects and engineers, spurred by lessons learned from the pandemic, re-create workspaces and prioritize safety, worker welfare, and a different cadence for remote and office work.

As millions of workers, relegated to work from home these past months, return to their offices, they will likely encounter redesigned spaces. Some will adapt to minor makeovers that modestly shift how they perform tasks and interact with workmates. Yet, for others, the changes will be seismic—new technologies, spatial alterations, and reconfigured common spaces that accent the potential for telecommunication. 

These redesigns, both big and small, are driven by an uber-focus on worker safety and well-being. 

“There was a time when people looked at health and well-being purely from the point of view of science and medicine,” said Carie Penabad, associate professor in the University of Miami School of Architecture and director of the Bachelor of Architecture Program. “But now we understand that the world of design and architecture plays a huge impact on the way we live our lives and whether our lives are healthy.” 

Penabad is one of a range of University of Miami thought-leaders who were already engaged in contemplating a workplace of the future. The calamity caused by the pandemic prompted new urgency and, in Penabad’s case, wrestled her away from a scheduled spring sabbatical to undertake a new and engaging project. 

For the “U-SoA Architecture and the Great Confinement” series, she has spent the past weeks interviewing 25 of the most innovative design-thinkers from around the world to explore two questions: How will the pandemic alter the world of architecture? And how will it affect the design of cities? 

“Certain themes and fundamental connections between health and well-being have emerged,” said Penabad, while she emphasized that the coronavirus’ ultimate impact on the field of design remains unknown given its persistence. 

A hybrid model for the open workspace  

Still, Penabad suggested that moving forward, a hybrid model of office space will likely become the workplace norm. 

The rise of Google, Facebook, and the tech industry in the late 1990s prompted the preference for physically open office spaces, which invite spontaneous interaction and favor creativity. And this open workspace concept has long been favored by architects, Penabad explained. 

“They were really fighting against the cubicle as a model, a model associated with corporate America and strict hierarchies, compartmentalized offices, and a highly structured environment that didn’t lend itself to cooperation and chance encounters,” Penabad added. 

“The days of open spaces and free movement will no longer be feasible—but they’ll be altered, they won’t disappear,” she said. “We may find a combination of closed office and open space—the percentages may change—that allow possibilities for breaking out into smaller groups or individual work.” 

‘Architecturalizing’ the function of a workspace  

To expand the focus on health and safety, she highlighted the need to “architecturalize” different office spaces, essentially expanding the way we think about the function of a space.

“Up to now, hygiene has essentially focused on the bathroom, but now we need to look at other thresholds, such as entryways—the equivalent of mudrooms in traditional homes,” she said. “Maybe, on entering, you’ll remove your shoes and work in socks, or wash your hands in basins or dispensers that have been placed there. “Architecturalizing, or changing the processes that happen in a particular space, will allow us to have the benefits of an open-office plan with interaction and innovation.” 

In addition to these spatial changes, the pandemic has prompted a cultural shift, one that moves the way that we envision “home” and “workplace,” she said. 

“We’ve proven that we can be productive with a model that doesn’t require us to constantly be going into the office,” Penabad pointed out. “I anticipate that a live-work model for building spaces will emerge or become a priority.” 

Rodolphe el-Khoury, dean of the School of Architecture, noted that COVID-19 has accelerated this trend that was already underway. 

“Even before the pandemic, the University had been encouraging all the units to think creatively—how to organize the week in shifts so people can work from home differently,” el-Khoury said. “Now there’s going to be much more telepresence, teleconferencing, and remote telecommuting—this type of interaction and communication is going to become much more important and pervasive,” he said, adding that improved technologies have abetted the remote work shift.   

“The speed of computer processing and the sophistication of digital media have brought a fullness to the remote experience,” el-Khoury said. “External pressures like the cost of long-distance commuting, limitations on parking, and now the need to de-intensify the workplace, all support that change.” 

Yet despite these advances, el-Khoury emphasized the value of the physical workplace. 

“With every new technology, beginning with the telephone, there’s always a hype and expectation that we will start to work differently, but actually it’s never happened,” he said. “On the contrary, always the 1-to-1 and face-to-face interaction became more and more important as these modes of communication and remote interactions developed—it’s a paradoxical or converse relation.” 

Penabad’s suggestion of a cultural shift also included the notion that spaces—both at home and at work—might be merged to offer a more seamless life-work transition.

She imagined the possibility of workplaces designed with different floors, where one might accommodate “life” activities and other floors would be more “work” focused. And for those working independently from home, more of a home office scenario as in office downstairs and living space upstairs. 

Yet Penabad emphasized that, for the workplace to be truly reimagined, certain regulatory frameworks will have to change. 

Regulatory frameworks must adapt to new concerns 

Esber Andiroglu, associate professor of practice in the Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering, echoed this call for increased adaptation and flexibility in frameworks as workplaces of the future are envisioned and created. 

In addition, government regulations—local, national, and international—are complex and may require compromises to improve the frameworks for the workplace, while also ensuring safety, Andiroglu said. 

“This balance in COVID-19 times becomes more critical in a classroom or office environment where fewer people are now occupying the space because of density considerations in order to comply with social distancing guidelines,” said Andiroglu, who is also the director of the M.S. in Construction Management Program. 

He emphasized the role of education to address new concerns and conditions prompted by the pandemic. “A lot can be simplified or easily managed if coupled with education,” he said. “There is a lot of misconception out there—what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s to be avoided.”

Urbanism and resilience remain the foundation 

Design thought-leaders are entertaining a wide range of new ideas as they reimagine the workplace in these novel times, yet Penabad said that the School of Architecture’s underlying message of urbanism—the study of how inhabitants in cities and towns interact with their built environment—and resilience will remain constant. 

“In our curriculum and research, it’s important to continue to focus on the timeless questions of the discipline, thinking deeply on how each building and its design influences the environment,” she said. “We want to be responsible and not be swept away by the latest conversation, and step back from what are we learning from this experience and think on how we can overlay these lessons over the larger arc of time.”