A crucible of ideas
14 May 2020
The new realities of a post Covid-19 world face us today—how will we travel in a public transport or how will our new office workspace look like? With workplace hygiene and physical distancing taking centre stage, there are in the offing suggestions for a new work place environment that can foster connection and collaboration. Even if there are no interim regulations in place, employers and property owners still owe duties of care to those within their premises. While there is some assurance that the need of an office space will not go away that quickly, but a new concept on re-furnishing office space is a need of the hour. There are a range of issues that will need to be considered before people can return to their offices, from technical issues, around water systems, lifts and electrical and other health and safety aspects- but most important of all, staff welfare and how to control public access to ensure social distancing will be the key.
There is no doubt all buildings may need deep cleaning; a possible new seating and operational arrangements will have to be planned before employees and the public come back inside. In addition, the company will install touch-free soap dispensers in bathrooms and kitchens. Measures are needed to focus on social distancing, reviewing the circulation of people inside the building, which includes the doors to be kept open as people enter and exit the buildings, reducing the number of touch points. In common areas, new floor and wall signage will emphasise social distancing, also the receptionists and customer service dealers can sit behind plexi-screens, there should be minimum use of furniture inside the building. Instructions will be given to concerned staff to introduce thermal screening of visitors and staff on their arrival. Humidity has to be maintained at 55% , while fresh air intake has to be ensured at an optimum 100% in offices, along with regular cleaning of air filters – as it is also a concern during a pandemic.
According to an article reported in Times of India, Raghuvinder Singh Pathania, head of operations at WeWork India has said, “We are strengthening distancing norms as we prepare to open up. Spaces in the common areas and conference rooms are being modified to ensure minimum 6 feet distance between two people,” Pathania said, adding provisions are being made at places like the ‘community bar’ using strategic design elements and awareness posters. Neetish Sarda, founder of Smartworks, told Times of India his teams are working on redesigning office layouts. “We will follow distancing norms in washrooms, common areas, pantry, corridors, cafeteria and the seating area,” he said.
By the turn of the century, and after a few decades of cubicles, the open office became the norm. Different types of furniture, which demarcated different spaces of work, was a distinct feature of the open office floor plan: hubs for private meetings, longer tables around which larger groups could gather for meetings or scribbles, single or two-seater sofas for more private conversations and glass-walled meeting rooms that also offered the same transparency that marked the rest of the office. Work desks became workstations where clusters of employees would be seated, often sharing resources such as lamps and telephones, and that great luxury of the modern workplace -- coffee machines.
With easing of lockdown, it is still unsure how much social distancing will be able to be maintained. With reports of several COVID-19 positive persons remaining asymptomatic, most of the IT sector will not want to take any chances as it can impact their operations if employees fall sick. According to a Hindustan Times article, the companies at Hinjewadi IT park collectively employed at least 2,50,000 IT and ITES staff members before the lockdown was announced, according to an official of HIA. “Wherever possible, we are encouraging work from home. Even after the lockdown, wherever possible, and in the future, I envisage at least 25-30% of our people will be encouraged to work from home. In rotation, we are planning to have only 60-65% staff in office. This will be done very gradually from 10% to 50%. It will ensure less spending and rationalise office space. It will happen over a period of time. Currently, almost 90% staff is working from home in all companies in Hinjewadi,” said Satish Pai, president of HIA, and senior vice-president and business head of Americas at Tech Mahindra.
According to a Business Today article, running up to 2025, TCS will ask a vast majority of 75% of its 4.48 lakh employees globally (including 3.5 lakh in India) to work from home, up from the industry average of 20% today. The new model called 25/25 will require far less office space than occupied today. "We don't believe that we need more than 25% of our workforce at our facilities in order to be 100% productive," says TCS's chief operating officer NG Subramaniam.
Today a section of employees are still eagerly looking forward to go back to their office cubicles, chat with their colleagues. But that may not be fully wished away. More companies are now concentrating on shrinking staffers at office. Many will work from home. In that scenario one complaint across IT sector employees is that chairs at home are not comfortable to sit and many have been suffering back pain. The other concern is with network, specifically, bandwidth issues, in some cities. There may be technological solutions that can help overcome these challenges. But other issues being ambient noise, data security, etc. as work from home becomes a norm. It also involves a huge cost-saving for the company. In the long run, if one subtracts real estate rent and office commuting costs– we are witnessing an opportunity. Today, in the middle of this nationwide lockdown, data analysts claim that digital transactions have increased on PayTm and GooglePay.
Planning for now also means retrofitting the workplace, based on a common-sense approach that adheres to governmental and global health guidelines, including physical distancing, adding barriers, cleaning and safety measures. Every time a new process is discussed in the post-Covid future, run this test on it: Will it work in a lockdown? If not, let’s rework till it does.
Many say the post Covid-19 work culture may become the beginning of the end of employment, it may shrink an organisation to a handful of people, who will be aided by subject experts, working on contract, for 3-4 for non-competing firms. There is hope that such a work culture will simplify processes and ease the life of customers, churning out more entrepreneurs than employees. The focus of firms it is believed will be now to improve efficiency and costs and become more productive while competing.