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Its 7:00!!!!. I have got to rush! "Mom I'll call you back on my way and also I don't think I'll be able to come home this weekend; we'll talk about this"… "I have no time for breakfast, I'd rather pack it"… "Oh, my cab is just 2 minutes away"… "I think I need some tea"… "Can I borrow your phone charger please"… "How can they schedule the meetings exactly on days when I plan to start early"… "14 hours!, I'd rather bring my bedcover and sleep here itself"…. "When will Friday come?"

The typical lines of every weekday of mine at work. The days flew between Monday and Friday commuting to work, meeting people, working at desk, and wading through the traffic, once again, to get back home. And then came the March of 2020, when around half of the world's population went on lockdown in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19, the virus that has already claimed thousands of lives and infected millions. In just a matter of weeks, life changed dramatically. The world of work too changed, with work from home emerging as the new norm.

It was the final phase of the third lock down and I'm in the middle of my new-found ‘work' day. With video cameras turned on and casuals becoming the new formals, it was yet another catch up meeting with my senior office colleagues. Though we belonged to different departments, we shared a bond. And this video conference call is a ritual in fond memory of the coffee meetings, we once had in the office cafeteria.

Me: So Raghav, what is your Corporate Services team planning to do about the workplace after all this? I have been hearing a lot about this 6 feet policy and so?

Know how your workplace is going to change post COVID-19

Raghav: Once work resumes; there is a need to reset workspaces with large scale behavioural and physical space alterations. Seating arrangements at offices will be redefined in accordance with social distancing norms. Introduction of shift-based work, virtual meetings, revised cleaning protocols with frequent sanitisation, provision of hand sanitisers and access cards in place of biometric. Unlike the pre-covid era, where optimum use of office space was the focus, it now requires offices spaces to be altered for people to feel safe. This calls for the reversal of the open office trend.

Me: Open office? That was supposed to let people collaborate right? It's not cool anymore?

Abhinav: He is right. Following the last recession, companies had been trying to push everything with less space. That meant packing more and more people into open office spaces, a practice known as densification.

Pradeep: Densification? I am losing the conversation guys!

Abhinav: Open office or Densification was promoted initially to encourage collaboration, it tore down walls and brought in open, flexible, and activity-based workspaces. Employees sat shoulder to shoulder at communal desks and enterprise social media such as Skype or Microsoft Teams displaced phone calls, making people more accessible. While open offices were intended to encourage innovation, creativity and collaboration, studies indicate that, in practice, these spaces are associated with dramatic reduction in face to face interactions, privacy and productivity. In effect, that meant a very cool-looking office space where you could see many of your co-workers but where there was little separation between you and your colleagues' germs.

Me: So, a Goodbye to Open Office Plan means the 6 feet social distancing is the new regular?

Raghav: A reversal of open office trend could mean more private spaces or personal offices for individuals, and more distance between desks. Recently, the Real estate company Cushman & Wakefield has designed – the 6 Feet Office, where workers can keep their workspaces six feet apart. The company used its own office space in Amsterdam as a pilot, calling it "The 6 Feet Office." This layout includes

  • The use of large circles and other visual cues on the floors (similar to hospitals) - to help ensure a separation of six feet between employees at all times.
  • Instruction to the employees to grab a paper placemat for their desk. At the end of the day, the paper is thrown away, which could help mitigate COVID-19 spreading on surfaces
  • Strict adherence to the markings in corridors or lobbies and a practice of walking clockwise, creating one-way flow to minimize transmission, as adopted by many hospitals during the current outbreak.
  • Installation of beacons into its office to track employees' movements via their mobile phones, potentially sending alerts when six-feet rules are breached.

Abhinav: And the hour of technology has further reached its peak as automation and voice technology like Amazon Alexa for Business could become a new interface and remove the need for physically pushing a button or touching a surface in an office.

Raghav: True indeed! Also, companies may not prefer having everyone working in the office from nine to five, rather they might want to bring in certain teams at specific times to reduce congestion. The initial return to offices would be incremental and staggered. Recently Google and Facebook announced decisions to extend work from home until the end of 2020. TCS plans to bring in 25/25 model by which, only 25% of the workforce will be present at their facilities by 2025 whereas the rest would work from home.

Diya: This means demand for office spaces will decrease? It was in news that, as a result of the coronavirus and its containment measures, office leasing has slowed and vacancy rates are rising

Abhinav: It is difficult to conclude that way. Whether there would be sizeable decrease in demand for office space depends on two conflicting trends. First, when fewer employees come to the office, either due to layoffs or to an increase in work from home option, this could mean less need for office space. Second, the safety protocols require people to be spaced at least six feet apart. This could cause demand for larger office spaces so that the people maintain proper distancing norms.

In short, it is too early to tell if companies will lease less space. On one hand, they may need less space because of people working remotely, on the other, they may also need more space to ensure compliance with social distancing rules.

(The door was pushed open and before I could figure out what exactly happened, I saw my niece holding the doorknob and nephew rolling on the floor crying. Probably they were up to a Tom and Jerry style chase, which just crashed right into my meeting. Taking the ‘injured' out of the room and apologising for the disruption, we continued our conversation.)

Me: I am sure the coronavirus will affect people's choice of space; the one with more private area will stand to become popular! But what's in store for the Co-working segment?

Raghav: With operators getting requests for rental waivers as well as cancellation of lease agreements from their clients, the Co-working segment, which has been growing at a rapid pace for the last few years, is facing a challenging time post-lockdown. Before the Covid-19 crisis, many large companies were increasingly taking advantage of the flexible terms of coworking space rather than taking on long-term leases. Coworking spaces are known for their communal areas and shared amenities like hot desks, where anyone can use an open work station — and where it's often unclear how recently the space has been cleaned.

Abhinav: Co working, as we know will probably have to change, in order to survive. In addition to heightened cleaning protocols, coworking spaces will have to rethink use of communal space. Fitting as many people as possible into one location won't be as acceptable as it used to be. Keeping coworking spaces safe in a post-coronavirus world will probably lead to more dividers and private offices. That might also mean fewer chances for encounters between people from different teams and companies for interactions, which is exactly what coworking companies use to market themselves as differentiator from regular office companies.

What will be most in demand will be spaces that offer a measure of control and privacy during the recovery, without compromising health and safety.

Raghav: Many of these design adjustments are inclusion of trends that kicked off well before, just that the Covid 19 crisis calls for swift and permanent changes in both workspaces and work culture on itself. A day at work will never be the same!

Me: The world of work changed in the blink of an eye. It was no more an option to work from home, but the only choice in front of the world. To our senior Relationship Specialist, how do you think the companies just made it work?

Diya: The outset of Covid 19 turned the world of work overnight with organisations, both large and small, equipping staff with all the necessary tools so they can carry on with work through this pandemic. It has ranged from moving to the cloud-based environment allowing easy file sharing option, introducing real-time communication applications to stay connected, creating virtual private networks for security and so on. To simply say, everything is becoming digital from digital mailroom to digital boardrooms. The first quarter of the year saw companies spending heavily on laptops, video conferencing subscriptions and cloud services.

Me: So, all companies have managed to activate this digital world into the work life effectively?

Diya: Companies where the technology and culture were aligned with working from home were more successful in working from home than others. These Companies have inbuilt guidelines - how employees can securely access company files, how attendance could be recorded— thus have an easier time working from home. Whereas about half of businesses expect a dip in productivity during the pandemic due to a lack of remote work capabilities. For the shift to be successful, it requires formal company policies and guidelines on remote working.

Me: But all these success stories are only for service industries and corporate MNCs, manufacturing sector will be the worst affected right?

Diya: Its true that manufacturing sector is the worst affected except for major FMCGs and necessities manufacturers, which is booming well due to increase in demand across the country. But once the lockdown restriction is lifted, manufacturing units will resume it's production and in just matter of time their operations will reach back to its normalcy because work from home option is not a possibility considering the nature of field work and on the other side renovating the factory premises is not even an option due to the level of investments that would have been made into its construction.

Me: are you referring that private space and social distancing will not be possible in manufacturing units?

Diya: Definitely it is not going to be an easy option for manufacturing plants to bring these changes to workspaces but they have already put in place effective sanitation methods like clean-in-place system, spraying, foaming, clean-out-of-place, high pressure blower for each cleaning cycle. These methods are some of the preventive measures manufacturing plants have taken towards maintaining sanitization across the workspaces.

Me: All these sounds good but they say working from home is the new normal, but I rather see it making me abnormal!!

Abhinav: That's true! While the shift to remote working has been swift, it may work so well that some may even consider making it a more permanent way of working also. There has always been demand for greater work life flexibility. But a lot of company management and leaders showed greater scepticism. Their number one concern was that if I can't see my employees, if I don't know what they're doing, then my productivity is going to go down and operations will suffer. But the virus has made these employers see the light, especially as they themselves have had to work from home and recognize that remote work does work effectively.

Furthermore, in an effort to minimise the economic impact of the pandemic, the employers are likely to face undue pressure to cut costs. For companies, letting workers work from home is an easy solution to reduce their rent costs, and is in a way less painful than layoffs.

Findings of a recent Gartner survey revealed that 74% of CFOs expect to move a number of previously on-site employees to remote working situations permanently post-COVID-19, in a move to cut commercial real estate costs.

(The background score! It's the Disney channel – of course it's hard to say that you don't enjoy cartoons anymore or that you aren't tempted to watch those, and that is exactly when my next question triggered)

 

Me: If work from home is going to be a permanent option, how is the management going to monitor the work quality?

Abhinav: That is the talk of the town now and the most challenging task for management. Currently being in lockdown state with many restrictions, employees are not having many distractions in the outside environment but once world resumes to normalcy with malls, theatres, outings, etc. monitoring the productivity levels and quality of output is going to be the key task for every employer.

Me: Won't such strict monitoring affect the personal space of employees?

Abhinav: Exactly that is why I said the most challenging task because employers need to find the right balance to ensure productivity is improved without making employees suffocated.

Raghav: But you said about something about work culture? How is work culture going to be established from work from home option?

Diya: Work culture is also of much concern here. The necessity of working from home brought on by the pandemic has also caused many employers and employees to spend money on new technology, like video conferencing subscriptions as well as new tools. This would definitely make us technically ready but there is more into it, the need to be culturally and emotionally ready for this new world.

The ability of people to adapt requires a work culture that reaches into remote environments, the one which is supportive, empathetic, inclusive, collaborative and encourages initiative. This would enable employees to feel valued, be productive and succeed.

Abhinav: The pandemic will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on workplace culture. In a workplace post the pandemic, a constant mental and emotional effort would be needed just to remember to distance, which in turn would not only make us feel less connected to our colleagues, but adversely impact productivity. The way that an organization behaves now will determine how successful it would be in the years to come. This is an opportunity for organizations to put people first. It is the right thing to do, and it is also the productive and profitable thing to do. Indeed, human resource is the primary asset of any organization.

Me: So, there is definitely a lot in store post the pandemic. I think it is time we break, there is a meeting coming up for me in another ten minutes and I need to make sure my manager is not stressed about my productivity!

 

Waiting for the host (my manager) to join the WebEx meeting, it reminded me of the office days where I waited in the huddle room for my manager to join the weekly meetings. The glass ceilings, rolling chairs, wireless file sharing and the like. Maybe it is not just world-class IT anymore, but also a culture and workflow that encourages a remote environment where you are trusted to get the job done in a way that suits your personal disposition.

This crisis will initiate the performance-based culture irrespective of workspace, the one that the workforce has been yearning for. Organizations that realize the same will take this as an opportunity to improve productivity, employee morale and retention ratio.

A workplace ought to be the one that provides choice, freedom, and comfort, be it the 6 Feet or the Remote!

The author can also be reached at devika.soman@ymail.com

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