The pandemic has changed the dynamics of the entire world. As economies have re-opened, the task in hand is getting people back to their workplaces. It is no hidden fact that people want to return to the offices. But, offices won’t be the same, they can’t be. Everyone has been sheltered in home for almost three months in order to maintain social distancing and this will be the norm when the offices re-open. Firms will need to find the right balance between ensuring safety and some semblance of normalcy.
In an exclusive webinar ‘Covid-19: Strategies for Re-populating Workspaces’ organised by The Blue Circle, reputed leaders– Abhishek Goenka (CEO, CoWrks), Mani Rangarajan (Group COO, Elara Group- Housing, PropTiger and Makaan), Sigrid Zialcita (CEO, Asia Pacific Real Estate Organisation), Vinod Rohira (Managing Director and CEO, Commercial Real Estate & REIT, K Raheja Corp) and Pavan Choudary ( Author, CEO and Public Intellectual), discuss the ways and strategies for re-populating workspaces while ensuring the safety of employees.
Minimising Risk for Employees
The World Health Organisation(WHO) advised employers to consider how best to decrease the spread of Covid-19 and lower the impact in their workplace as they begin re-population. Importance of building trust and confidence in staff in feeling safe to return was also stressed.
“I think all organisations should look at rostering their employees, not make them come to work every day,” said Mani. To reduce the risk of transmission, employers can allot team shifts and alternate working hours. Firms can also look to provide transport with a defined number of people in each vehicle.
Vinod shared that they are upgrading air conditioning systems in their buildings by adding a layer of UV to air handling units so that the air filtered inside the offices is bacteria and virus free. As the common and shared areas are more exposed to viruses, a coating of chemicals is being applied at public touch points to make these bacteria and viruses free for upto 90-120 days.
Pavan stressed the need for stringent monitoring protocols to be put in place for effective deployment of safety norms. Companies would need to order strict clear desk policies to ensure workstations can be cleaned and social distancing respected within the workplace while monitoring the health of employees on a regular basis. Receptions, elevators, amenity spaces, restrooms, bicycle storage areas etc will need to be sanitised and maintained multiple times a day until things return to normal.
The housekeeping staff should also be trained and provided with safety gears. The policy of staggered schedule work will work for housekeeping staff as well. Firms can direct essential staff and cleaning crews to targeted areas .
Though firms will do their best to ensure safety of their staff, it is important that employees are trained to follow some measures such as wearing a face mask and carrying an alcohol-based sanitizer, avoid borrowing anything from colleagues, use their own cutlery, do not touch handles and hand-rails. For contact tracing in future, employees going outside to meet customers or clients, should be trained to maintain a list of people they meet.
The internal design of the offices could witness a transformation. Over the last few years, there has been a trend of open offices which might be replaced by cubicles. “There is definitely a need to change interior design. A lot of our member owners are saying that there is also a need for more space,” said Sigrid.
“While you are at your desk, pretty much from a 80 sq feet a person density, you de-densify to 120-130 sq feet and you will easily comply with social distancing norms,” added Vinod. The entry points for employees, vendors and visitors need to be specified. Different elevators could be used for different floors.
Pavan added that going forward the size of the desk will increase, elevators will be replaced by escalators. Open spaces will ascend. Recalling history he said that architecture not only follows function but follows infections also and buildings are the first form of defense against any virus or bacteria. When the rat was discovered as the culprit during the third plague, not only the drain pipes designs changed the threshold of homes and workplaces went up. The tuberculosis era inspired white painted homes, bathrooms with glazed tiles which can be easily swept clean.
Measures by Coworking Spaces
The coworking companies have a bigger responsibility in hand. Other than their own employees, they have to ensure the safety of every one of their members and their respective employees as well.
To safeguard their members, Abhishek shared that Cowrks has launched a special offer of working out of any of their centres as well as partner centres. This way companies can distribute their employees. “We are saying that we are not only giving this offer with our own centres, but you can actually do so with all other centres we have partnered with so to that extent, we are bringing the length and breadth of the country to their doorstep.”
Opening meeting rooms to the members is also one of the steps to ensure safety of members to the workplace. At a point when people want to feel as safe as their homes, co-working spaces have to go beyond what traditional offices will do.
Future of Workplace is Tech-laden
In the age of social distancing, implementation of emerging technologies is proving essential to decrease use of touchpoints. “We have almost made the entire office experience touchless and tech enabled,” said Abhishek, from accessing coffee to the snack vending machine. In addition their app’s Bluetooth sensors generate an alert when people come in close vicinity, AI tools that can detect people not wearing a mask and density sensors.
It is a given that the work from home has pushed the use of technology in work. When the offices reopen, there will be more use of technology than before. Video conferencing apps like Zoom, Slack will find more use in the offices too as in-person meetings will only cater to the utmost needs. The quicker adoption of these apps will make work safer once people get back to their desks.
In unprecedented times like these, the importance of staying in touch with employees cannot be overstressed. There needs to be a process of constant communication with the employees because their mental wellbeing is as important as physical health. “You don’t want people to feel scared coming to work, that’s the last thing you want,” said Mani.
The voice of the employees is equally important while considering to call them back to work. Employers should know what percentage of their employees want to come to work. “If a significant proportion doesn’t turn up, it means we have failed in doing our job.” He added that calling people who are unwilling, will be no good if their productivity level won’t be the same as working from home. So, it’s imperative that we give an ear to what employees would be comfortable with.
Scenario in other Asian countries
In China and cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore, about 90% of the people have returned to work as most houses in Asian countries are too small to carry out work. “This has become an impediment for cities like Hong Kong and major markets in China. In Singapore too, people are working out of homes out of necessity and in the long-run things will be different,” said Sigrid.
As offices have opened, governments of these countries have put strict regulations in place and companies are penalised in case of non-compliance.
Sigrid further added that Japan is one country where work from home has not taken off due to unavailability of amenities needed to duplicate offices. Japanese have a culture of face to face interaction. “On top of it, they still have their documents stamped and use fax machines. So, I don’t think things will change much for Japan,” shared Sirgid.
Voting Through the Feet
Vinod said that 70-80% of India’s workforce especially in the technology space are migratory in nature and are living out of one bedroom which are also not safe. The amount of extensive protocol that buildings and companies can adopt and implement cannot be adapted in small homes and residential buildings or complexes as one cannot spend that kind of money on sanitisation protocol and equipment. “Once workers see this kind of protocol at their workplace, they will certainly be comfortable to come back. It’s an inertia that will break really quickly, what needs to be ensured is their journey to the workplace.”
Abhishek agreed with Vinod and added that the real success will be when people will come back to the offices, when they start feeling comfortable with all the good things we are doing.
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