‘Why do offices still exist?’ is not a recent question that has only found its way into our corporate dialectics recently as a result of the novel Coronavirus. In fact, this question has been doing rounds since 1994, when some 32,000 AT&T employees stayed home to experiment with telecommunication and see if they could bring the work to the worker rather than bringing the worker to work.
As of 2020, in the age of portable computers and smartphones that have imaginably replaced every other electronic device we need in our daily lives, this question has acquired even more importance. To top all that: a lethal illness that solely spreads through contact. In the light of the Coronavirus-induced lockdown, almost everyone who could, moved to their home office. Work from home truly had a euphoric kickstart. So much, that one of the statements that began to be asserted was that we didn’t need the office space at all, all this while in order to function. Imagine working flexible hours, attending meetings in PJs, not going out to work, staying in all day.
The only caveat is that work from home depression is real. Feelings of isolation, lack of motivation, the feeling of not having designated spaces to escape from, or well, escape to, or working at random places for days on the end, can truly make one feel exasperated and anxious. The invisible divide between home and work can seriously affect one’s sense of self and can either force one to hustle 24x7 or lose out on workdays. There is also no longer a sense of personal time or personal space, and all points, one is filled with the guilt of not working enough. Work from home also either forces corporates to keep an eye on their employees throughout the day leading to an unhealthy sense of being surveilled in the private space amongst employees or makes the employers be content with reduced productivity.
Designated workplaces, on the other hand, are not just places where employees go and complete the work they could have done anywhere else. Workplaces build a company. Besides transforming the conceptual presence of a company into a physical entity, workplaces foster collaboration and communication. They enable face to face interactions and cohesive ideation. An Economic Times article points out, “many young urban professionals feel their everyday challenges regarding WFH have been missing from the discourse. A lot of them are living in cramped spaces that they share with other flatmates to save on rent. Back in their office, there was ergonomic furniture to help with posture, a coffee machine that always worked, a pantry with cookies, and unlimited access to the internet and electricity. These are some of the perks that professionals, especially in their 20s and 30s, can’t afford to have at home.”
Modern urban workplaces are increasingly being developed to evolve into fun, vibrant places employees look forward to going to and spending time at. Workplace perks like spas, pools, gym facilities are not merely fun perks. Instead, they need to be seen as competitive advantages that enable increased productivity and a happier workforce. Offices create opportunities for people to work towards inclusion and cohesion, and at the end of the day, as social beings, humans thrive on inclusion as the Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends Report also shows.
Office-spaces can specifically be used to foster communication. As a WeWork report suggests, “this can include the conscious design of everyday spaces—where a staircase can become a spontaneous meeting space or a kitchen pantry a place to discuss project plans. Narrower hallways can encourage people to literally ‘cross paths’ and chat. This also includes providing specially designed conference rooms for bringing large cross-functional teams together effectively.”
And, therefore, when all of this is over, offices will open up — with a lot of attitudinal and behavioural changes. To this end, it’s of urgent importance to identify the challenges that present-day work-space designs and behaviours have opened up. The pandemic has given us all the time and space to revise and re-do. Around the world, people and organisations are reconsidering their attitude and style of work so that they are able to evolve into a new world. Beginning with the workspace design itself: the cabin-based offices from the yesteryears have now almost universally been replaced by open-space offices.
The open-space as we know it was made popular by early 20th-century architect Frank Lloyd Wright in order to democratise the workplace by “tearing down walls” both literally and figuratively. More than eighty years down the line, architects and space designers still swear by the model as they believe that open spaces allow employees to collaborate more effectively. As jobs increased after the 2008 recession, this module became even more popular as it enabled saving on operational costs. However, this also meant that unlike Wright’s original concept, the open-space started being used to cram more employees into smaller spaces, leading to limited privacy and a more distracted workforce.
In the post-COVID world, this might also pose challenges pertaining to social distancing standards, as an investigation recently published by South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control shows. Coronavirus will open up challenges related to the operation of common-use items and spaces like coffee machines, elevators, communal toilets, and an overall distance between desks. Research from MIT published in April shows that a sneeze can blast potentially infectious droplets as far as 27 feet, well beyond current social distancing guidelines. If trends are to be believed, the coronavirus is not going away from our lives anytime soon. Even post the release of vaccines, it will be probably staying around. Employers and designers, therefore, also need to consider plans of action in case of suspected or confirmed cases.
In order to counter this and have workplaces adapt to the new world, the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare released a list of guidelines for employees and offices (at least Government offices, ) in May. According to the list, thermal scanners are to be installed at the entry of Government buildings, as feasible. Mandatory placing of hand sanitisers is also to be done at the entry of Government buildings.
Proper cleaning and frequent sanitisation of commonly-touched surfaces is to be done. The Centre has also issued personal safety guidelines like practising respiratory etiquette to minimise risk.
Says Karan Virwani, CEO, WeWork, “At WeWork, the health and safety of our members and employees is of utmost priority. Our team reviewed member feedback and worked with industry partners across health & safety, cleaning, construction and design to provide enhancements. We have a plan in place which is being executed as members start to return, with stringent measures focusing on professional distancing, cleanliness and risk mitigation measures.”
WeWork developed a plan for the reopening of all their locations that ensures all possible health and safety measures are in place. As part of the key precautionary measures to welcome the workforce back, all the buildings were sanitised and fumigated thoroughly. Social distancing measures have been put in place and members, employees and vendor personnel are being encouraged to practise the same along with avoiding gathering in large groups. In accordance with this, internal and external events have been suspended indefinitely. Design and seating enhancements ensure that spaces in common areas & conference rooms have a minimum of 6 feet distance between two people. Provisions at the community bar and prominent locations have been made through strategic design elements such as placement of potted plants and awareness posters, in order to create additional distance. Mandatory temperature screenings at the entrance of each office have been implemented. It’s noteworthy that thermal screening is particularly useful in contact tracing when it comes to suspected or confirmed cases.
While coffee machines and water dispensers are operational, touch button type dispensers are being sanitised every 30 minutes. In fact, all common touchpoints undergo sanitisation at regular intervals. Sanitisers are available at all common areas, including the entrance lobbies, community bars, pantries, and restrooms, with mandatory sanitisation by members before entering the building. Along with common amenities like gym, pool, sleep room being closed, a ‘no pets policy’ is also implemented until further notice. Pantry condiments, cutlery, and crockery would also not be made available for the time being. The usage of elevators/escalators is restricted with necessary signage guiding members with relevant information.
As an additional layer of security, business hour restrictions have been implemented across all the offices, ensuring no visitor or delivery personnel has access to WeWork premises. Furthermore, to ensure health and safety for everyone, members and employees are required to fill out a self-declaration of medical fitness before being allowed back into the workspace.
With premeditated health-crisis strategies in place, offices like WeWork are only asserting that the post-COVID world will require us to be just as mindful of health and safety of the workforce, as we would be in situations of conventional emergencies.
While several high-end organisations might invest in desk-based thermal screening, or contactless doors, elevators, and coffee, water and snack machines, it is to be remembered that these measures ought to be sustainable and over-arching. Other measures like partial attendance in rotation, and setting up droplet-containing barriers, could also be helpful. However, even as we speak about employees coming to work, the present situation has shown that no matter what, flexibility can be guaranteed to employees who are either physically or geographically disadvantaged when it comes to working.
Molly O’Rourke, Research and Design Leader, IBM says, “I think the future of work is going back to what makes us human and remembering that people are not just resources. They have lives, and work is a portion of that life.” The new-age office, therefore, will also have new rituals like washing hands, being mindful and careful of distance, of basic respiratory and contact etiquette, and more than anything, of knowing to stay back when we need to.
The idea of moving forward, therefore, will involve a thorough re-thinking of the way we perceive work and life. It will probably even require a shape-shifting of office life as we know it. However, as long as we are mindful and empathetic, we shall overcome.
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