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Meena Murthy Kakkar, Envisage - Covid Impact on offices

Meena Murthy Kakkar, Envisage - Covid Impact on offices

The real estate industry is a preferred typology of investment for many individuals. So, the volatile and fluid status that we are currently in, from an economic point of view, makes it extremely difficult to predict returns in this particular sector in the near future. Thus, fresh investments will be delayed for the moment and on-going projects would see a revision in funding, leading to severe replanning and reconfiguration. Sellers with relatively smaller ticket sizes -- individual property owners or aggregators would refrain from putting their property up for sale during the pandemic to avoid the property being undervalued. However, all of this is just a phase that we need to endure for now. It's primarily a period of global investment shuffle that's happening in the country. If, hopefully, India manages to capture the world's attention as a preferred alternative to another country for investment, we might see better prospects in this sector space sooner. Till that happens, it's best to keep up with the change and adapt quickly to the new norms and necessities but certainly with an eye on the cost.

Secondly, the construction industry being an extremely collaborative sector, social distancing is currently posing a challenge for the industry. The adoption of technology has helped keep things afloat. However, it’s yet to be integrated seamlessly into the industry. Site work currently is labour intensive in India and not tech-driven. Material selection requires physical sample viewing, and everything has not yet been digitized effectively, and all cannot be carted into the office for a discussion. Thus, market visits are imperative to the process.

Lastly, as architects running their own studio, have had to re-invent the traditional way of conducting business. One way is to focus on outsourcing current in-house activities to reduce the strength or work in shifts to allow for social distancing. Video calls and more continuous interaction are ongoing activities with clients and vendors to ensure decisions get through. The industry is continuously finding new ways of working efficiently in smaller teams

Most office owners would like to believe that the new spatial norms are temporary, and it would continue so for a couple of years, before reverting to the previous model. The new norms surge the ‘per desk’ cost to the office, both in terms of floor area requirement - which gets upped by 50% to seat the same number, plus an additional 30% in infrastructure and 50% increment in the running cost.
Although the WFH concept permits most companies to address this issue by balancing out the numbers, quantifying productivity becomes a challenge. Thus, most companies would eventually want to return to being as close to the old normal as possible. Therefore, the changes that one would bring about today should be easy to revert to and modify as and when one deems it to be necessary- rather than new changes, its re-configuration of existing spaces. Cubicles could be designed to resemble isolated larger workstations instead of rooms with visitor chairs. Partitions could be made of glass and covered with roller blinds instead of frosting films, to allow the user to experience a feeling of a larger space, yet giving them privacy when needed.
Workstations could continue to be open-planned, but with some screening devices separating teams, it could be fixed or foldable. The desks need to be modular, accommodating one per module, so that they can be placed at a required distance from each other.
For sales offices, one should invest in technology to minimise initial in-person meetings. When one eventually reaches the negotiation level, meeting rooms with tables equipped with sneeze-screens should be used to ensure user safety and allow them to interact with each other in a physical space.


Safety Norms:
The current situation demands that offices relook at spaces on multiple levels, while developing guidelines or solutions, such as spatial planning, team schedules, work processes, etc. Apart from the layout of the space and circulation, which are the immediate factors that impact ‘space preparedness,’ one also needs to look at building services, ventilation, materials, sanitation, office demographics, regulations, and processes – from an analytical point of view.
Faced with a challenge, most corporate houses have risen to the occasion and taken a paradigm shift towards working from home. It warrants a footfall recalibration, thus ensuring more area per user within the office. This eventually helps in the implementation of social distancing modules- such as the 6’office model- successfully. Workspaces are only rearranged to ensure a minimum six-foot radial gap between employees and other changes that will mitigate risks. Conference rooms are planned to allow occupancy by half the number of people and can be used as additional workstations. Directional movement, which is most efficient, will be decided, and floor-markers are added to ensure the same. A clip-on glass partition can be added wherever necessary between workstations across the office to facilitate the segregation of space.

A key takeaway from the pandemic, would be to create healthy spaces. As architects, we need to take a relook at the quality of buildings we design and lessen their dependence on artificial systems of heating and cooling. We should not create spaces to fit people like sardines in a can. The spaces we spend time in – be it our homes, our offices, or our educational spaces- all play a role in defining our health. It’s imperative now more than ever that we pay attention to that. Integrate open spaces into your design,  be sensitive to the physical and mental health requirements of the occupants and thus bring in the keen eye of healthcare design into our everyday spaces.  
Understanding surface sensitivity to microbial growth and checking the air quality index inside the buildings would be of prime importance hence forth. However, the critical difference is that healthcare spaces need to provide a clean, germ-free environment to help treat the infected, while healthy buildings need to ensure that people don't fall ill. Therefore, we must look into designing our spaces with sensitivity toward mental, physical, and emotional well-being. It's necessary to bring the outdoors inside, reduce the dependency of artificial heating and cooling systems.
The industry will go through a massive, much-needed change of addressing urban, health, and environmental issues through their designs.

Technological innovations:
                  This pandemic has mobilized all professions, including ours to adopt technology like never before. From a preference to physical models, we are moving towards 3D models because work needs to move on, while maintaining social distancing. As professionals from this sphere, we have always preferred face-to-face interactions and collaboration. However, the new normal needs to be accepted, and technology is only aiding us to carry on our activities in a new fashion. Primarily, new technologies need to be adopted and get comfortable to allow for easy digital collaboration. Some of these tools are the Google Jam boards, Zoom calls, WebEx, etc., which help us stay effective and productive.

                  The pandemic has also changed the way we interact with everyone and everything. A high degree of fear has induced our interactions, whether it's with individuals or things. Human interactions have majorly shifted to a virtual platform. Collaborative softwares and cloud technologies are reigning supreme in the space. For our interaction with surfaces - technologies that help avoid the use of touch are being incorporated in all sectors such as face recognition, voice automation, motion etc. These trends are certainly here to stay for a very long time.

Challenges:
The construction/ architecture industry in India is heavily dependent on manual labour, where a large group of workers is involved, and safety and health regulations are extremely lax or in some cases, non-existent. This leads to construction sites being extremely susceptible to contagious disease and germs. Sanitation and cleanliness are also secondary concerns, with no protocols in place. A situation arising from this new order would be the demand for skilled workers over unskilled ones. Since numbers have to be kept low, efficiency has to be higher for the worker to be hired. This system will need a complete overhaul
                   The role of architects and designers will now demand more than just a design solution. At a macro-level, architects need to study the surrounding and the use of the space intended to be designed. Health of the buildings will be a criterion to evaluate while designing it such as natural ventilation, orientation of the building, daylight ingress, choice of material and waste management in relation to the environment.
Most of these changes are certainly a step towards being sensitive to our surroundings and making our spaces healthier. On that line of thought, let us hope that this change of approach is permanent. The fear however, is something that needs addressing- It is the need of the hour to respond to these new challenges.  It is time to reboot and restart.

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