Nirmal Mangal, Architecture, M Moser Associates

Nirmal Mangal, Architecture, M Moser Associates

It is a well-accepted fact that without exception, none of the businesses had any contingency plans to deal with a pandemic like Covid-19. Most companies had contingency plans only to deal with network disruption and had business continuation plans. Although there were early signs of the pandemic in China in December, it was not until late February that Indian government and business started noticing it. By the middle of March 2020, the pandemic in India was in full force. The pandemic has affected all modes of business including retail, entertainment, travel industry, transportation, banking, technology, etc. Based on current information and expert advice, the businesses are partially open and are planning to gradually increase the scale of their operation. While opening and scaling their operation, they will have to think as to how to fully utilise their workforce, service their customer, increase their revenue to stop losses, all in a safe and effective manner. The approach to normalise would vary from business to business.

The COVID-19 pandemic created potentially the greatest wave of change any one of us has ever experienced. In response to health concerns, everyone has been forced to change fundamental aspects of their life. This change has prompted many organisations to consider how to strategically move into the future, sustain high-performance cultures, and stay relevant.

1.    Essential staff determination: The first step should be to identify individuals who need to be in the office and who cannot work from home due to government regulations and financial/security reasons. This effort should be led with information from management, operations and HR.

2.    Social distancing: Companies should relook at the density of the workplace and plan on maintaining an optimal distance between workstations. They should prepare seating scenarios with existing layouts. This effort should also include a priority assessment as to who needs to be in the office first. Use common spaces such as collaboration spaces, lounges, team rooms, and meeting rooms to house an additional number of seats.

3. Screening of employees and visitors: Installation of touchless screening systems for all employees and visitors at the entrance of workplace. Developing SOP to address action plan to address potential Covid-19 in the event any employee or visitor is found to be positive.

4. Creating a phased plan to resume work: Because of physical distancing, there will be fewer seats available. The firms should plan for gradual increase of seats while following government advisory and wellbeing of employees. Hence, companies need to optimise their business functions and tasks with fewer employees in attendance.

5.    Considering work shifts: Firms should consider working in shifts so that more number of people can work at the office. It is important to note that WFH is not a viable option for almost one-third of employees in India due to poor infrastructure and living in a multi-generational/shared housing.

5. Open seating workplace: Companies need to consider adopting open seating – first come first serve, except for critical spaces such as accounting/finance and HR, etc. If open seating is adopted, employee tracking software needs to be deployed to track their locations daily.

7.    Emphasis on hygiene-based housekeeping – Finally, firms should gear up to clean and disinfect the workplace on a daily basis. The disinfection approach may include manual cleaning/disinfection and use of systems such as permanently installed germicidal UV lighting.

With so much of unknown at this time and with so many varying opinions, it is unlikely that major retrofits will be done any time in the near future. Most of the activity now is tactical in nature. The firms are not willing to spend significant capital now on solutions that may not be the right one in near in a matter of months, once we learn more about Covid-19 and its vaccine/treatment.

1.   Hygiene-centric workplace planning: This would involve short term fixes to boost reducing the number of workers in the office at one time and cleaning solutions to boost the confidence and morale of returning workers. In longer terms, hygiene would be the driver of workplace planning.

2.   Physical separation between workstations in lieu of privacy and acoustics: Gone are the days of removing the separation between seats to encourage collaboration.

3.   Distributed offices and rotating days: There has been renewed interest in small offices located near population centres to be near employees in lieu of central downtown locations. Such an approach would mean less infection in public transportation and in smaller office populations. Smaller office means lesser staff to get infected and would not require an entire CBD office to be quarantined. There are other tangible benefits including shorter commute time, less stress during a commute, and more personal time for employees. It would still work on a “hub and spoke” model where one office will provide centralised support to all satellite offices.

The emergence of ‘contactless workplaces’: Due to this pandemic, the idea of “contactless office’ is here to stay. This idea would include touchless entry into the office, to app-based functions such as elevator access, passing through access control doors, and personalised setup of work stations. Additionally, conference rooms may be fitted with voice-activated AV systems, toilets would require a wave of the hand, and automated servers in office kitchen/cafeteria.

There are several new technological innovations on the horizon that enable touchless and smart office experience. Some of the new and exciting innovations are as following:
o   Offering a complete digital journey, from arrival, seat booking to meeting room booking and leaving the office
o   Touchless meeting room facilities to avoid contact and prevent virus spread
o   Incorporating body temperature check seamlessly into the arrival experience to save time and ensure safety
o   Touchless proximity sensors to check employee ID and body temperature and disinfectant dispensers
o   Touchless toilets incorporating, automatic door openers or maintain negative pressure to keep the smell inside the toilets.
o   Toilets with sensor-based toilet fixtures, seat cover dispensers, and paper towel dispensers. Removing all jet spray from water closet stalls
o   Modified HVAC system incorporating increased fresh air change, MERV filters with inline UV-C irradiation.
o   Visual monitors throughout the spaces to indicate optimum indoor air quality.
o   Increased fresh air supply to conference rooms and CO level activated exhaust fans

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