As the country enters its fourth month of lockdown, the economic repercussions are quite evident. Most of the sectors have taken a serious hit and everyone is eagerly waiting to see the green shoots of revival, once things open up.
I would particularly like to focus on the real estate sector, which despite being the backbone of the economy is the first to bear the brunt of any economic crisis, thereby affecting bulk of the population. This leads to a lot of socio-political issues, especially to do with migrants who form a large part of the workforce. To make matters worse, the realty sector is grappling with suspended projects, large scale attrition, salary cuts and liquidity crunch resulting from a weak market sentiment. In the coming days, it will be a buyer’s market with the supply exceeding the demand.
Talking specifically about the workspace vertical, there would still be a demand for the traditional ‘brick and mortar’ offices. While a majority of the workforce was thrust overnight into becoming a part of the largest WFH experiment in the world, it is now becoming evident that a physical workspace is absolutely necessary to retain the values and identity of an organization. People are already longing to escape household stresses, frequent distractions, network/connectivity issues and poor ergonomics to get back to a real workplace where they can effectively work, learn and collaborate making it even more relevant when this is over. People need the human connect that only a workplace can bring us.
By now, most of the organizations have their Return to Work (RTW) strategies in place. It is clear that many team members are eager to return to work, but they are also worried about being able to do so, safely. The senior management has started deploying revised SOP’s to reassure employees about safety and finding ways to motivate them in a post-lockdown world. Some of the strategies being adopted are –
- Assessing which team members really need to be at workplace while also checking other parameters like location, dependence on public transport, availability of personal vehicle for the commute, etc.
- Deciding which functions and team members can effectively operate remotely. Where possible, offering the option of satellite office options with reduced commutes
- Taking systematic steps for transitioning to a pandemic resilient workplace with frequent cleaning cycles, touch less controls, technology enabled monitoring and smart anti-microbial surfaces.
- Putting in place revised public health guidelines and protocols and publishing these via team handbooks, posters, stickers, handouts.
- Adopting an open and flexible approach with respect to attendance at office and timings. Staggering the shift timings or work days to effectively limit the density.
- Ensuring the availability of more virtual collaboration options as opposed to in-person meetings and increased reliance on tech-enabled solutions for carrying out regular functions at the workplace.
As humans, we need social contact to grow, learn, stay engaged and stay well. Although technology assists us in periods of enforced isolation, there is a growing urge to be with others for the stimulus that only a person-to-person interaction can provide.
Some of the factors that have assumed importance in the post-Covid workplace design are –
- Indoor air quality – HVAC has become more important than ever as we look at a significant number of people occupying an enclosed space and breathing the same air. New guidelines have been issued by ISHRAE, a group of eminent HVAC&R professionals to combat the spread of virus. These include frequent air changes, periodic sanitation of ducts, filters and units, deployment of UVGI technology for active disinfection in the system, etc.
- Touch free controls – Limiting the need to touch things in the work environment and reducing exposure to germs will be key areas of focus. We have already incorporated automation in workplace elements including lighting systems, sensor-activated washroom controls and smart window shades. But the number of things we touch daily and which are rarely cleaned—door handles, elevator call buttons, vending machines, reprographic equipment and visitor management systems —need to be addressed.
- Better sanitation – In the workplace of the future, we must consider sinks in pantries and break out areas and hand sanitizer dispensers in high-touch areas such as near printers and in entrance lobbies. Creating clean desk policies that allow surfaces to be properly cleaned daily would be critical. Removal of trash cans from individual desks and consolidating them at a common location could facilitate frequent clearance and better hygiene. Due to the increase in the frequency of cleaning cycles, it’s probably the need of the hour to conduct training programmes for team members on how to carry out basic cleaning procedures at their desks by themselves.
- Safe materials – We anticipate that the focus would shift to materials that are not only sustainable but also safe. Many manufacturers are already incorporating antimicrobial coatings, silver ion, nano technology on interior surfaces like flooring, door hardware, faucets, window shades, paint and could also leverage materials that are inherently antimicrobial such as Copper.
Some of the workplace design interventions that could be carried out are –
- Reception areas – Quite a few organisations still rely on some sort of manual visitor registration system. This is the best time ever to migrate to a virtual assistant or an AI powered face recognition software for touch less visitor management. Temporary acrylic or glass “sneeze guard” screens could be installed at reception or security desks
- Waiting area – Rearrange or reduce seating in the waiting area to ensure physical distancing. To maintain hygiene, magazines, corporate brochures or pens from the reception space could be removed and replaced with hand sanitizer dispensers, kept in plain view.
- Workstation areas – To implement 6-feet physical distancing, it would help to start with a floor plan indicating the occupied desks for determining the maximum capacity per floor or wing. Desks could be assigned in a checkerboard pattern to avoid facing each other. Removing chairs or even monitors would discourage un-occupied workstation use. Seating should remain assigned until the widespread threat of virus transmission has diminished. Additional concepts include installing higher panels/screens between workstations
- Collaboration areas – Some of the large conference rooms could be converted to work areas for small teams thereby reducing the density in open office. Capping the occupancy in smaller rooms and establishing a protocol for using and leaving the rooms would limit chances of contamination. Transitioning some of the meeting rooms into scrum spaces by removing the table would give people more space and eliminate touchpoints.
- Training rooms – As training remains virtual for the foreseeable future, there are a few potential uses for existing training rooms. Locating agile teams into these spaces and relocating furniture would help in complying with the physical distancing parameters.
Technology has a huge part to play in the workplace of the future. From digital visitor management systems to remote controlled vending machines, here are a few technological innovations that are going to become workplace staples –
- Remote controlled coffee machine – Some manufacturers have understood the challenges in the corporate workplace and announced the launch of contactless technology in their vending machines.
- Temperature and mask detection – Specialized camera models with higher resolution make it possible to measure temperature of multiple people at a time, with additional functions of mask detection and identity verification. Based on the detection result, actions can be defined, for example, a voice prompt or a link to an access system to deny entry. This is likely to become a standard feature in all Entrance lobbies in the near future.
- Visitor density monitoring solution – In current circumstances, organizations need to control the number of people entering certain spaces, sometimes according to local rules. For example, a Cafeteria may only allow 50 people inside at a time or a coffee point, no more than 10. Use of technology can provide a monitoring solution to manage this, giving alerts when more people are present. People counting cameras are available for both indoor and outdoor use to facilitate this monitoring.
The information from these can also be displayed on Digital Signage screens for scenarios where transparency and public awareness is the key. If too many people enter a zone or the person to person distance is less than the defined length, for example in a queue, an alarm would be triggered.
- Advanced Cleaning Tech – To curb the spread of the virus, companies can opt for technological tools and systems that can help ramp up the cleaning process. Robots can be of great help in this case. For instance, there’s a floor disinfecting robot that can navigate and sanitize the floors without any human intervention at a workplace.
- Tech for cleaner air – Options are now available to employ tech for deep cleaning the air we breathe. A startup, Magneto CleanTech, launched an enhanced version of Central Air Cleaner co-powered by Filterless Magnetic Air Purification (FMAP) and Ultraviolet (UVGI) technology. This air filtration framework employs the 'Trap and Kill' methodology with UV-C beams to completely sterilize the indoor air. As per the claims, it can neutralize over 90% of airborne infections and diseases.
- Digital visitor management system – A digital assistant with AI enabled face recognition software is the way forward for a touch less visitor management experience. Visitors use their smartphones to check-in themselves without the help of any third person. They receive a QR code to use directly from their email on their mobile devices when they arrive. The Touchless check-in system then sends notifications to the host and alerts them. It also sends a message with the hygiene protocol to the visitors advising them to take necessary precautionary steps. The Touchless visitor management system allows the host to approve or disapprove the entry of any visitor on the premises.
Multi-faceted risk analysis
As the state mulls over easing the restrictions put in place during the lockdown, organisations are grappling with multi-faceted risk analysis and questions regarding the best way to recall the team members to work. Some of these questions are -
• When should we reopen?
• Should all team members come back at once, or should we recall them in batches?
• If we don’t want everyone to be back at the same time, could the work days for different teams be staggered?
• What safety and physical distancing protocols should be in place?
And, of course the answers to these questions would vary, depending on the type of business, location, number of workers, work availability and other factors. Team members and their families are likely to be anxious about returning to public spaces, including the workplace. Organisations would need to work hard to build employee confidence and ensure that a safe and pandemic resilient workplace is created for a safe return to work.
Some of the major changes being envisaged are –
- Support for Extended Work from Home - Since many employees continue to work from home and may need to do so for some time, companies are striving to keep them engaged and comfortable.
- Employee Health Reports - Companies have been using different tools to keep track of the health of their employees, especially those returning to the workplace. One oragnisation is creating an application for its field staff that will track attendance and ask workers to report if they or a family member has any COVID-19 symptoms.
- Behavior Issues - As lockdown restrictions ease, companies need to watch out for employees letting their guards down and falling back into old social behaviors. Despite extensive training, behavioral challenges have cropped up at the workplace. Some organisations have removed chairs in common areas and stopped the free tea and coffee service at their workplace to discourage employees from congregating.
- Safety Measures - Companies would need to take several measures to make the workplace safe, including conducting temperature checks at office entrances, asking employees to wear masks at work, placing sanitizers around the workplace, and taking extra care to clean the premises thoroughly.
- Communicating Protocols - Ahead of reopening, companies have been communicating about protocols that employees are expected to follow at the workplace. Some have also created an animated video showing all the precautions to be taken at the workplace so that both employees and their families would feel more comfortable.
Along with the points discussed herein, we also need to address three key components of successful and enduring companies – identity, culture and belonging. And in the context of business, this means that there will always be a requirement for a physical workplace. Hence it is imperative for the workforce to return once they are confident and comfortable of dealing with the new normal.