Sudeep Ghoshal, Reliance Finance & Capital

Sudeep Ghoshal, Reliance Finance & Capital

The impact of the Covid-19 virus on Indian real estate has been unprecedented to an extent that it has brought construction and property transaction activities to a standstill. The sentiments of the buyers, companies have been severely impacted and are mostly negative in their outlook. With hardly any property transactions of both commercial and residential properties during the multiple phases of lockdown, the sector is looking at challenging times ahead.  The outbreak has created a great deal of uncertainty regarding trade and import of construction-related raw materials thereby increasing the cost of construction, this added with the migration of labours from metro cities and the uncertainty around their return post lockdown, cost overruns due to delayed projects and overall liquidity constraints are some of the impending challenges on the sector.

As economies start to move out of lockdown, and businesses begin their journey of getting back to work, the real estate industry will also need to adjust to a 'new normal” as per the changed demands of the clients. Businesses will never be the way as before and will reinvent themselves to be more resilient and adapt to new operational requirements.

The office space market may not see any significant impact on rentals in the near future; however, owing to the work from home culture adopted by companies as a measure to reduce their real estate footprint will eventually reduce the demand for space which in turn would force the Landlords to soften the rentals. The positive side of the outbreak is that going forward to ensure business continuity and be more resilient, organisations will remodel their seating capacity based on the new norm of maintaining social/physical distancing between workstations which would mean the requirement of larger spaces/additional spaces, this may prove to be the silver lining on the clouds of uncertainty in the economy which has made it rather difficult to forecast the recovery graph.

The lockdown impact on businesses has been significant as their business-as-usual activities have been affected by changes occurring on an almost regular basis in the past 3-4 months. The immediate shock followed by the realisation of the outbreak is now over and most of the organizations are in response mode by taking several measures and initiatives on their part to tackle the situation. Now that the Un-lockdown phase has been declared by the government, organisations are preparing for 're-entry' to their facilities and getting employees back to work. Organisations realize that things will not be like before and they need to re-imagine the way the business models need to be run and adapt themselves to the new normal.
New rules of work have to be set up to ensure a safe working environment for employees. It will be of utmost importance to communicate with employees before bringing them back to the office, inform them about the do’s and don’ts right from leaving their homes, their time at the office and then going back home.
Next, organisations should only bring back the employees they need and shouldn’t bring everybody together. Business heads should think about getting back only a critical set of employees they absolutely need to have in the office and plan accordingly. Employees can be brought back in shifts / staggered timings. Schedule rotating shifts for employees within departments to ensure social distancing and avoiding full office occupancy. These measures would help reduce the exposure and thereby the health risk to employees.

Implement digital hygiene and sanitation processes once employees start coming back to the office, as during remote working during lockdown many types of unwanted things could have gained access to employee computer and the organisation needs to ensure a degree of information and hardware security before the computers systems are latched onto the LAN and servers.
A proportion of staff will continue to work from home and won’t be returning to the office anytime soon; organisations should ensure that the technology infrastructure is in place to support remote working as well. Making IT infrastructure robust will help organisations be prepared for a second wave of the virus infection as it has been seen in China. They should make their technology environment agile to enable them to switch back to a flexible mode quickly between lockdowns and re-openings.
HR managers and business heads should take that extra effort of continuously communicating with employees working from home and the ones who have returned to office. Employees coming back to work should be given some time to adjust to the office routine and the new normal, small things like traveling to work or collaborating with colleagues while maintaining distance or even reconnecting to the corporate network and setting up their workspaces after daily sanitisation would require an amount of re-adjustment.

Finally, organisations need to continue to show empathy towards their staff in these difficult times by not forcing the workforce to return to the office.

As per WHO, the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace depends on the likelihood of coming within a metre of others, in having frequent physical contact with people who may be infected with COVID-19, and through contact with contaminated surfaces and objects.

The measures required to be followed by all for the safety of people within the workplace are:
• Physical distancing of at least one meter - It will be necessary to increase the distance between workspaces by marking on workstations, use of a zigzag pattern for seating.
• Covering the face with masks should continue to be a mandatory practice, and depending on the risk and exposure use of face shield, gloves, protective suit, goggles, etc, can be added.
• Limiting the number of people using lifts simultaneously
• Frequent hand washing and use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers should be encouraged,
• Respiratory etiquettes to be followed to prevent spread and dispose of used tissues properly, and
• Self-monitoring by persons within a workplace and reporting any illness at the earliest.
The preventive measures that can be taken up by organizations are as under:
• Installing thermal scanners, if feasible/temperature checks at the entry points.
• The mandatory placing of hand sanitizers at the entry.
• Installing various innovative fixtures for touchpoints like doors, taps, sanitizer dispenser, etc.
• Maintaining a centralized HVAC system as per the guidelines issued by ISHRAE
• Putting up notices and posters in the facilities to remind the staff about regular hand washing/sanitising hands
• Discourage visitors in the office complex and suspend the issue of routine visitor/temporary passes. Visitors having appropriate permission should only be allowed after screening.
• Meetings should be encouraged to be carried out via video conferencing and minimise/reschedule meetings with a large number of people.
• Avoid non-essential official travel.
• Encourage correspondence on official emails and avoid sending and receiving physical copies.
• Facilitate delivery and receipt of mail at the entry point of the office itself.
• Closing all gyms, recreation centres, creche, etc in the workplace.
• Proper cleaning and frequent sanitisation of the workplace and frequently touched surfaces.
• Ensuring a regular supply of hand sanitizers, soap and running water in washrooms.
• Self-monitoring by employees and inform employers/medical officer if feeling unwell.
• Sanctioning leaves whenever a request is made for self-quarantine of any employee for precaution.
• Advising employees who are at higher risk like older employees, pregnant employees, employees having co-morbidity issues, etc. to stay back at home and take extra precautions when in office.
While this crisis has generated a lot of challenges, it has also created opportunities, particularly in the technology sector. Communities around the world have moved to remote working and homeschooling, while businesses across all industries have been forced to innovate and digitally transform on an unprecedented basis to ensure continuity.
In early April, the Indian government launched a COVID-19 tracking app called Aarogya Setu which uses GPS and Bluetooth to inform people when they are at risk of exposure to COVID-19.
There has been a rise in mobile and VoIP applications. Calling apps became popular with organisations and individuals to conduct video conferencing, schedule work meetings, etc, during the lockdown. Tools and apps like Zoom Cloud Meetings, Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex, Jio Meet, etc, have become the normal mode of conducting meetings.
AI tools have been deployed by countries like Korea, Japan to enable the quick diagnosis of patients, with some algorithms designed to identify abnormal findings on chest x-rays and examine the lung within seconds.

The coronavirus pandemic will have a lasting impact on the future of work, it will reset major work trends and business leaders will have to rethink and re-imagine their work strategies. COVID-19 has made our transition to a world of automation – and brought a radical change in the way we work.

The way employees' work-lives have changed, so have the companies themselves. As organisations shift to more remote work operations, they would need to explore the critical competencies employees will need to collaborate digitally, and prepare themselves to adjust employee and customer experience strategies.

The economic uncertainty of the pandemic has caused white-collared workers to work from home and in the case of shop floor workers/blue-collared workers, machines will replace humans as more and more companies will adopt enterprise automation and this will lead to many workers losing their jobs and exposing many for the first time to nonstandard work models. Post Covid-19 organisations will continue to expand their use of contingent workers to maintain more flexibility in workforce management.

Technology will play an important role in transforming our workplaces – it will be a mix of physical and virtual experiences. Many large organisations are already considering to significantly reduce the number of employees working from the office, this way they will not only save cost on real estate but also will be able to transform their existing work floors in a way that social distancing can be maintained. Investments will shift from real estate to newer technologies that make remote working more functional and productive.
While it may seem that everything about the COVID-19 outbreak is averse, there is a positive side to it as well. All the above-mentioned organizational transformation to adapt to the new normal and behavioural shifts will lead to cost-saving benefits for businesses and an already noticeable positive impact on our environment.

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