Dr. Abhijit Sarkar, from Sharekhan, on overcoming the flipside of the new normal

Dr. Abhijit Sarkar, from Sharekhan, on overcoming the flipside of the new normal

Dr. Abhijit Sarkar, Country Head-Corporate Real Estate, Administration, Infrastructure & Sourcing at Sharekhan Ltd, elaborates on how the FM team has played a critical role in ensuring all safety precautions, taking charge of the security response plan and acting as the designated source for information on workplace safety

Facility management, Post covid impact, Covid safety measures in offices

This pandemic has put the spotlight on the facility management services with a focus on cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitization. It has called for a renewed view for hygiene and overall facility management is set to adapt to the new set of challenges through differentiated services.

During the pandemic, the FM professionals have played very essential role & demonstrated collective effort across the industry, in stepping up to the challenge as crisis managers, whereby providing mission-critical support to the organizations’ decision of relocating the workforce and further monitoring and restricting the use of premises. Some essential workers have never left and stayed back on the premises wherein they have helped to efficiently manage the BAU.

The facility management team has played a critical role in ensuring all safety and hygiene precautions, taking charge of the security response plan and acting as the designated source for information on workplace safety; while simultaneously setting up a response plan to communicate protocols to the employees and keep them updated about any changes that arise.

In addition to ensuring a safe work environment and extending all support to those who are identified to work from home, the FM team also supports those who can’t function remotely by facilitating a safe and secured mode of transport for their commute to workplace and by creating a safe workplace, which limits the spread of infectious disease and protects both staff and any visitors.

Planning for the future:
A post-lockdown return to the workplace is a process. Each company’s ‘return to work’ plan will be unique as it may differ based on location, local requirements and function. Key factors to consider includes the location of the workplace, the number of employees working in one location, the ability to ensure proper social distancing within the workplace and employee reliance on public transportation.
It is also critical to design a ‘return to work’ plan that is sufficiently flexible to adapt to evolving recommendations, guidelines and orders issued by all the relevant regulatory authorities.

The safe return of employees is a mass responsibility and to return employees to the workplace with confidence demands big-picture planning alongside a forensic focus down to individual surfaces on each floor of each building. The pandemic has taught us loads of lessons and one of them is the enhancement of standards and improvisation of remote work training that has led to better operations.

People, policy, and technology – these have become more important than ever. Spaces need to be adapted to accommodate social distancing and exploring the use of a people-centric approach in planning the return to office will be crucial. Collaboration, performance and wellbeing will be at the center of any return-to-office strategy. A survey or staff profiling should be undertaken to identify key relationships and functions that most need a physical office; space planning and allocation can be respectively done in accordance with those needs. 

Companies may opt to phase-in employee’s return on a gradual basis to limit the number of employees present at a single location at any given time. Alternatively, or in addition, employers could provide staggered work times to achieve the same result, if that meets the employer’s business needs. A phased approach also has the added benefit of reducing the burden on the company and its cleaning crew in managing and performing routine or enhanced office cleaning and disinfection.

To further mitigate the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus within an organization, companies could also physically separate teams within the office or implement a team-based daily or weekly rotation system, in which certain teams are in the office while other teams work remotely. Companies can integrate strategies and communications around HR, IT, and FM to provide a flexible space that serves these collaborative needs. 

The changing workplace environment:
Firstly, it is critically important to design a ‘return to work’ plan, whereby developing and implementing workplace controls and strategies to minimise the risk of exposure for employees returning to the workplace and mitigating potential liability risks for the employers.

Organizations should monitor guidelines and recommendations issued by regulatory bodies, which outline key considerations for planning and preparing workplaces for bringing back employees. Implementing all prevention measures, educating employees on preventive measures to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, supporting good hygiene practices, establishing policies and practices for social distancing and performing routine environmental cleaning and disinfection are some of the basic practices that need to be followed.

Organizations can also implement various workplace controls such as increasing the rate of ventilation; installing high-efficiency air filters; establishing policies to limit the number of employees and visitors in the workplace at any given time; reconfiguring office spaces to maintain proper social distancing; setting up barriers, such as partitions, between workspaces; and providing personal protective equipment (e.g., masks, gloves and protective eye wear) and spreading awareness on the proper use of such protective wear.

For implementing procedures to aid prompt identification and isolation of employees suspected of contracting COVID-19, the following measures can be taken: Conducting health screenings (e.g., body temperature screenings) as a condition to enter the workplace; encouraging employees to self-monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19; and developing policies and procedures for employees to report when they are sick or experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

The pandemic has called for a renewed view for hygiene and overall facility management to adapt to the new set of challenges through differentiated services. Employee safety is foremost and hygiene services are the need of the hour. Workstations pre-COVID was all about privacy and acoustics, now they represent a physical separation between colleagues.

The ‘sneeze guard’ is one such low-cost, high-impact device, and can be accompanied with an additional panel fitted between socially distanced desks. Office desks have shrunk over the years, from 1.8-metre to 1.6-metre, to now 1.4-metre and less. But now we’ll see a reversal of that. as people won’t want to sit so close to each other -- it's called the ‘Six Feet Office’. It's a way of transforming existing offices into a workplace where the six feet distance rule, which governments may continue to mandate, can be observed. There is no doubt that COVID-19 will change the construction methodology for offices in the future. Some of the evident changes in the workplace are:

Short-term changes:

  • Adding sanitation stations along with key signages
  • Taping off social distancing lines
  • Turning around workstations that face each other
  • Installing dividers between workstations
  • Increasing the height of workstation dividers, especially with the growing number of standing desks
  • Decreasing shared spaces as well as conference room capacity
  • Reducing the number of chairs and spacing out tables in common areas such as break rooms

Long-term Changes:

  • Replacing upholstery with hygienic/wipeable materials and adopt hard surfaces where possible
  • Reconfiguring wider hallways, larger bathroom and kitchen space
  • Improving air circulation systems with an emphasis on fresh air intake and enhanced filtration
  • Focusing on modular office designs for ease of future configuration needs
  • Installing automatic doors, faucets, and hand dryers to reduce “touch” points throughout the building
  • Implementing electronic storage options to reduce on-site footprint
  • Investing in UV lighting to disinfect offices at night
  • Utilizing voice command technology in place of traditional push-button operations
  • Reviewing overall office footprint consolidation options in light of remote work trends and expectations
  • Carefully balancing employee health and wellness together with operational considerations will be paramount post-COVID. It’s also imperative to consider the return on investment when making large scale changes to the office environment.

Many employees have been catapulted into the use of videoconferencing and cloud-enabled file-sharing to replace physical meetings and traditional ways of working. These have often proved efficient and productive, enabling these technologies to become embedded in workplace processes so that some employees are now empowered to work remotely for the longer term. Various contact-tracing technologies, such as Bluetooth-enabled wristbands and smartphone apps, like Arogya Setu, are already being used by the workforce. Though more advanced technologies are being piloted -- from thermal imaging cameras to sensor-based doors. In addition, companies will also start exploring AI and data analysis to build scenarios, test hypotheses and envision the what-if circumstances that will form the basis of emergency plans that can be implemented immediately should a localized outbreak occur.

The new crop of challenges:
As organizations looked to adapt their ways of working in response to the crisis, they found that technology was not the greatest challenge but the major challenge was building models to integrate humans with those technologies, to create new habits and management practices for how people adapt, behave, and work in partnership with the technology available to them.

Working from home is all set to be a new trend, whereby we see the larger pool of employees being identified to work under this model. However, home working arrangements may have an invisible cost i.e. creativity, challenge and innovation may begin to wane as social interaction is reduced. Sharing ideas over a telephone call or skype meeting isn’t quite the same as sparking ideas off each other in a face-to-face group setting, and it will take time to find new routines.

There is also the challenge of making visible the new ideas and to affect the changes, as decision-makers are challenged by a queue of people with more immediate access to their time.

Another longer-term consideration is a change in the labor pool as a result of layoffs during the crisis. This, in turn, offers employers the opportunity to recruit fresh talent as well as, where possible, re-employ staff whose roles may have disappeared due to immediate impacts such as lockdowns resulting in reduced consumer demand.

Despite this, there is an opportunity for employers to think about “future work” arrangements and accelerate new blueprints for jobs that can use artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, outsourcing and short-term employment models. Other examples of the future of work could include, accelerating towards an agile/ flexible staffing model. Employers are becoming more adaptive to virtual teams and are moving towards e-learning, digital marketing, remote working and online communication.

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