As India’s big cities gradually unlock and get their rhythm going, offices have begun to spring back to life. On March 25, when the national lockdown began, there was a sudden shift away from offices to working from one’s home. From the beginning of this month, large sections of the formal sector workforce began trooping back into offices — but things are not really the same anymore. Their ebb and flow, frenzy and crowds, coffee machine and canteen rituals that were intrinsic parts of a workplace are now a thing of the past.
Pandemic-proofing of offices — from spatial organisation to protocols and practices — has begun and will take various forms in the months ahead as new ways of tackling COVID-19 come to the fore. What does this mean?
In the near-term, the emphasis is on demonstrably creating a safe workplace to ensure employees’ safety. This has meant extreme hygiene. The enhanced cleanliness protocols have been made visible. There’s more cleaning and wiping through the day, there’s more scrubbing and disinfecting of surfaces than before, and common touch points such as elevator buttons and washroom fittings receive extra attention.
There’s not only more cleaning, there’s visibly more cleaning. The cleaning-scrubbing routine is now deliberately made visible, unlike the unobtrusive way it used to be undertaken in pre-COVID-19 days. The visibility is meant to ease people’s fears about returning to offices. The emphasis will be on employees’ need to feel safe and the employers’ need to create and maintain a COVID-19-free environment.
For the employee, this has come to mean thermal screening at office block entrances, Aarogya Setu app status being checked (though its privacy concerns and efficacy remain unclear), sanitiser pedestals installed at entrances and key common touch points.
Additionally, it’s now de rigeur for everyone on the office floor to wear masks or masks-and-gloves at all times. Those whose work profile brings them into contact with non-employees are encouraged to wear face shields too. These will become part of the regular pandemic-proofed office look, as ubiquitous as the identity-and-access cards that employees carry. Offices could begin to resemble hospitals or hospital-like sterile spaces — at least till a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available.
Distance-seating has been accepted as the new normal. Within the open office design, physical distancing or physical separation will remain an important parameter to seat employees. Desks are moved apart to seat fewer people in a given space, every alternate desk-chair marked as no-seating zone to force distance between two employees, casual crowding around desks for work discussions or office banter is discouraged. Where such spacing is not possible or where expanding office space means precious rent, desk guards or ‘sneeze’ guards in glass or acrylic are being adopted. These will be increasingly seen across many offices, restaurants and cafeterias as we learn to live, and work, with the virus.
Going forward, in the long term, as more employees are mandated to come to workplaces rather than work from their homes, the office design itself may undergo a change. A few architects have begun writing the requiem for the highly-debated open office plan which poses a singular risk in COVID-19 times. It’s too early to consign it to the dustbin; organisations that have spent neat sums would want to see how the pandemic pans out before investing in large-scale redesign. Cubicles might just be back in fashion, wherever possible.
Companies and employers are likely to build on the one realisation that dawned in the last three months — it is not necessary to have all employees on the office floor for the same fixed hours every day to achieve work goals. If work could be done from homes with a degree of efficiency during the lockdown, then the pandemic-proofed office will see fewer employees, at least for the first few months. Organisations would want to sift through job profiles to figure out who really needs to mark physical attendance, and which job functions can be carried on from employees’ homes.
This means a staggered workforce or rotating attendance, or at the very least staggered timings, so that fewer people use office space at a given time as recommended by urban planners and state governments. These changes would also help decrease the load on public transport, especially in cities such as Mumbai and Delhi. Companies that own or rent several office spaces across a city may redraw the space-job function matrix and spread jobs across sites — the ‘scattered office’ concept.
Finally, within an office, the water cooler and coffee machine zones are unlikely to be the most sought-after for some time to come.
(This is the first of a two-part series on office and work during COVID-19)Smruti Koppikar, a senior Mumbai-based journalist and urban chronicler. Views are personal.