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Thursday, July 09, 2020

As offices evolve, will remote work become the new ‘normal’ after COVID-19?

Will office spaces become redundant in the post-pandemic world? Here's what professionals think.

Written by Disha Roy Choudhury | New Delhi | Updated: June 9, 2020 12:42:46 pm
work from home, virtual meeting Apart from meeting, companies have also been using virtual platforms to continue social engagement with colleagues. (Source: Getty images)

In times of the coronavirus pandemic, a certain desk or corner of the house has turned into our office, catching up with colleagues and official meetings have moved to virtual platforms. Work from home has been a new experience that many of us are gradually adapting ourselves to.

Like everything else, the pandemic has left its imprint on work culture, making professionals re-evaluate their functions and working processes. Now, with the recently announced relaxations, some have started heading back to their offices but with a certain awareness about the evolved circumstances, which are most likely here to stay.

Workspace protocol

Soon after lockdown 4.0 was announced, the Ministry of Home Affairs released a circular on preventive measures that offices needed to abide by to ensure social distancing and good hygiene. Office spaces that have resumed operations or are on the verge of doing so, have incorporated the changes, from periodic sanitisation to alterations in seating plan. Dhirendra Nath, Chief Human Resources Officer, SLK Software, told indianexpress.com, “Thermal scanners have been installed. All workstations have been placed at a distance from each other to maintain social distancing, masks have been made mandatory, all spaces are being disinfected.” As for the transport facility for employees, they are working on policies to ensure proper sanitisation of cabs and periodic temperature check-up of drivers.

Offices are even encouraging minimum usage of elevators, as Abhishek Shankar, National HR director, Avian WE and Chase India, a public relations company and public policy firm, mentioned. “We have also set up a quarantine room in the office. As for the cafeteria, we have scattered our lunch timings. The area, which has a capacity of about 30 people, will now have 12 at a time. Use of kitchen equipment like microwaves will be restricted to housekeeping boys. Air-conditioners are to run at 24-30 degrees. We have also built a smoking room inside the office building so that people do not have to go out for it. Besides, delivery boys are also barred from entering; they are to keep packages at the main entry gate,” he added.

Sangeeth Kini, Vice-President, Hemogenomics, a company that deals in healthcare technology and services, informed they were providing a hand sanitiser to each employee coming to office, in addition to making it available at the reception area. Besides adopting other measures as advised by the Centre, they are also educating employees about hygiene practices. “We had previously expanded our office space which is now being utilised to ensure social distancing through rearranged seating. Employees coming to office have been asked to immediately report any difficulty they may be facing healthwise,” he said.

social distancing in office Seating plans are being modified in offices to maintain social distancing. (Source: Getty images)

Work from home

For software companies, the concept of work from home is not as new as compared to some other kinds of organisations. “But before the pandemic hit us, work from home was not done on a regular basis,” said Nath. Monitoring deliverables has not been a challenge despite work from home, he emphasised. The only thing that needed to be ensured was that employees followed their regular work timeline for efficient coordination with colleagues. “We have emphasised a lot on governance and the manager’s role in this scenario to keep things going,” he stated. “The biggest change witnessed was in the behaviour of international clients who have come to terms with the idea of our people working from home,” he claimed.

Read | Home is Where The Work Is: Writers and their workspaces

Even with the recently announced relaxations, companies are encouraging employees to continue working from home to prevent exposure to infection. One of the encouraging factors has been the unfaltering productivity, the spokespersons agreed. “Initially, we were all apprehensive,” said Kini. “There are some deliverables that do not have a deadline. You cannot monitor when people are at home as compared to the office, where you can see they are on the job. But you also realise that you need to trust your colleagues. It is all about getting used to the new ‘normal’,” he added. Meanwhile, as a provider of essential healthcare services, their technical team have had to continue visiting laboratories at hospitals and blood banks.

Work from home is indeed the new ‘normal’. Even for the communication industry, which is based on person-to-person interaction, this new practice has not deterred people from getting their job done, Shankar remarked. “Earlier we thought it would not be possible. But people have acted very responsibly. We now actually have an open mind about work from home.”

work from home, virtual meeting Work from home on a daily basis has been a new experience that many of us are gradually adapting ourselves too. (Source: Getty images)

Virtual interaction

Remote work in the wake of the pandemic demanded a method via which employees could be connected without meeting each other in person. Virtual platforms came to the rescue. Not just virtual meetings, colleagues utilised the opportunity to continue social interactions. Avian WE and Chase India, for instance, celebrated birthdays online and participated in employee engagement activities. Hemogenomics used WhatsApp groups to play quiz, and reserved the first few minutes of every meeting for enquiring about other’s health and wellbeing. SLK enabled doctor support on call, counselling on call to yoga sessions and coffee with team or bosses.

Besides, new practices came in place — virtual onboarding and offboarding, digital attendance and use of cloud-based software.

Further, at Shankar’s office, for instance, employees who would be coming back are to virtually conduct meetings from their workstations, to follow social distancing norms.

Way forward

The unprecedented crisis has compelled companies to modify their infrastructure and look at unorthodox and alternative ways to keep their business going. The common driving force, they said, is to ensure they are well-equipped to manage, in case there is another such lockdown in the future. All three companies agreed that there is a possibility that remote work might be the way forward. This would mean breaking free from the hassle of commute (which can be quite challenging in metro cities), and cost savings with more productivity for lesser rental on the part of companies who could redirect resources towards benefiting employees, said Kini.

With regard to work timings, he said, “The watertight 10-6 work shift mentality will most likely change. We will collectively learn that the completion of a task is more important as compared to the number of hours you are at work. In fact, while working from home, you overshoot your timings because you are comfortable and do not have to think about travelling back home.”

Read| How COVID-19 makes us reimagine our workspaces and the way we work

Work from home can be challenging for multiple reasons, from lack of dedicated work space to household or familial responsibilities or distractions. But it is likely to inspire a more flexible work culture. “Many things have altered in the past few months. We have come to a realisation that a crisis can hit anytime and there is a need to make the system more elastic,” said Nath.

Will office spaces become redundant? Nath suggested the need to strike a balance and said, “Remote work is going to happen and we are getting fully geared for that, but with certain parameters: productivity and being located in a place from where you can join a meeting in person once in a while if required.”

“Instead of hiring full-time employees, we are also thinking on the lines of hiring on contractual agreement those who can work sitting at their homes. And then perhaps, once in a while we can have brainstorming sessions and meet up once in a week or two,” Kini agreed.

At the same time Nath believes one should not do away with office and camaraderie completely. “No way are we willing to compromise on the culture development that takes place when colleagues come together and we need to figure out how to enable it,” he said.

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