Brave new work of the covid-19 era
From ancient Rome and the East India Company headquarters in London to the eras of cubicle farms and giant campuses, the modern office space has evolved over the ages. Now, covid-19 is set to change it forever
When we all left our offices sometime in mid- or late March, hastily picking up laptops, books, and plants and nodding farewells, we probably didn’t realize that we would never return to the same offices. For a long time to come—possibly forever—we will not dig into a colleague’s lunch or root around for our favourite flavour of candy from a packet of mini chocolate bars being passed around the office. We will skirt around tapes stuck to the floor to mark personal boundaries and we will eventually get used to CCTV cameras following our every move and apps on our phones tracking who we have been in contact with. Some of us may not even return to the office as we know it—the office will be where we are.
There are profound changes afoot at the workplace, not just in the way it will be redesigned and restructured in the post-covid world but also in the role it will play in our lives. This is a watershed moment—as fundamental to the evolution of the workplace as the invention of the telephone or the dependance on the internet.
Even as white-collar workers slowly start trickling back to the office, corporate lawyers and HR teams are chalking out the rules of the new workplace. For instance, on 3 May, the Karnataka government issued an advisory to all companies in the information technology/ information technology enabled services (IT/ITes) and business process management sectors, laying down guidelines for the reopening of offices. Based on an order from the Union ministry of home affairs, the notice (a copy of which is with Mint) says that while “employees shall be encouraged to work from home to the maximum extent possible", strict protocols have to be followed in cases where essential workers have to be brought back to the office. These include screening each employee with thermal scanners every day, the compulsory use of face masks, “markings on the floor for maintaining physical distancing in workspace" and, most significantly, “surveillance of entrance, cafeteria, workspace through CCTV for physical distancing and practices". That’s not all. Companies will have to submit the raw CCTV footage to the office of the additional deputy commissioner of police every two weeks. Several states have either released, or are drafting, similar advisories.
In addition, all companies in the public and private sectors are supposed to make it mandatory for employees returning to office to download the Union government’s Aarogya Setu app. This will be used for contact tracing in case any employee tests positive for covid-19, according to a 1 May Union government order. “It shall be the responsibility of the head of the respective organizations to ensure 100% coverage of this app among the employees," a home ministry statement said.
Private tech companies are pivoting to meet the new demand for surveillance. Take, for instance, Supervue.Ai, a Visakhapatnam-based tech company which has developed two surveillance products for companies. One is a “Touchless Attendance Tracker", an Artificial Intelligence (AI) assisted solution to log the arrival and departure of employees and identify any “unusual events" occurring in their facilities using video feed from existing cameras. The other is a “Social Distance Monitor" that identifies people and the distance they maintain from each other, alerting the authorities if there is crowding. “These statistics will be displayed on a Supervue dashboard to track social distancing patterns in their premises. This can be used to improve community behaviour periodically," says the company on its website.
Another home-grown AI company, Gurugram-based Staqu Technologies, told Mint on 10 May that 15 companies have either finalized contracts or have been testing its technology. The company has modified its existing video analytics software, JARVIS, to detect whether people are wearing masks or following social distancing rules, and monitor employees’ body temperatures. Meanwhile, global companies like Smartvid.io, which provide similar services, are already being used in countries like the US and China to get workers back into offices while monitoring their every move.
But surveillance will not just be restricted to office premises. Remote working is slated to grow in the post-covid knowledge economy, and with it, the use of monitoring software and apps that will become mandatory on employees’ phones and computers to track productivity. These technologies already exist—but experts say their deployment will become much more universal. Welcome to the new office.
The ‘6 feet office’
Historians who have studied the evolution of the modern office say there is evidence to suggest that the first offices originated in ancient Rome as spaces for government work and that similar spaces have existed in some form throughout the ages. However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that dedicated office buildings began to come up. In fact, one of the first offices, as we know them, was the East India House on Leadenhall Street in London, built in 1729—the headquarters of the East India Company.
American mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor is often considered the guru of modern office design. In the early 1900s, Taylor imagined offices as a more static version of the factory floor: a large open space with desks in strict rows, usually facing the desk of a supervisor or manager who could keep an eye on the workers—not surprising, because Taylor was a management consultant and the father of “scientific management", whom industries would hire to improve efficiency.
After World War II, offices globally started moving towards giving employees more privacy with the cubicle. But the zeal for maximizing space, coupled with the growing cost of real estate, saw more and more cubicles being fitted into office spaces, giving rise to the term “cubicle farm", which today conjures up images of an unenthusiastic workforce slogging away at boring, dead-end jobs.
Of course, modern offices have come a long way from the soulless, cheerless spaces imagined by Taylor but in one way they actually reverted to the Taylorian ideal sometime during the 1990s with the open-plan office. The modern “open office" was imagined as a backlash to cubicle farms, a way to open up communication between employees, encourage collaboration, and probably as a way to save some space as well.
The open office had a good reign—it was the dominant form of office design for more than two decades—but it was beginning to wear out its welcome even before the ongoing pandemic. A widely reported 2018 study by Harvard researchers Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban, titled The Impact Of The ‘Open’ Workspace On Human Collaboration, used field data to show that open-plan offices actually hindered collaboration and personal interaction. “Rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM (instant messaging)," says the study, which also showed that open offices lower productivity by increasing the number of visual and aural distractions.
In the post-pandemic era, open-plan offices are definitely going to be a no-no, for the simple reason that it will be difficult to maintain social distancing and keep infections from spreading without physical barriers between human beings—a single cough, for instance, shoots 3,000 droplets into the air and a sneeze expels as many as 40,000 droplets, both at the speed of over 80 kilometres per hour.
One of the buzzy concepts doing the rounds of many countries that are slowly opening up their economies is the “6 feet office". Developed by commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield and used by it to bring back over a million employees across companies of various sizes in China, the concept rests on lofty principles such as “a concise but thorough analysis of the current working environment in the field of virus safety" and “a visually displayed and unique routing for each office, making traffic flows completely safe" but essentially boils down to physical interventions like one-way corridors, red-taping floor spaces to indicate no-go zones near individual workstations, and the installation of clear plastic shields to prevent the spread of aerosols.
Of course, converting existing open-office spaces into partitioned ones will require investment and designers are not sure how many organizations in India will be willing to put in that kind of money—especially when revenues and bottom lines are almost universally depressed.
“Open-plan offices are literally the enemy of everything around social distancing," says architect Gita Ramanan, co-founder and CEO of the Bengaluru- and Mumbai-based design consulting firm Design Cafe. “It’s not just about putting in physical barriers. Converting the open office into a 1980s-style cubicle farm affects everything—the floor plan, air-conditioning systems, even the way lighting inside the office would work. Restructuring that will mean going back to all those pieces, involving huge costs. The conversations around this in the design and architecture community have evolved in an interesting manner—in weeks three-four of the lockdown, people said let us do partitions, but right now, most people are concluding that at least in the short to medium term, a lot of companies are going to say ‘let our workforce work from home’."
The era of home-work
On 16 April, during a conference call following an earnings announcement, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) said that between now and 2025, it would ask 75% of its 448,000 employees globally (including 350,000 in India) to work from home, up from the industry average of 20% today. “We don’t believe that we need more than 25% of our workforce at our facilities in order to be 100% productive," TCS’ chief operating officer (COO), N.G. Subramaniam, said on the call.
The new model, called “25/25" (only 25% of total employees at the office for 25% of the time), came on the heels of the company moving swiftly to a module it calls Secure Borderless Work Spaces (SBWS) when a three-week lockdown was announced by the prime minister on 24 March. It moved 90% of its 448,000 employees to the work-from-home model it had been building for the past few years. Following this, other big IT firms like Infosys Ltd and HCL Technologies have said they are considering models in which up to 50% of their employees will be working remotely.
“From a business continuity perspective...we will always have some percentage of people working from home…so that in the event of dealing with such situations in the future, you will be able to seamlessly switch," Infosys COO U.B. Pravin Rao said during an earnings call in April.
It’s not just IT companies that are looking to make this transition. “The current situation has blown a lot of myths (about employee productivity in work-from-home situations) out of the water. Many brick and mortar organizations have learnt that a lot of useful work has been done during this period and the connect between employees has actually strengthened," Raj Narayan, senior vice-president and chief human resources officer at Titan Company Ltd, tells Mint over the phone. “The whole thing of not being physically present has gained huge acceptance. At Titan, we have seen that video calls have seamlessly replaced physical meetings—in fact, meetings have become sharper. We will definitely be more open to remote working than we were in the past," says Narayan.
But it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Working permanently from home has its own challenges, especially for companies that deal with sensitive client data, nor is it something all employees would unequivocally embrace—strangely enough, some people actually like coming to the office. “We conducted a poll among our employees during an all-hands meet recently, and a significant percentage of employees indicated that they would like to come back to the office. Our prediction is we will fall somewhere in the middle (of on-site and remote working) and we will continue to be in physical offices because we have spent effort on creating a happy work culture," says Suman Gopalan, chief HR officer at Chennai-headquartered Freshworks, a leading global provider of cloud-based business solutions.
‘The co-working guys are excited’
“Remote working has been on the rise. But we (as an industry) were very early in the journey before the pandemic, which has tremendously accelerated the process," says Augustus Azariah, associate director of human resources at IBM India. “One of the most important things to emerge from this will be robust discussions on the ‘notional place of work’ (because of workplace flexibility) and how companies will apply the same rules and safeguards that are at force in the office. The other thing that we will see is a greater emphasis on employee health and wellness—the emotional wellness of employees has been an important talking point at various forums over the past few weeks," says Azariah.
The cost factor of running big offices and campuses is not far from anybody’s mind. Cost of operations accounts for almost 25% of company bottom lines, and remote working will enable substantial cost-cutting. “Cost is definitely a big factor right now. We can’t be blind to the fact that a big part of spending is on facilities. Going forward, companies will see how much of the workforce is critically needed to be present at the workplace," predicts Gopalan.
Brace yourself: the days of the big, expensive office campus with its gyms, food courts, cycling tracks and hip cafes may be over. The movement to gather all employees in a large, custom-built space that encourages workers to spend more and more time on campus, which started in the 1940s with communications giant AT&T’s Bell Labs campus in New Jersey and culminated in the giant tech campuses of Silicon Valley and Bengaluru, may receive a severe check with covid-19. “Earlier, companies were consolidating because of better economies of scale, but the costs of running a 5,000-seater office will be extremely high in the new scenario," believes Rishi Das, co-founder and chairman of co-working space management company IndiQube.
“People are certainly looking at sharing and renting offices and managed office spaces. Companies will be looking at more agility in terms of their workspace and smaller, localized offices or a hybrid situation with one large office and smaller set-ups at different locations. The co-working guys are excited," says Manu Neelakandhan, director at IdeaCulture, a workplace design consultancy.
The co-working guys are, indeed, among the more optimistic when it comes to commercial real estate. “Remote working is most certainly going to see wide acceptance, working-from-home being a part of that strategy. We feel it will act as a catalyst for flexible workspaces becoming a solution in most markets, as companies would like to keep their teams localized and distributed, closer to their homes," says a spokesperson of the Indian Workspace Association (IWA), an industry body representing companies like WeWork, 91springboard and BHIVE.
Live where you work
These changes may mean our heaving cities are finally able to heal themselves. Some people believe it may even reconfigure the office commute. For several years, V. Ravichandar, chairman of Bengaluru-based business consulting firm Feedback Consulting Services and a civic activist who regularly engages with the government on policy, has been advocating the “live where you work" mindset prevalent during Bengaluru’s PSU-dominated days, when layouts such as Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL), ITI Ltd and Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL) came up to encourage employees and their families to live close to their place of work. “We had that code and we broke that code," he says. The pandemic may give a fillip to this plan as companies realize that a permanent work-from-home situation is neither possible nor desirable. “Instead, there will be a movement to localize work and living as much as possible, with live-and-work clusters and ‘nearness centres’ —smaller offices in various city neighbourhoods instead of one large campus."
The city may get a break, but what about the employee? If the shift to remote work encourages dependence on software that monitors employee productivity, it’s not an all-round Good Thing, believes Sarayu Natarajan, founder of the Bengaluru-based Aapti Institute, which conducts research on issues relating to technology and society. “When mediated by technology and not by real workplace interactions that allow one to negotiate more subtly, digital surveillance will take on cruel forms...It raises concerns about both privacy and a sense of self of the employee; it takes away autonomy and there is no end point to it."
In July 2017, a technology company called Three Square Market or 32M, located in Wisconsin, US, became transitorily famous in tech circles for a “chip party" held on its campus, as more than 50 employees of the company volunteered to have RFID microchips, which would help them unlock their computers or gain access to various parts of the office, implanted in their forearms. Will that soon be the new normal? In the post-pandemic office, anything is possible.