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How to prepare an office for the post-covid world

Online learning company Harappa has created a workspace design to suit hybrid working and address safety concerns

More meeting rooms with videoconferencing facilities were added to the Harappa office design to enable hybrid working.
More meeting rooms with videoconferencing facilities were added to the Harappa office design to enable hybrid working. (Pradeep Gaur)

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Nikhil Gumbhir did not imagine that a new office would change his mind about quitting his job, but that is exactly what happened. A vice-president at Delhi’s online learning company Harappa, the millennial Gumbhir was disenchanted with his role, and was contemplating leaving the company in May.

Part of Harappa’s original startup team, Gumbhir says he always “drew inspiration from the founders,” and that being in close proximity with them at work motivated him to excel in his role. Although the first year of the pandemic was tolerable, he felt extremely disconnected from colleagues during the second year. Collaboration was harder, and he expressed his desire to possibly move on from the company to Shreyasi Singh, Harappa’s co-founder and chief executive.

Also read: Why workplaces need to match technology with work goals

Safety concerns and a sense of inertia also made him feel uncomfortable about returning to the physical office, especially since he had moved to Bengaluru to be with his family during the pandemic. All these issues were, however, dispelled when he attended a senior management company offsite in Rishikesh in July, and then entered Harappa’s new 12,500 sq.ft office in Okhla. “The first day when I walked in, I felt that same energy as earlier. Being able to see people face-to-face and being at the offsite made me change my decision. It reconnected me to Harappa’s vision, mission and purpose. I definitely wanted to continue,” he says. The space is warm and welcoming, even when seen through a laptop camera.

Co-founder Shreyasi Singh with colleagues at the office.
Co-founder Shreyasi Singh with colleagues at the office. (Pradeep Gaur)

Better navigation of conflict was another benefit of going back to work. “When there was a difference in a point of view with a person or a team, it was really hard to solve that online. The physical space made it possible to be able to feel what the other person was saying, and to sense their intent and motivations,” he observes.

Back-to-work protocols

Gumbhir is a poster-child for Singh, who is rallying her team to return to work. “In the past 10 months, we hired 100 people, out of our 150-member team, including an entire cadre of senior leaders who hadn’t met each other. They had hired teams that they had not met. That is really tough on managers who are responsible for large teams,” she says.

“Collective effervescence”, her preferred catchphrase, is another critical driver. Psychologist Adam Grant used the phrase in a New York Times essay, describing “the sense of energy and harmony people feel when they come together in a group around a shared purpose.” This could be attending a rock concert or a spiritual gathering, or experiencing an “aha” moment over shared brainstorming with physical whiteboards and markers, says Singh. Being together also facilitates “iterative co-creation”, such as fine-tuning ideas for new content offerings. And she knows that her team is burnt out from excessive screentime.

Singh’s workplace advocacy is predicated on an anonymous back-to-office employee survey, where 80% of respondents voted for a “permanent hybrid model”, with three days in the office, two days at home (or anywhere else) as the most popular option, and 20% choosing an entirely remote model. A plan was subsequently devised. “Individual health and safety, backed by science (vaccination, mask discipline, ventilation) is the No.1 priority. Organizational needs (collaborative efficiency, information symmetry, pace of execution, productivity) is second, followed by organizational values (warmth, tangible commitment, non-transactional relationships),” she says.

At the moment, fully vaccinated workers are required to come to work, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Those with a single dose, and having had covid-19 in the past six months can come in, but are not required to attend on all three days. Those with one dose, and no prior infection in the past six months need special approvals, and those without any vaccination cannot come. As a result, Singh says that 35-40 team-members have come to work regularly through July, based on eligibility.

A ‘calling pod’ allows employees to make private calls or work.
A ‘calling pod’ allows employees to make private calls or work. (Pradeep Gaur)

This vaccination policy is flanked by keeping a close eye on prevailing covid-19 test positivity rates (TPR). “The minute TPR is over 5% in Delhi, we will take a new decision. Right now, it’s between 0.05%- 0.09%,” says Singh.

Designing for covid-19

Safety protocols are essential, but Harappa also got lucky with timing.

The pandemic put the brakes on its interior fit-out work for its new office, which was originally planned to begin in April 2020. As the lockdown deepened, the company realized it would have to recalibrate its office design to suit hybrid working and address safety concerns. More meetings rooms were added, with video-conferencing capabilities. Of the 150-strong headcount, as many as 50 people can be accommodated in meeting rooms at any given point, says Lokesh Anand, associate director, who was responsible for getting the office built.

New ventilation features were added, such as “air-purifiers for the entire building, a new and upcoming technology called ionisers, which reduces spread of airborne contaminants, and exhaust fans on all floors for improved fresh air circulation,” he says. The building also has openable windows, which the company hopes to use more often during the cooler winter months. Earmarked open-air eating spots make it safer for employees to interact when masks are off. The office is sanitised daily, and deep-cleaned every weekend.

“The space planners’ actions show they’ve taken the potential for airborne transmission seriously, especially the air purifiers with Hepa filters and exhaust fans,” says Seema Bhangar, an indoor air quality expert. “Ionizer technology and mode of action is still unproven so I am happy to see them being used here as a supplementary air treatment device, instead of as a substitute for a proven, removal-based air purifier technology. It is good to note the product used here does not emit ozone.”

Spatial programming supports social distancing. The office structure and layout, with double-height spaces, walkways, and distinct islands of workstations, is generous, especially for a young company. So far, there have been no cases.

Its attractions extend beyond covid-19 protection. A blend of local materials, fabrics and textures creates an original, contemporary Indian aesthetic that transcends conventional corporate workplace design. Co-founders Pramath Raj Sinha and Singh “wanted something modern, but also very rooted in the Indianness that they embody as a company,” says Priyamwada Singh, principal architect of common Ground practice LLP, Harappa’s architects.

Addressing concerns, resistance

Despite these measures, many employees, especially those in their 20s, are reluctant to return to the physical workspace. Safety concerns, inertia, reluctance to give up on savings in rent and commute for those who moved back to their parental home, or simply changed personal preferences are the most common deterrents, even though lack of social connection is seen as a limitation of remote working, Shreyasi Singh says.

The office has an entire floor for meeting rooms. 
The office has an entire floor for meeting rooms.  (Pradeep Gaur)

Her response is unequivocal. “While there is a belief that individuals must and should have preferences, I think the organisation should also be given the luxury to have preferences. How we reconcile our preferences is really where the tango and the dance and the landmines are. Just as employees in the company are individuals, they are also corporate citizens. And so those are the honest conversations we have internally.”

The lessons are clear. Designing for covid-19 is a necessity, but insufficient on its own. Workplaces will have to work harder to re-engage hesitant workers to return. As Gumbhir says, “The process of returning to office has made me look at the office in a more humane manner. I make it a point to speak to people when I’m in office. And my appreciation for office design has changed in terms of space, comfort, lighting and aesthetics.” More humane, and better design—this can only be good for workspaces, and their occupants.

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