Busy office hubs fall silent as coronavirus outbreak noise gets louder

A security guard screens employees at the Brigade World Trade Centre in Bengaluru, which houses Amazon India headquarters as well as offices of several other MNCs
Two security guards, wearing N95 medical masks, screen the temperature of every visitor with infrared thermometers. A placard announcing  ‘temperature scanning in progress, please cooperate’ stands between them. A dozen more men, their faces covered with protective masks, clean the premises. 

This is the scene that greets you as you enter One Horizon Centre tower in Gurugram’s Golf Course Road, which, together with its sister tower, Two Horizon Centre, houses such large multinational corporations (MNCs) as Apple, Coca-Cola, Samsung, and GSK Consumer Healthcare. The usually bustling complex — it also has a number of showrooms and restaurants —  is now deserted. 

The coronavirus outbreak is exacting a heavy toll on businesses everywhere and this commercial complex is no exception. Over the past few days, it has witnessed a sharp decline in footfall. Popular restaurants like Delhi Club House have not seen their regular patrons in recent days. Sales have declined to about half in the past 10 days, the staff said.

At Cyber Hub, a popular hangout in Gurugram and home to an array of restaurants, most eateries are going empty, as Business Standard finds out while on a recce to assess the impact of the virus.

 The offices of many MNCs are equally vacant these days. To protect their employees from the coronavirus pandemic, several have given their employees the option of working from home.

Coca-Cola India, which has its offices on the 16th and 17th floor of One Horizon, is one such. At the office’s reception on the 17th floor, another round of temperature scanning takes place, followed by hand sanitisation. The office is almost 25 per cent empty.

A few kilometres down National Highway 8, Nestle India is closely tracking employees with any recent health issues and those who have recently returned to the country from abroad. It is also conducting hygiene-related awareness drives in its offices across India.

Facebook has asked its employees to compulsorily work from home, as has TikTok parent, Bytedance. Starting Monday, work-from-home will also be in operation at two prominent public relations agencies in Gurugram, Weber Shandwick and Genesis BCW.

But everyone realises that working from home is not fail-safe either. “No matter how much you distance yourself socially, our houses are porous. The domestic help, delivery people and others, come in contact with so many people. There is only so much you can do,” said an employee of a technology major in Gurugram. 

Masks all over in Bengaluru

More than 2000 km away, in the Silicon City of India, the mood is similar. With most of its employees working from home, Amazon India's headquarters in the 32-storeyed World Trade Center (WTC) in Bengaluru, wears a deserted look. At the building’s entry point, four people wearing masks check the temperature of every person who wants to come in.

“If the temperature exceeds 37 degrees celsius, the person is immediately taken to the neighbouring Columbia Asia Hospital for a check-up,” an Amazon employee told this newspaper. 

The office’s lobby, which normally swarms with employees, is vacant as no one is being allowed to gather in the common areas.

Almost 90 per cent of Amazon’s employees operating out of the WTC tower are now working from home on Amazon Chime, the company’s communications service that lets employees meet, chat, and place business calls inside and outside the organisation, on a single application. The same communication infrastructure is also being used for audio calls, video calls, and screen-sharing capabilities.
Apart from regularly sanitising its offices, the company is also working with medical experts to "ensure that we take the right precautions as the situation evolves,” said an Amazon India spokesperson.

Walmart-owned e-commerce major, Flipkart, which has extended the work-from-home facility for all 10,000 employees at its Bellandur office in Bengaluru till March 20, fumigated its premises over Thursday and Friday. 

Flipkart’s internal communications teams are sending regular mailers about the ethics related to working from home. “Heads are advising teams to be active on WhatsApp groups while internal meetings are happening on Google Hang-outs,” said a Flipkart employee. “Functions where physical meetings are key, such as vendors and supplier meetings, are the only ones that are getting affected,” he added. 

 At B2B unicorn Udaan, all employees will be working from home till March 20. Meetings are taking place on Google hang-outs. Employees who need to attend office have to wear a mask. They also have to give a declaration that they do not have any flu symptoms. Udaan’s office canteen has been shut and those who are attending office have been asked to get  home-cooked food.

Uber India, which has advised work-from-home till April 6, has also shut down the office canteen.

A security guard screens employees at the Brigade World Trade Centre in Bengaluru, which houses Amazon India headquarters as well as offices of several other MNCs. Saggere Radhakrishna
Travel history check in Mumbai 

In the financial capital of Mumbai, absence of crowd in local trains is the biggest giveaway of things gone terribly wrong. “You are safe, Sir,” declares the receptionist at Embassy 247, a complex belonging to Embassy Office Parks in the Vikhroli area of Mumbai, after doing a body temperature check with a thermal gun thermometer. Questions on whether one has visited China, Italy and Korea in recent weeks follow.

Embassy Office Parks, which has complexes in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Pune, has taken a number of  precautionary measures. “Isolation rooms have been created across all our parks, ambulance facilities are available, and a list of hospitals affiliated for treating Covid-19 has been prepared,” a company spokesperson said.

The company is creating awareness about the disease through educative messages via video, social media, WhatsApp, posters, and so on. It has also trained over 2200 vendor-employees on personal hygine and protection, symptoms and response requirements, the spokesperson added. 

Co-working space provider, WeWork, has asked any employee who has recently returned from a high-risk country to mandatorily work from home for at least 14 days. The same goes for anyone who exhibits flu-like symptoms.

“We have also introduced mandatory temperature screenings at our locations,” a WeWork spokesperson said.

It will also temporarily suspend all events in the common areas across all locations until further notice, the spokesperson said.

Chennai IT corridor buzzing still

But, the IT corridor in the Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) is buzzing as usual. While most companies in Chennai are watching the virus outbreak closely, not many have asked their employees to work from home. The exception is Software as a Software (SaaS) major Zoho. 

The 8500 employees at its facility in Chennai have been advised to work from home unless it’s absolutely necessary for them to be present in office.

Zoho has, in fact, adopted work-from-home at all its offices worldwide as a precautionary measure. This policy will be in operation till the threat of the virus has passed or reduced substantially, said Rajendran Dandapani, director of technology, Zoho. 

IT firm Cognizant has suspended non-essential business travel. Employees are being directed to seek medical attention and stay home if they feel ill or experience flu-like symptoms.

“Cognizant’s facilities in India and elsewhere are fully operational and it is business as usual. A dedicated, cross-functional team is engaged in daily contingency planning with various stakeholders to ensure continued services for our clients around the world. These plans include preparations to enable some associates to work remotely if necessary and appropriate,” said a Cognizant spokesperson.

It has enhanced cleaning processes at its offices in India and around the world, and have increased the number of hand sanitisers in high-traffic and common areas.

However, another Chennai-based IT products company said that the infection was currently at the first level on their distress scale, since no coronavirus-positive case had been reported from the city’s companies so far. But those who have returned from other countries are being asked to work from home for the stipulated quarantine period.

An official from Intellect Design Arena, another IT products company, said that it is monitoring the situation and has designated flu managers in offices, who will be the go-to persons if an employee has some health issues. Meetings and discussions are being done via video conferencing.

Vinod AJ, general secretary of the Forum for IT Employees (FITE), however, said there seemed to be little awareness about the pandemic and not many companies were allowing employees to work from home. Tamil Nadu has not reported many cases so far.

Kolkata on guard

At Kolkata’s IT hub in Salt Lake Sector V, it’s mostly business as usual. Of course, the area’s roughly 100 IT and ITeS companies are following precautionary protocols.

“My office has instructed us to avoid any gathering or public meetings as well as public places,” an employee at Cognizant said. However, the area's cafes and eateries continue to be full. 

Like Cognizant, most of the IT biggies, like Wipro and TCS and other large office complexes have kept hand sanitisers on every floor, including the washrooms, and have instructed employees to maintain personal hygiene. Those with cough and cold or with flu symptoms are being discouraged from attending office. 

Most of those who work at the city’s IT hub feel West Bengal is a relatively safe place as far as the coronavirus outbreak is concerned. Not a single positive case has been reported here so far, although the state government has directed all schools, colleges and universities to remain closed till March 31.

(With inputs from Arnab Dutta, Samreen Ahmad,  Raghavendra Kamath, Gireesh Babu, Avishek Rakshit, Yuvraj Malik and Neha Alawadhi)

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