The new office: How workplaces are undergoing dramatic transformations

Manu Vijay (left) and Unni K S working from their treehouse in Kottayam. Imaging: Ajay Mohanty
Manu Vijay’s new workplace fully meets the mandatory requirement of being a well-ventilated office in a pandemic-afflicted world. Whenever he doesn’t have video conferencing calls lined up, the graphic designer with Infosys heads over to a treehouse. Made of mahogany and bamboo, topped with coconut and palm fronds, it took Vijay and his cousin Unni K S, also an Infosys employee, three weeks to make the treehouse. The treehouse is in Unni’s backyard, a few minutes from Vijay’s family home in Kottayam, Kerala.

“We used to work in Bengaluru but got home before the lockdown. I don’t think we could have done anything so productive with our time if we were still in the city,” says Vijay. As dusk falls, friends and cousins join them on this six-foot-high platform which can hold eight to 10 people, and the treehouse turns into a post-work recreational area over a game of cards. This is what Vijay’s new workplace looks like for the indefinite, uncertain future.

Not everyone’s workplace has changed as dramatically as Vijay’s. But, as increasing numbers of people find ways to work amid a raging pandemic, traditional ideas of the office space have disintegrated. The idea of working from home, once derided in India owing to the widely held belief that one “worked” only if one went to an “office”, is now no longer an incentive but a necessity. It has been a significant factor in keeping many businesses up and running. And it is so much part of our lives now that it is quickly recognised by its acronym: WFH.

Twitter has announced its employees can WFH permanently. Google has extended remote working till 2021. Tata Consultancy Services has said 75 per cent of its workforce will work from home by 2025. Infosys will initially have 50 per cent of its staff return when the situation improves but, in the long term, 33 per cent may work permanently from home. Other companies are appraising various models of flexibility, many of which involve employees coming in on shifts. In all of these scenarios, the traditional workspace as we know it will have changed, and not just in the number of people on the work floor.

Offices designed over the last decade were not made to keep people apart — “distancing”, both social and professional, was not even a concept. “Offices were designed to foster teamwork and enhance collaborations, to bring people closer,” says Sameer Joshi, associate vice president, marketing (B2B), at Godrej Interio.. His four-member team exclusively studies the future of workspaces. Over the past few weeks, Joshi says 70-75 companies have approached Godrej Interio on how to redesign offices such that their employees can work safely.

‘Perhaps it’s the fresh air but we are getting much more work done here than we would in the city,’ Nithin Kurian & Wilma D’Souza Independent human resource consultants
Thus, office spaces are likely to be rife with plexiglass partitions, foot-operated sanitisers, automated sliding doors and temperature guns. Folks wearing face shields will welcome employees to the office. Chairs will be fewer and spread out, perhaps numbered to ensure that employees use the same seat each time. Lobbies and common areas will no longer be freely shared spaces, and corridors will turn into one-way routes, to obviate the possibility of people crossing paths.

Six-seater workstations at Titan’s headquarters in Bengaluru, for instance, will accommodate just two-three employees seated at opposite corners. And the air conditioners at Myntra’s Bengaluru headquarters have already been ousted by foot pedestal fans.

Most workplaces look very different currently with all the precautionary measures in place, and these scenes are likely to change in the short and long term, says Sneha Arora, vice president, human capital, Myntra.”We keep talking about the new normal, but I think the definition of the new normal is yet to settle. I think we are going to be seeing a series of current normals,” she says.

“Once all of this [Covid-19] is over, some people might exercise the WFH option but I think some might want to come back to office,” says Raj Narayan, chief human resource officer, Titan Company. “Not all tasks can be done in isolation.” Besides, as human beings our need for socialisation is high; most people also want to relate to others when working, says Narayan.

Many have returned to offices. But the way to navigate office spaces has visibly shifted. Tech Mahindra, for instance,is encouraging the 10 to 12 per cent of its workforce that is attending office across cities to use staircases. The close confines of elevators are best avoided. “We expect to see a mix of ‘physical’ and ‘remote’ working to evolve as the new model in the post-Covid era. We also see 25 to 30 per cent of our associates continuing to work from home, on an ongoing basis,” says Harshvendra Soin, global chief people officer and head of marketing, Tech Mahindra.

Teams working remotely have their challenges. For the past few days, Karthik Mandaville, founder and chief executive officer of Bengaluru-based HR tech startup Springworks, has been attempting to figure out how to send monitors and keyboards safely across state borders when courier services don’t want to risk handling fragile items. About 60 per cent of the startup’s employees are from elsewhere — Mumbai, Delhi, Jammu, Rajasthan — and have returned to their hometowns.

The startup has given up two out of three floors of its office. Motivational posters, photo collages and the like that the team had collected over five years have now been taken home by employees. Setups for table tennis, carrom board and foosball have also gone with them. “It’s the practical way forward,” says Mandaville.

The company is also reimbursing its employees for internet bills and headphones, as well as offering a one-time allowance of Rs 10,000 for furniture or power backup systems. Much of his team is opting to use the allowance for power backup, says Mandaville. But going forward, priorities may pivot with more WFH employees opting for ergonomic furniture. One of his own best buys, he says, is his standing desk. “It’s really paying off now.”

Companies such as Google, Uber, Freshworks and Razorpay are others who have disbursed funds for furniture suited to WFH scenarios. Policies vary. Google’s allowance to set up home workstations is $1,000 (over Rs 76,000), while Razorpay offers a monthly stipend to help employees rent furniture (costs are typically around Rs 1,000 a month).

Some companies are giving out one-time allowances, while others are negotiating with dealers so that employees benefit from reduced prices from bulk orders. Those who’ve previously made do with working from nooks and crannies at home, and from sofas and dining tables, are now seriously considering ergonomic furniture, says Joshi.

High on the list of WFH desirables are “green screens” — green backdrops that superimpose visuals in the background. “This doesn’t surprise us at all. People want to cover up messy backgrounds for Zoom meetings,” says Indore’s Sawan Laddha, founder and chief executive officer of a chain of co-working spaces called Workie.

Since Covid-19 began to spread in India, Laddha has launched Workie+, which helps enterprises set up at-home workplaces for employees. Says Laddha, “We have 80 to 85 items on our list of essentials.” From physical infrastructure and IT support to stationery like pens and whiteboards as well as extension cords and wireless headphones. They have already set up 350 workstations, primarily in Indore.

In a scenario where there’s no clear indication of how things might be, saving on rent is a big reason for many to return to their hometowns. “When we first stopped going to office, I’d work out of my bedroom, which was in a co-living space. I’d order in food all the time. You tire of that pretty quickly,” says Niket Kamat Satoskar, a Goan product designer who used to work in Bengaluru. The 22-year-old is now back in Panjim with his family, eating home-cooked kingfish, squid and prawn.

Meanwhile, Nithin Kurian and Wilma D’Souza have taken an alternative route. The couple used to work in Bengaluru, but has now decided to live on its 20-acre farm about 80 kilometres from the city. “Perhaps it’s the fresh air but we are getting much more work done here than we would in the city,” says Kurian. The independent human resource consultants plan to return to the city only to meet their parents.

Pre-pandemic, the couple used to host people who wanted to camp under the stars, hoping to catch a glimpse of the gentle giants that use the elephant corridor nearby. Now, a lot of them are interested in working from there, says Kurian. “We are figuring out ways to make that happen.”

In a world where watercooler conversations have moved online, Myntra is currently in the middle of its four-day “End of Reason Sale” that will continue till June 22. This is the first mega online sale to take place after the lockdown was lifted, a mammoth task as almost 90 per cent of its workforce pitches in remotely. At least 1,000 of its employees will be available 24x7 as the company eyes three million customers.

These events have traditionally been packed with a selection of high-energy games and relaxing sessions. This year, while local band Lagori and standup comic Rahul Subramanian perform for employees, Bhopal’s Ambika Johri and her creatives team at Myntra will partake in the festivities only virtually. But that’s all right, she says. She’s never missed one of these “carnivals” in five years. “We won’t have the food carts we usually do, but it is the energy of the event that matters. It’s a reason for us to come together.”

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