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Don’t Kill The Office Just Yet.

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There’s a sudden rush by self-styled pundits to predict the demise of office spaces in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But for those in a hurry to write an obituary of the workplace, would do well to remember that “the only constant in life is change.” The virus crisis will require entire industries to reskill, businesses to reinvent themselves and households to adapt to the new-normal. That change also holds true for those predicting home-offices to be the new normal and it’s certain that the time of work from home too shall pass. Then what?

Offices are bound to and will refashion themselves to cater to the new stay-a-metre-away norms. In simple words, this is the time for more square feet per employee, and return of the cubicles, and probably the end of open office plans.

According to a research conducted by Harvard Business Review, smart companies understand that workplaces are a business productivity tool. An office environment reflects and reinforces a business’s core values in the way different teams and functions are placed and design elements used. Together, these reflect their culture, brand and values. So it’s no wonder, depending upon the nature of the business, people are ready to break the bank to get that perfect design in their office. Going forward, health and wellness aspects will take centre stage in designing workplaces.

Design Changes

According to architects, there will be limited scope to change design in existing office complexes but one can expect a lot of experiments in the new buildings. De-densification and return of cubicles could be in offing.

“It would be too difficult or expensive for many companies to redesign or make structural changes in existing offices. But upcoming offices will certainly be designed keeping in mind government guidelines and global standards,” said Ramya Iyer, regional director, Adrianse Group, an interiors and architecture firm.

With co-working culture gaining traction in India from the last few years, the concept of open office space, with no dedicated seats for employees, became a trend. However, the COVID-19 may reverse this and cubicles may be back, to ensure safety of the workforce. What’s more, this time around they may look different. For instance, the height of the cubicle walls would be higher, and they would be placed as far apart as possible. Real estate consultants and architects are of the view that the office market will see de-densification to adhere to social distancing norms.

“In India especially, we were squeezing more and more people in the square feet we had. About 7 to 10 years ago, we were talking of about 100 to 120 square feet per person; then most companies talked of 60 to 80 square feet per person depending upon who you were. That’s going to change. We may see an increase in space per person,” said Anshul Jain, Managing Director-India and South East Asia, Cushman and Wakefield, at a webinar organised by Workplace Trends India.

However, Upali Nanda, principal and director-Research at HKS believes that open offices will not dissipate. “We will not be returning to cubicles in private offices which is something that would take us back 30 years as opposed to moving ahead,” said Nanda.

 Open offices are about collaboration and coming together socially. Shifts in infrastructure will however be seen be it the air flow, circulation, thresholds, switching to contactless and playing with occupancy, added Nanda.

As corporates are incorporating Work From Home in their HR policy, there will be no need to set up desks for the entire headcount. “Till now, most companies had full capacity work desks. But going forward, we may see companies reducing this to 80-90% of the total workforce because on any given day, not all employees are present, and we may witness more flexible space uptake” said Iyer.

Apart from the layouts, offices will definitely see more automated systems to reduce touch points. Automatic doors will be installed so that people can move in and out without any contact with the door handles or knobs. High-end elevators that can operate on voice command will become a necessity than a luxury.

Face recognition based attendance systems or voice-enabled biometric are likely to be introduced. The fit out materials used in office buildings will see a lot of changes l, with more usage of copper and brass instead of wood and normal metals which are good carriers of viruses.

Proper air ventilation and air filtration systems will be a must in post-COVID era. “There are various filtering mechanisms available which can be installed to check the spread of Corona virus through air-conditioning. If employers take such measures, they might help their employees feel more comfortable amid all the uncertainty about the virus,” said Iyer.

With relaxation in lockdown and some offices opening up, we are witnessing some changes in workplaces — most of these are temporary but a few are permanent or long term. We will have to wait and watch to see the changes that the Covid pandemic forces upon us in concept, design and structure of offices. 

The Cost Factor

New designs or change in existing ones will have a cost. Considering the overall high cost of real estate, it would be difficult for many companies to increase their office spaces.

“Companies such as business process outsourcing (BPO) will not be able to provide large spaces per employee as they work on very thin margins. Bigger organisations, however, may decide to enhance per employee workspace,” added Iyer.

 Neil Usher, Chief Partnerships Officer, GoSpace AI, said: “As architects, we already have a lot of clients asking us about what design changes we will witness. Actually, this will depend on the organisation and its very existence. Cost will be fundamental to many organisations. They will want to control costs while making sure that channels of innovation continue functioning,” said Usher.  However, some experts Like Truddy Cheung, director, Workplace Advisory, Corporate Solutions at Colliers International, says, she does not foresee office occupiers investing in short-term space changes. “In the future, they will look at creating a flexible and prepared work environment. There will be removal of furniture, installation of partitions, reduction in occupancy… but no major investments to change the space itself yet,” said Cheung.

Related links:

1. Read what steps McKinsey has recommended to organisations to reimagine how work is done and what the future role of the office will be: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/reimagining-the-office-and-work-life-after-covid-19

2. How companies are planning to bring their workforce together again in the office: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/27/after-coronavirus-the-office-of-the-future-is-theoffice-of-the-past.html

3. Listen to Sankey Prasad, MD & Chairman-India, Colliers International, and Truddy Cheung, Director, Workplace Advisory and Corporate Solution, Colliers International, talking about changes in the workplace to maximise occupancy capacity and support productivity: design, navigation, behaviour, hygiene, wellness and technology: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIINLWK-7ZQ

Posted by: Ashwini Sharma

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