Covid-19 pandemic set to reshape nature of work

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Two weeks before Tamil Nadu imposed prohibitory orders in Chennai and other parts of the state to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) on March 24, Suresh Sambandam asked his 200 employees to stop working from their 15,000-sq ft open office—complete with a pool table, a café bar and desks surrounded by swings for seats—in Chennai’s information technology hub.

By March 25, when the national Covid-19 lockdown was enforced, nearly half employees of Kissflow Inc, the SaaS (software as a service) company Sambandam founded in 2003 (then called OrangeScape Technologies), were working from their hometowns across Tamil Nadu. The rules have been relaxed for private companies to function, but Sambandam is not in a hurry to return to the way things were.

At a virtual town hall meeting with his employees on June 5, Sambandam unveiled what he called the Remote+ model of work that he intended to institute permanently. In a nutshell, teams would stagger their schedule of working from office while the rest of the time they would work remotely. Employees would be encouraged to work from their hometowns. Asking employees kitted up to work remotely to live in non-urban centres would help the local economy, Sambandam reasoned. The company would reimburse 80% of the expense if an employee needs to buy an ergonomic chair, desk, and battery-operated internet dongle. For those, who would come to Chennai for the mandatory week every monthin office, the company would provide accommodation.

The Sars-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, has forced companies to rethink the way they work as well as where they work. More people than ever are using online tools to meet and collaborate on the internet.

Zoom, a video-conferencing application that offers a freemium model (some free and some paid features) is so ubiquitous, that it is now used as a verb. Zoom Video Communications, the American firm that has developed the application, has posted a profit of $27 million between February and April. In comparison, last year, its profit was $198,000. In May, Google Meet, another video-conferencing application, crossed 50 million downloads in the Google Play store.

Larger companies are also beginning to see the benefits of working remotely. India’s largest software services company, Tata Consultancy Services, has announced that up to 75% of its global workforce will work from home by 2025.

It isn’t different elsewhere.

Tobias Lutke, the founder of Canadian multinational e-commerce company Shopify, announced over Twitter that the office of the Ottawa-based firm would remain closed till 2021 and remote work will become permanent for most employees. “We’ve always had some people remote, but they used the internet as a bridge to the office. This will reverse now. The future of the office is to act as an on-ramp to the same digital workplace that you can access from your #WFH setup,” he wrote.

The company has offices spread out across time zones, from Shenzhen in China to Sydney (Australia), Bengaluru, and Vilnius (Lithuania).

Working from home requires infrastructure: good mobile connectivity, fast-speed internet, but importantly, a comfortable chair. Indian furniture maker Godrej Interio has a four-person team, called the Ergonomics and Workspace Research Cell, whose mandate is to study issues commonly faced in offices — like noisy colleagues — and publish findings that eventually guide their product design team.

During the lockdown, it began to study the challenges of working from home. “The research revealed that people were working from the sofa, dining table, and bed; all of this was not designed for long hours of laptop work. We saw a 140% spike on searches done for chairs on our website. The second item in demand was a worktable,” said Sameer Joshi, an associate vice-president in the marketing division of Godrej Interio, who leads the team.

Based on their findings, the company has launched a range of home office furniture, including workstations, work tables, work desks, and chairs among others.

For technology companies that operate on digital platforms, the shift to remote work has been seamless. Sambandam’s employees use Kissflow, a cloud-based digital workplace software platform created by his company (Kiss stands for Keep it Simple, Stupid, a well-known design principle). Virtual meet-ups have replaced Friday evening gatherings at the office. A certified yoga instructor conducts sessions each morning over video; employees discuss books and create podcasts to deal with the stress of lockdown.

But not all professions can make this switch easily.

Swaty Singh Malik, a Delhi-based matrimonial lawyer, said the new system of e-filing cases and appearing before a judge in a video call is nothing like the thronging crowds in the courtroom that lawyers are used to. “Ours is the art of persuasion standing before a judge, not just a submission of documents,” Malik said, adding that many of her cases and mediations are pending. “Only urgent matters are taken up for hearing, and that means that your case may not come up at all,” she said. “No matter how much advice you give on the phone, it cannot really be implemented or enforced until the court steps in.”

Courtrooms, which are always filled with people, will need to enforce physical distancing whenever they open. So will open-plan offices. The open office, which was pioneered in the 1950s, was meant to be a breakthrough in workflow and efficiency. But it has often been criticised for doing the opposite: causing greater distraction and reduced productivity, according to some workplace surveys. What is more, the open office is highly susceptible to spreading infection, and companies are beginning to take note of that.

At an online panel discussion hosted by San Mateo-headquartered software company Freshworks on May 20, its founder and chief executive officer Girish Mathrubootham said that the company is “workplace-ready” for whenever its offices — located in Chennai, Berlin, and California—open. This includes a sanitisation protocol, thermal screening equipment, newly arranged seating to enable effective social distancing and limit face to face meetings. Even their café vendor has developed a mobile app that would alert employees when their food is ready for pick up, he said. The company has also created a vulnerability profile of its employees to decide whether it is better for them to stay home, Mathrubootham said.

“For the first time, many organisations will have to think of their employees being in a kind of life and death situation [inside the office]. In most industries, you do not think about this, unless you are in the manufacturing space or in the armed forces. So, if you view it from that perspective, then certain investments have to be made,” said Aparna Piramal Raje, an author and columnist.

Global commercial real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield is testing a design concept called the Six Feet Office to help employees stay six feet apart. This includes signage that will help people recognise distance, usage of disposable desk covers, and ensuring that people walk only clockwise through the office space to minimise the chances of people bumping into each other.

Joshi of Godrej Interio said that at least 75 companies have approached his team to help them redesign office interiors keeping the Covid-19 disease in mind.

“Today’s offices are designed to bring people closer, foster collaboration, teamwork and increase speed of response. They are not designed to separate people and thereby prevent the spread of the disease. Godrej Interio, therefore, strongly believes that existing offices need a rethink. We are offering retrofit solutions for existing offices and are recommending flexible design solutions for new offices. We need to keep in mind that the pandemic will be around for 18-24 months while offices have to last much longer than that.”

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