Spacing It Out

With social distancing norms in place, open office designs are being turned upside down

Illustration by Raj Verma Illustration by Raj Verma

At 9.00 am every day, Pranav Primlani, Talent Management Specialist at Dr Reddy's Laboratories gets out of his car in the parking lot of the company's office in Hyderabads Banjara Hills, wearing a mask. He then stops at the screening point, sanitises his hand, takes out his phone, and fills in the e-self declaration form about his health and travel history. A security official checks his body temperature, scans the barcode on Keep Safe, Dr Reddy's in-house app, and updates his temperature on the app. Employees who fail to download the app are denied entry. Primlani says his heart skips a beat every time his temperature is checked, "but it is for our safety only."

"With Unlock 1.0 kicking in and more people are allowed inside offices, we have come up with several measures that are preventive, reactive and proactive around three key pillars - Infrastructure, Process and People - to ensure business continuity," says Thakur Pherwwani, Head of Safety, Health, Environment and Corporate Sustainability, Dr Reddy's.

As health and hygiene becomes priority, companies are going the extra mile to ensure employee safety at work. While earlier, walls were brought down to create open office spaces to foster collaboration and camaraderie among staff, the layout has now been turned on its head. Employees are now sitting 1-2 metres away from their colleagues. Crowding around water coolers and passageways are strict no-nos. Meeting rooms are locked, and eating alone is the new normal.

The First Steps

As companies come up with strategies to maintain physical distancing, the entire workspace is getting divided into zones. Employees are being divided into groups so that the risk of contamination can be controlled in case anyone turns corona-positive.

Infosys has divided each of its campuses into two-three zones, depending on the size. "The zones are marked and work on the principle of self-governance. Each zone is a complete unit in itself and each employee has a pre-designated zone. They do not go to another zone unless absolutely necessary," says Richard Lobo, Executive Vice President and Head of Human Resources, Infosys. It is like several offices within one single campus with separate entry, exit, canteen etc.

To keep the density in check in these "smaller campuses", companies are scrutinising employees' roles to determine the ones who need to come to office regularly, and those who can work on alternate days and in shifts.

Pherwwani of Dr Reddy's says 50 per cent of the 300 employees who work out of the company's corporate office in Hyderabad are coming to office, while the rest are working from home. "With social distancing norms, it is difficult to get the entire workforce to office. Each business head was asked to determine from their teams, 50 per cent of those who should come to office." The reason for that is offices were originally designed in the open format to maximise space and optimise real estate. "Real estate in corporate hubs is expensive. Hence, offices are built on the premise of maximising space, but that doesn't work while implementing social distancing norms," says Sudhir Dhar, Executive Director and group Chief HR Officer, Motilal Oswal Financial Services (MOFSL). "Social distancing will increase per capita office space allocation. The rule of thumb was to have 40-50 sq foot per person. Now, it has to be at least 80-90 sq ft."

"Since the organisation is not creating new infrastructure, we have to work with what we have," adds Dhar. Companies, including MOFSL, Infosys, Cisco and Dr Reddy's, have alternate seating arrangements to ensure a distance of at least 2 metres between two people. The seats are also marked to avoid confusion. There is a similar demarcation in canteen and common areas as well. Corridors are also marked like one-way streets. All recreation activities have been closed for the time being. The basic premise, says Dhar, is that no two employees should come face-to-face with each other. Even in the lifts at MOFSL, it is mandatory for employees to stand in the four corners, facing the wall. Of MOFSL's total staff strength of 6,500 across India, 1,800 are coming to office.

Each company has a different approach towards meeting and conference rooms. At Motilal Oswal, they can be used at 50% of capacity, whereas at Infosys, Dr Reddy's and Nestle, they are locked.

"As of now, we are not doing any physical meetings. We have moved meetings entirely to the virtual world and it works well," says Infosys' Lobo. Employees are also going beyond video meetings, and are using more of whiteboarding sessions, simultaneous collaborations on work documents, quick chats and virtual reality demos. "This will impact the future of conference rooms as well. They will have a lot of technology built in, assuming only a small number will be present physically," he adds.

Primlani of Dr Reddy's says virtual meetings are happening even with colleagues sitting in the same area. "Initially there was a sense of disorientation, but now there is an acceptance that this is the new normal and we have to live with it."

The cafeteria is another crowd puller. While canteens are now decentralised and offices have created different cafeterias for each zone, employees are encouraged to not talk too much or mingle. "Since people remove masks while eating, companies might also encourage them to eat at their desks," says Sameer Joshi, Associate Vice-President, Godrej Interio.

At Dr Reddy's, seats have been rearranged so that occupancy gets limited to 25% in each of its four canteens. Tables are arranged in single rows so that there is one person on each table and no two individuals face each other, says Pherwwani. Also, lunchtime (from 12.30 to 2.30 pm) is divided into four slots of 30 minutes.

But then, does no physical contact means no social contact as well? MOFSL's Dhar doesn't think so. In fact, the team organises a game or a virtual party almost every day. There are online competitions of ludo, carrom, and snakes and ladders as well.

Technology Is King

Physical distancing can only do so much given there are so many common touchpoints in offices. While companies have upped their game and rooms are sanitised after every shift or a few hours, the role of technology cannot be ignored.

To reduce the need for 'touch', firms are figuring out ways to ensure contactless offices. Anuj Puri, Chairman, ANAROCK Property Consultants, says, "Companies that can afford are deploying voice-activated technologies to control lighting and audio, visual equipment in conference rooms, or using sensors where a simple wave could be used while passing through doors or for flushing the toilet."

At Infosys, entry to campuses, payment for services, switching on lighting and utilities, etc. are all contactless. Many of the company's new offices have sensors that give real-time insights on office space usage and occupancy of seats and meeting rooms. This also allows the IT major to allocate space, keeping social distancing norms in mind on a daily basis depending on needs, and also control lighting and air conditioning usage.

Says Lobo, "Since only 5-6 per cent of our workforce is coming to office, the demand is very less. So, we have kept only one or two food courts open, but, if there is any crowding, others can be opened easily."

"An overlay of digital technologies is enabling us to reimagine the existing physical infrastructure, whether it is an individual's workstation or the wider campus area, to create a collaborative culture and also ensure safety of employees," he adds.

Cisco, too, is using its cloud-based software DNA Spaces, which is integrated with wireless access points to enable real-time location tracking in the campus. The software calculates the distance between two people and the density of a certain area. "This enables us with crowd control, managing footprint within the office campus and better enforcement of social distancing norms in a non-intrusive manner," says Daisy Chittilapilly, Managing Director, Digital Transformation Office, Cisco India and SAARC. At Cisco, 2.76 million sq feet of the company's campus in Bangalore constitutes eight buildings. Four of them are closed. Less than 2 per cent of its roughly 12,000 employees in India are working from office. The rest have been working remotely for the past few months.

Dr Reddy has a Keep Safe app built along the lines of the Aarogya Setu. It has a Bluetooth feature that tracks people who come within 2 metres on a specific day. It is mandatory for employees to keep Bluetooth on for the app to work on office premises. The rationale is that if anyone is detected with Covid-19 later, the data can be used to identify the group at risk, says Pherwwani.

Changing Office Spaces

Puri of ANAROCK thinks office space designs will change. "The previous open-plan workplaces are likely to be replaced with old, small private offices or cabins. Also, there will be preference for building materials, such as stone, which can withstand heavy cleaning, especially the use of caustic products," he says.

Customisable offices, though not new, will see a rise in demand. New offices will be designed for the next 5-10 years. "They will have enough flexibility built into their interiors and furniture, so they can be reconfigured and reoriented once the pandemic is over," says Joshi of Godrej Interio.

"There will be more mechanisation. What is done manually now would be done with a click. And, in the next three to four years, though it might sound futuristic, it could be reconfigured from the phone as well," adds Infosys Lobo. For some Infosys campuses, the entire layout of the office is already on wheels, where workstations can be reconfigured according to demand, usage and need.

Since these are unprecedented times, companies are in a wait-and-watch mode "It is unlikely they will make any big real estate decisions right now. What will happen is that they might negotiate rents with property owners, but they will be specific to every tenant and limited to a timeframe. Even if there is any decrease in rental costs, it will come with an in-built expiry date as the market will recover," says Puri of ANAROCK.