RAKSHA HEGDE HAS no time for a breather. The 20-something facility manager from international property consultant Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) is either working the phone lines or on chat with clients across India as their offices reopen after the coronavirus-induced lockdown. The Bengaluru-based Hegde is a picture of calm as she goes about her day trying to soothe frayed nerves and remove the fear psychosis of those joining back work. “We train mostly on the communication aspects and help employees [of client firms] onboard and provide any assistance they need in their workplace over phone or chat since no physical meeting is allowed yet,” says Hegde, who, among others from her organisation, is now a wellness ambassador. “Like front-office executives, such people help employees settle down in the workplace maintaining social distancing and communicating wellness initiatives at work. Their job is to make sure an employee is safe within the office and also bring the confidence back,” says Hegde’s boss Ajit Kumar, Executive Director, JLL India, who manages corporate solutions, a combination of project management and facilities management for client companies.
While Hegde deals with mitigating the fear that the virus has instilled in the minds of hundreds of workers, India’s unrelenting Covid-19 curve ensures that many are still reluctant to turn up at work. At a BPO in Gurugram, the management was ebullient by May end when it got permission to restart operations with 500-odd people. Though the company went out of its way by providing free transport to ferry people, which it had stopped earlier owing to a slump, just 230 of them turned up. Within a week, a bulk of them gave up. After all, the new rules of engagement in the workplace seemed a tad too severe for a young workforce that makes up a BPO—no sitting across each other, less talking, no going to the cafeteria at will, no more smoke breaks. “These are youngsters and they feel they have come to a place worse than home. As it is, many of them were getting frustrated at home during the lockdown and the only option was to give them some leeway which the company couldn’t since government officials were randomly checking the workplace,” explains Rajesh Sharma, Managing Director (IFM and Asset Services), Cushman & Wakefield. Today, the BPO is still operating, though with nearly half the strength it got permission for—many who refused to turn up in the first few weeks, decided to rejoin with the passage of time.
If the youth have reasons to shun the post-lockdown workplace, so do others who simply cannot come to terms with a kosher environment straddling fewer touchpoints, constant sanitisation and zero camaraderie. “This is the end of both office romance and politics,” quips an executive one week into her ‘disinfected’ workstation. Whichever way one looks at it, the lockdown has spawned a work-from-home (WFH) reality, as more and more organisations are looking at, for the want of a better word, ‘homeshoring’ a chunk of their workforce. “Though work from home as a concept is here to stay, many companies are pegging it at [a constant] 25-30 per cent [of the total manpower]. Automatically, such reduction in workforce will kick in social distancing [in offices],” says MV Harish, MD, Project and Development Services, JLL India.
A hybrid model seems to be at work too. “I don’t think it’s going to be about work from home only but a mix will emerge wherein you can work from home for a part of the day and come to office for the remaining part,” claims Nitin Jain, MD, Alvarez & Marsal India. This is typically so for the services industry, such as IT, where working from home does not hamper productivity and offices can more easily adapt to such circumstances.
At the other extreme, some companies, mostly multinationals, are averse to reopening at this juncture. Among others, Sharma of Cushman & Wakefield was on call with the India heads of a host of his MNC clients some days ago as they felt “the need to extend the work-from-home policy for another three months.” At that very juncture, Sharma wanted to know if they were confident that the virus would evaporate and things would settle down in three months. “They had no answer,” says Sharma, adding that fear grows with the passage of time and it will be even more difficult to make their employees come to office later. For one, the MNCs are guided by mandates coming in from their international headquarters and so they do not really seem to be in any hurry to reopen. And if productivity is not impacted, there is no harm if people continue working from home.
Homegrown companies and those in essential services, though, seem keen to get on track with their workforce. A source claims that companies such as TCS, Kotak Mahindra and Dalmia Group have reopened with 10-15 per cent manpower, which they are eager to ramp up as and when fresh government guidelines get issued. For starters, TCS seems to be in no hurry since it plans to move 75 per cent of its workforce to work from home permanently by 2025. In the case of its competition Tech Mahindra, though, a gradual ramp up is noticeable although, in the long run, they too expect 25-30 per cent of their associates working from home. To welcome back its people, the company has undergone a complete redesign of the floor plan with an eye to physical distancing. “We have introduced staggered lunch breaks to prevent overcrowding in cafeterias, using facial recognition system for attendance and launched a ‘book-my-seat’ app to automatically allocate workstations,” says Harshvendra Soin, Chief People Officer, Tech Mahindra.
In the manufacturing space, car major Maruti Suzuki is learnt to allow its people to come in batches. “If ‘x’ number of people come on a particular week, ‘y’ will come the next week. They are also working on much reduced productivity targets and are simultaneously assessing the market for demand since only then will they manufacture cars at some capacity,” the source elaborates.
In manufacturing, people are core to the production process. With four production units and 11 offices, auto component maker Schaeffler India would know it better than others as it has 2,800 employees on its rolls. Talking to Open, Santanu Ghoshal, Vice President of Human Resources at Schaeffler India, says: “Our manufacturing plants resumed operations from the first week of May, maintaining social distancing and safety protocol. We ramped up to near normalcy in our multi-location plants. We are currently working with skeletal staff as a majority of our people continue to work from home.” Here too, subdued demand is being met by the reduced number of people at work.
Yet, employees remain diffident in the face of the raging pandemic. Recently, health-tech community product FYI conducted a survey to assess the anxiety level of employees and observed that they expected their employers to take responsibility of workplace wellness as and when offices reopen. Of the 560 employees surveyed across Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, 93 per cent were apprehensive to return to their workplace with the overriding fear that their health will be compromised.
That has not stopped employers from getting their house in order. Six feet office, thermal scans, circular routing, door steppers, touch-free elevators and contactless keys are some of the terms doing the rounds. The new office space now wears a completely different look and MV Harish of JLL feels that nooks such as breakout areas, collaboration zones and lounges, which used to impart “life” to workplaces, may be brought to use differently by adding more seats. And following social distancing norms, the average size of workstations is bound to go up from 75-90 square feet to 100-120 square feet per person, he adds.
Ajit Kumar of JLL gets regular queries on WhatsApp groups of his clients on the safety quotient of their workplaces. All he does is post a photo and writeup of the work done to ensure health and hygiene. “For instance, when you go to a restroom, you are worried about touching the tap and sanitiser, which could be contaminated. To avoid that, we have created a foot-operated tap. All touchpoints have now become either foot-operated or sensor-based. Such things bring confidence to employees.”
The office cafeteria, too, has undergone surgery with pre-defined timelines where one can order food online and come in at an allotted time as per social distancing norms, say 10 minutes before the food is ready. “If the cafeteria can seat 400 people, in the current scenario, there is only room for 200,” says Kumar, adding that online ordering streamlines time slots to remain in the cafeteria maintaining controlled footfalls. Simply put, your café time at work just got rationed. “We are also recommending pre-packed food rather than a buffet, and for quite some time, the array of food will never be the same [across office cafeterias],” says Kumar.
Even office meeting rooms are being downsized. If it is a very small meeting room, maybe, only one person is allowed in. Rooms that can seat 15 people have now become eight-seaters.
Kumar says that a move is afoot to make even elevators go touchless. “We are working out a way by which you can use your mobile phone to operate the lift making use of QR codes,” he says. That said, the new workplace is ready to welcome back its people with myriad protocols, signages, decontamination stations and even a repurposed wellness room. Well, every office had one where you could go and pop in a paracetamol if you felt unwell or had a headache. “The protocol has changed and if you feel unwell, you’ll be isolated, asked to go home and furnish a proper medical report before returning to work.”
For JLL, being an international entity with a global footprint has been a blessing. Its Wuhan office in China reopened a fortnight back and shared some valuable insights. One such learning was to do with disposable face masks, which are deemed bio-medical waste, and hence, hazardous. It is dangerous for such masks to be dumped in the bin. So the Wuhan office gave the feedback that instead of giving people disposable masks, they should be encouraged to wear re-usable masks which they can later wash. And JLL India improvised by adding a third bio-medical waste bin along with dry and liquid trashcans.
Even in creating the “recovery readiness guide” for its clients, Cushman & Wakefield leveraged insights and best practices from its recent experience moving 10,000 companies and nearly a million workers back into 800 million square feet of buildings it manages in China through a joint venture with Vanke Service. “This is a living guide, put together by pulling in global expertise and while it is currently dominated by lessons from China, we know as we move forward, we will keep evolving and updating the same,” says Anshul Jain, MD–South East Asia and India, Cushman & Wakefield.
Since the spread of the coronavirus appears to be occurring through airborne transmission of aerosols, safe indoor air quality is top of mind for any returnee. It implies applying World Health Organization-approved filters in the overall air conditioning of the workplace that have the ability to weed out dust particles and contaminants, such as bacteria and viruses.
At oil and gas major Shell’s Bengaluru and Hazira facilities, people are gradually coming back to work. “As the lockdown began to ease, we set up a team to prepare our employees to return in a phased manner,” says Sundeep Bedi, General Manager, Shell Business Operations, highlighting the war on Covid-19 the company is waging to make every employee feel secure—from arrival to departure. The company ferries its people on company buses which are sanitised after each ride. Upon reaching the workplace, the staff can proceed after a mandatory temperature check but wearing a mask in the building is now mandatory at all times. With designated shifts for employees, only a handful of them are in office at any one time. But what is telling is that, on the first day of return, employees are greeted with a ‘welcome kit’ that contains four masks, a hand sanitiser and a unique personal plastic ‘contactless’ key with which one can easily operate lift buttons or door handles without touching surfaces. Then there are alcohol-based wipes to clean laptops. Even water dispensers and sanitisers can now be operated by foot. Add to this the demarcation signs inside the office to maintain social distance plus visual cues and posters with clear instructions and reminders of the new norms.
Today, much of India Inc is opening its door again in similar fashion. While employees remain cautious, companies are upping the safety quotient. When a top consultancy reopened a month ago, the strategy was simple—first, the top 50 leaders rejoined the firm in the US headquarters. Within a week, 150 more in the next tier turned up. Now, 500 more down the ladder are slated to return. Maybe, it is a better way of handling the returnees—where leaders set an example for others to regain their confidence and rejoin work.