In Kerala, despite the early public health success, only around 5,000 of the 125,000-strong IT workforce are attending office at IT parks
The state government’s initiative could well be the first step towards discovering the nature of the new office space in post-covid times
Starting next week, scores of Kerala government officials along with representatives from the information technology (IT) industry will fan out to inspect abandoned buildings and unused lots to see if they can be converted into “micro offices".
The plan: since ‘work from home’ is not working for everyone, perhaps ‘work near home’ could. The only criteria is that the new spaces must be much smaller than a traditional IT park (with not more than 50 to 60 seats). The micro offices could even be inside a houseboat or a resort. “Since the tourism sector is going to take time to revive, they could function as premium office spaces for a while," said PM Sasi, CEO of Kerala government-owned IT parks.
Kerala’s push is perhaps the first salvo in a wider attempt to discover the nature of the new office in a post-covid age. All manner of experiments are afoot. File-transfer service WeTransfer has even kickstarted a virtual office with avatars for each employee to see if it can activate social interactions to an extent.
Sasi says work from home is not a long-term solution. “Productivity was quite high in the first month of WFH, but things have deteriorated. Off late, issues like power and Internet failures have cropped up and then there are the psychological impacts (of remaining indoors). We are trying to see if there can be something in between the (traditional) office environment and the home."
That quest has only become more urgent as the shutdown of offices used by the white-collar workforce, which has entered the third month, is set to continue. In Kerala, despite the early public health success, less than 5000 of the usual workforce of 125,000 are showing up at the IT parks, Sasi said. “Whether covid ends today or tomorrow, this rethink (on what an office is) is here to stay," he added.
In the vicinity of Whitefield – an eastern suburb of Bengaluru where a large number of IT employees live – there is already a demand in some housing complexes for a space within the community where people can sit and work, said Om Chaudhary, chief executive officer of FIRE Capital, a real estate fund. “A business-centre-like facility is a necessity now in any new development in some parts of the country."
“Work might still be anchored to a particular office, whether one goes once a week or once a month. But I don’t see how the old office can remain," Chaudhary said. “The HITEC City (of Hyderabad) used to be the model. If one doesn’t do something mega, things will not pop up. But the model of today is a thing of the past now. Very large buildings with air-conditioning is out of the picture. It will just expose 500 people in one go," he added.
The ongoing rethink on offices could also have larger ramifications – on urban forms and how cities function. Hyderabad, for instance, used to be a north-to-south city until the IT boom in the city’s west twisted its economic flows and transport corridors to a new east-to-west alignment, said Anant Maringanti, director of Hyderabad Urban Lab, a multidisciplinary urban research centre.
If people stop commuting to high-rise offices or commute less, the nature of those corridors could shift again, creating new zones of vibrancy in cities. At least 14 Indian cities are in the process of planning or constructing new metro rail corridors, which pay close attention to the existing nature of work commute in each city. “It’s very hard to read the tea leaves right now. Every city is still trying to figure out what kinds of things could work," Maringanti said.
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