Painting masks, meetings without notepads, welcome to new office after lockdown

  • With states allowing firms to open their offices to a limited number of staff, returning employees are finding that the office has changed. Many are mourning the loss of casual chats due to the social distancing rules

Rashmi Menon
Updated25 May 2020
Conversations happen over the intercom, people use their laptops to take notes and minutes, and they’re all sitting far apart.
Conversations happen over the intercom, people use their laptops to take notes and minutes, and they’re all sitting far apart.

MUMBAI: When Sharat Chandra returned to his office in Bengaluru on 7 May, he was greeted by a security guard with a temperature gun and a sanitiser every few steps checking for symptoms of the novel coronavirus. The experience, Chandra admits, caused a “freaking out moment”. But, the anxiety about a lurking infection soon subsided, and he began to enjoy being back in the office after seven weeks of working from home.

He and his colleagues are careful about touching common surfaces, they plan their visits to restrooms, cafeteria or the coffee machine. “My seven colleagues and I have been at work for two weeks and it’s nothing like the office was before,” he says.

They’ve cut down on the paper they use. There are no more impromptu meetings at his desk. Even within the office they use Slack or other communication channel tools to talk, says Chandra, 40, a blockchain and emerging tech evangelist.

With states allowing companies to open their offices to a limited number of staff, returning employees are finding that the office has changed. Many are mourning the loss of casual chats and catch-ups with colleagues as social distancing is part of the rules to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Rattan Chhabra, chief financial officer (CFO) at Delhi’s IPE Global, an international development consulting group, has also been back in the office for about two weeks. Only 10% of his staff is present, and Chhabra, 50, says he can see a change in the “highly interactive culture that we had across hierarchies”. Conversations happen over the intercom, people use their laptops to take notes and minutes, and they’re all sitting far apart.

“The physical distance does make work more mechanical,” he says. “People don’t share snacks anymore or stop to chat. It feels odd, strange, isolating,” he says. “I don’t know how long we will have to do this,” says Chhabra, who brings his own tea to the office in a thermos now to avoid going to the café. Chandra misses his daily visit to the tender coconut vendor after lunch. “I don’t know where the poor vendor has gone because of the lockdown. And even if he was back at his usual spot, I’d be hesitant to buy it.”

Naveeta Sharma, 45, has been going home for lunch every day. She no longer uses the restrooms in the real estate firm she works at in Bengaluru. She and two colleagues resumed working from the office from 11 May. Paper brochures have been converted to digital format, and floor plans for properties have been put up on the walls, and executives use a laser beam to point out features while selling. One thing she is struggling to adapt to is wearing a mask all day in an office without air conditioning in the summer.

Nehit Vij, 32, co-founder, Intrigue Lab, a multi-disciplinary architectural design consultancy in Delhi, is installing a big screen so that he and his team can watch movies together in office since their fortnightly ritual of going for lunch or a movie will be suspended. Vij, re-opened his office on 4 May with five colleagues coming in. Desks are spaced out, with three feet between each and only three people are allowed into the cafeteria at a time. “I miss the banter at work, especially in a creative environment like ours,” says Vij. “More people are playing music at work to ward off the gloom.”

Prashant Pandey, country manager, Right Management India, part of ManpowerGroup India, says these changes are probably temporary. “While our interactions will be governed by health concerns, we are more appreciative of these social interactions in office which we took for granted earlier,” he says.

Chandra’s team came up with an innovative way for team bonding in the time of coronavirus: “We customized our masks one day by sketching our favourite cartoon characters,” he says. “I got the idea from my seven-year-old daughter. It was one way to get people together again.”

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