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Opinion | What the new office should look like

To make definitive long-term conclusions on the future of work is underestimating the circumstances we currently find ourselves in. Photo: iStockPremium
To make definitive long-term conclusions on the future of work is underestimating the circumstances we currently find ourselves in. Photo: iStock

  • As lockdown is relaxed and people return to their workplaces, flexible workspaces, with strict hygiene and physical distancing practices, become the new mantra
  • Physical distancing will have to be adhered to keeping in mind the general health and well-being of everyone at the workspace

As the world reels from the impact of covid-19, it is necessary to be ready for the world we will cohabit once the threat has subsided. But while we’re in the mid of this seismic disruption, industry leaders are racking their brains to figure out what a post-covid-19 world will look like for their businesses, employees, partners, investors, especially since now the restrictions are being slowly lifted across the country.

At the heart of this conversation is work itself. What will work look like once our fight with covid-19 ends or when we learn to live with the virus?

To make definitive long-term conclusions on the future of work is underestimating the circumstances we currently find ourselves in. There are, however, some early indicators that could form the basis of understanding how we work in the future.

One such indicator will be the heightened awareness of hygiene at the workspace. Till the onset of the outbreak, hygiene at the workplace was taken seriously but now, it will take on even greater importance, so much so that it will become a veritable deal breaker.

What’s more, employees will take precautionary measures at a personal level and expect their employer to be both cooperative and accommodative.

When it comes to hygiene in the workplace, flexible spaces will be better prepared and could act as a beacon for other industries to emulate. Common practices at flexible space like round-the-clock sanitary checks could become an industry standard.

In the short term, physical distancing will have to be adhered to keeping in mind the general health and well-being of everyone at the workspace. But it will be difficult to follow this rule in the long run because we, humans, are social beings and we need to have people around us to interact, to feel that everything is okay. As Priya Parker, the founder of Thrive Labs and author of The Art Of Gathering: How We Meet And Why It Matters, puts it, “Social contact and being together in public spaces contribute to our collective sense of well-being."

Eventually, we will want to go back to workspaces that resonate with people, and that won’t change in a post-covid world. So, it’s important that we make hygiene a much bigger part of our lifestyle.

The other major indicator is the collective endorsement of virtual learning and virtual meetings. Across companies, almost every meeting is now being done virtually and the general consensus is that this trend is here to stay in our work lives.

What was primarily seen in large corporates is now being openly embraced in companies of all sizes. “Let’s get on a Zoom call" has already become a part of our office language.

On the topic of virtual learning, employees are working from home and saving countless hours on commuting. Taking a cue from Tristan Harris’ clarion call for “time well spent", employees are utilizing the saved time by learning and upskilling, all virtually. Across the board, people understand that a post-covid world will present unique challenges and opportunities, and the need to add new skill sets will be a critical differentiator.

This has led to companies like upGrad seeing tremendous growth in adoption of various career-focused courses. From a purely business perspective, the initial predictions around the services industry have been very negative, and since a flexible workspace is essentially a service given to members, the negative headlines have serenaded the flexible workspaces industry as well.

However, on closer inspection, it becomes clear that flexible spaces are more resilient than analysts seem to think. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, JLL found that the flexible workspace segment was growing at around 25-30% every year. While keeping up with such breakneck growth will present a big challenge, growth in the long-term is possible Businesses will be stretched for cash and making large investments on traditional commercial real estate will be deemed extremely risky. Moreover, with physical distancing governing corporate land, companies will have to adjust the size of their teams working from a particular workspace.

Here is where flexible workspaces will once again prove to be an invaluable problem-solver. Companies can spread their teams out and encourage remote working, thus adhering to physical distancing but without disruption efficiency. Flexible spaces also allow companies to have more cash flexibility, resulting in redeployment towards research and development, and innovation.

Remote working, smaller teams and working closer to home will play a major part in the future of work.

For anyone continuing to harbour scepticism, flexible workspace operators in Australia have already shown the way forward, as the demand for flexible workspaces has gone up by 30% during the present transition phase.

When members finally begin repopulating workspaces, perhaps the biggest obstacle will not be the physical condition of the space, rather it will be the psychology of fear, “what if I go to work and contract something?"

To reassure jittery members and business partners alike, flexible workspaces are once again better equipped than most. Each space has a specialized community team whose very function revolves around making members feel welcome and safe, while also ensuring operations run seamlessly.

Another latent advantage of having a community team at your space is to combat any misinformation making the rounds on social media. Through internal channels, community teams are regularly updated on various government directives, while also being glued to updates on any fresh cases in the vicinity.

The concerns that people have around their workspaces are legitimate and won’t go away in a hurry. The onus is on companies to ensure that workspaces once again become safe harbours for work and workers alike.

Karan Virwani is the CEO of WeWork India. Views expressed are his personal.

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