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NEW DELHI : The road to DLF’s Cyber Greens and Gateway Tower in Gurugram is as messy as pre-pandemic weekdays, with cars and two-wheelers jostling against each other to get ahead. Inside the towers, it is a different story.

The elevator that could easily accommodate 15 on a busy day, had just two when this writer visited, on 18 October. In any case, the developer doesn’t allow more than five people in the lift nowadays. And before you enter an office, the shoes got to be sanitized in a ‘footbath’ tray. This is the simplest of precautions apart from common hand sanitization—there is more geeky stuff going on inside the office and at the back-end.

In short, the offices that employees are returning to after 18 months of work-from-home are not quite the same as those they hurriedly abandoned in March 2020. With the threat of a third, virulent wave of covid-19 looming large, companies are taking steps to ensure the office environment is as epidemiologically safe as possible by changing infrastructure to suit the new safety considerations and upgrading hygiene.

But companies also appear to be far more confident about the work-from-office system now. On 21 October, India’s anti-covid-19 vaccination drive crossed the 1 billion mark for single jabs. The moving weekly average of covid-19 cases is down from its peak of nearly 400,000 fresh cases a day in early May to around 15,000 a day, the lowest since early June 2020. Not surprisingly, offices around the country have been rapidly reopening over the past month, or are all set to do so.

Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), the country’s largest private employer with a staff strength of 525,000, has, for instance, directed all its employees to move to their deployed locations by 15 November. The senior staff are already working from office two-three times a week. Similarly, its rival Infosys already has senior members coming in to office once a week, and has now directed junior employees to come in once a month. Indeed, for employees too, the novelty of working-from-home has long worn off. A recent survey by real estate services’ company JLL showed that employees would ideally like to be in office twice in a five-day week. “Earlier, workplace safety primarily meant fire safety," said Sriram Khattar, managing director of the rental business at real estate giant DLF India, which has obtained WELL certification for its premises. “But it has now been expanded to include all aspects of human safety."

The WELL Building Standard guidelines, issued by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), lays down health and safety measures within a built environment, covering such aspects as air, water, lighting, nourishment and comfort. It has been updated to include covid-19 related protocols, as well as an emergency plan to guard against future health hazards.

‘De-densify’

A new buzzword has arrived in corporate India–‘de-densify’. “Tenant partners are reviewing the extent of de-densification they wish to achieve for employee comfort," Khattar said.

Different means are being employed to increase the work space per person from 80-90 square feet to at least 120-150 square feet. The easiest way to do so is also the most expensive, though some companies, including some of DLF’s tenants, have opted for it by increasing overall office space. This could raise operational costs by up to 30%, but a few corporates are ready to bear it.

Others are trying out alternative measures of distancing within the existing space, such as directing employees to attend office on a rotational basis so that on any given workday, the staff strength within the office remains below a certain percentage of the total workforce. They have begun to use a staggered attendance system as well as shorter, fixed timings for their cafeterias. In many corporates, ‘hot-desking’ is now the norm—no dedicated desks, with multiple employees using the same work station on different days of the week.

Those companies that want the full office to attend daily are working out deals with nearby co-working and flexible working space companies to accommodate their spillover employees. Employees do not mind.

A JLL survey showed that 64% of the respondents were ready to work from third party or co-working locations. For instance, co-working firm WeWork, present across six Indian cities, has seen a 10% rise in its enterprise portfolio since the pandemic, with companies such as Khaitan & Co, Tata Sky Broadband, 3M and Colliers India among its new clients.

Another co-working company Smartworks, with a footprint in nine cities, has seen occupancy rising to 50-60% in the past few months. “Flexible workspaces have received a booster shot," said Harsh Binani, co-founder, Smartworks. “The last six to nine months have been phenomenal for us in terms of sales. We expect our revenue figures in March 2022 to be double of those in April 2021."

Offices are employing different means to ensure the required physical distancing. At WeWork, potted plants are being used as a design element to keep any two seated employees apart at the stipulated distance. Some offices are trying out diagonal seating. Some have installed translucent partitions between desks, and protective screen guards at food counters in the cafeteria. Indeed, office designers are under pressure to come up with elements that ensure distancing without increasing space requirements.

Alongside imposing distancing, companies are also monitoring employee health daily. Apart from imposing individual temperature checks on entry, some companies are installing thermal cameras that can capture the temperature of a person entering the premises from 20 feet away. To prevent infection from spreading, the fingerprint system of recording attendance is being replaced by a facial recognition system in many companies. Lifts can be a potential source of infection, especially during rush hour overcrowding. Therefore, the maximum number of users per trip is being reduced, smart-voice control and foot-activated buttons are replacing finger-activated ones, while employees are being encouraged to use stairs. And touch-free sanitizer dispensers are being installed at multiple points. Washrooms can easily spread the disease, hence hygiene is being spruced up here as well. Like sanitizer dispensers, soap dispensers too are being made touch-free, and washroom fittings sensor-enabled.

Some companies are putting antimicrobial coating on washroom surfaces. “For our clients, we have used steel on the floor and walls instead of regular ceramic tiles as droplets coagulate better on steel surfaces," said Karun Muthanna, co-founder of Arclain, a design firm. Office plumbing systems are also being checked for Legionella, bacteria that breed in pipes left unused for long periods, and which can cause Legionnaires’ disease, a severe form of pneumonia.

Clearing the air

But is this enough? Experts claim it is not—it is imperative that the air in offices is also be kept clean, irrespective of the number of people inside. “Limiting density alone does little to reduce infection," said Baerbal Sinha, associate professor of environmental science at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Mohali.

“Even if one sick person enters a particular environment, even if he/she is not coughing or showing any external symptoms, the viral aerosol he/she exhales will in time fill the whole area. Think of it as a chain smoker entering closed premises, or someone holding an agarbatti (incense stick). Won’t the place be full of smoke after a while? In the same way, fewer people being present will only reduce the speed of the aerosol build up, it will not prevent it," said Sinha. What is needed is efficient and well-monitored filtration and circulation of air from outside through high-quality heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems. And real estate companies running multiple properties, such as DLF India, Bharti Realty and the Brigade Group have all moved to provide them.

“In both our commercial and retail properties, we have found that the primary concern of our clients is the centralized air-conditioning system," said Subrata Sharma, chief operating officer at Brigade Group.

Many companies are using the air filtration benchmarks set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). “There are several solutions in the market that claim to kill 100% of air-borne viruses, but we have chosen to go with proven technology as per ASHRAE standards," said Gautam Dey, executive director, engineering services, at DLF India.

Filter effectiveness is rated by its minimum efficiency reporting value or MERV, while ASHRAE recommends HVAC systems with a MERV of 13, DLF India has installed MERV 14 systems on its premises. MERV 14 filters are said to capture 75% of particulate matter in the air with a diameter of 0.3-1 micron, and 90% of those that are bigger. Though the size of the covid-19 virus is estimated to be just 0.1 micron in diameter, it does not travel on its own. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is trapped within droplets that are usually 1 micron and larger in diameter.

Bharti Realty also has electrostatic precipitators, with a MERV 14 rating, at some of its marquee properties in Delhi and Gurgaon—the Worldmark buildings, Bharti Crescent and Bharti Airtel Centre—and MERV 13 filters at the others. Proper air circulation, ensuring sufficient entry of air from outside, is a separate consideration.

ASHRAE has recommended HVAC systems with an ‘air change per hour’ (ACH) or the rate at which outdoor air replaces indoor, of 0.35 for homes, 2-3 for offices and 6-12 for hospitals. DLF has increased the ACH of the HVAC systems in its buildings from 1 to 2 and aims to raise it further to 2.5. Bharti Airtel claimed to have already touched the 6-12 level at its properties along with ensuring 5 cubic feet of air per minute per person. To minimize the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in an enclosed space, the realty companies are also installing HVAC systems fitted with CO2 dampers.

Sinha of IISER Mohali testified to the effectiveness of MERV 14 systems, more so if they are used together with carbon dioxide dampers. “The agarbatti experiment can be carried out using these high efficiency filters," she said. “If they clear the smoke in a room, they will clear the viral aerosol too." However, she was sceptical about the extent to which dampers were being used. “The CO2 threshold has to be 1,000 parts per million (ppm), and dampers should be activated if it crosses that figure," she said. “But many dampers are set to switch on ventilation only when CO2 levels go as high as 5,000-7,000 ppm to reduce the cost of air-conditioning," she added. At 5,000 ppm CO2, each breath one inhales contains aerosol exhaled by 2-3 other people, unless one wears a well-fitted N95 mask.

Dubious alternatives

Air filtration and circulation technologies are not new, but are beginning to be widely employed at workplaces in India now. Their efficacy is proven, unlike some of the chemical and biological solutions that are being marketed following the pandemic and claim to eradicate both bacteria and viruses in the air completely. These include silver ion coating in paints, devices that use ultraviolet (UV) light and filters with hydroxyl radicals. Some leading realty companies have installed UV solutions at their properties.

Some scientists defend these solutions, others deride them. Khushboo Rakha, who was part of the team at the Indian Institute of Technology Ropar, which designed a UV-based disinfector, maintained that UV radiation had been effective in killing the covid-19 virus. “Any UV filter that can kill fungi can kill viruses too," she said.

Sinha of IISER Mohali objected, claiming UV radiation was also dangerous. “It generates ozone and other reactive volatile compounds that are damaging to human health," she added. While this appears to be an unending debate, what is clear is that the office, as we knew it, has changed since the last time many of us walked in. The pandemic has surely converted them into far smarter spaces.

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