Back To Office: Are we ready to go back yet?

Not necessarily, as analysts believe that though co-working spaces may see a boom and the office design may undergo changes, the office will remain a constant.

By Reya Mehrotra

For Ahmedabad-based Apurv Awasthi, an HR recruiter, the days are monotonous. He switches from one room to the next, trying to find the best work-from-home location but in vain. For him, nothing compares to working in office. “Work-from-home was a new phrase and concept for me. Initially, there was excitement of working from your own bedroom, on your bed and wearing whatever you wish to. There was also a fear of the virus… But now, I am more than ready to go to office. I am fed up and bored with the same environment I have been working in since the last nine months,” says Awasthi, who tried working from different rooms of his home, but everything failed. “I miss the relaxing office coffee breaks, the small talk, the lively environment which you get only in office, taking interviews face-to-face rather than on Zoom or WebEx, the intense environment you get before and during a meeting, which gives a different type of thrill, fun Friday activities, birthday celebrations, impromptu plans of going out after office or a party, potluck and so much more,” he says, reminiscing about the good old office days.

It’s been a while now since the virus forced offices to announce work from home for employees. At that time, nobody knew we could be stepping into a future where work could become completely remote. Now, when the world is on the verge of being vaccinated, the time has come to ask ourselves an important question: are we ready to go back to our workplaces?

Some like Noida-based Saksham Saluja are enjoying working from home and don’t want to go back anytime soon. “Life is easy at home. You get up according to your time and sleep when you want to. You get to work in your favourite clothes and even in your pyjamas while listening to music. What more could one ask for? You can make your own tea as well,” says Saluja, senior associate, human resources in a tech firm, who prefers homemade tea over office tea. The Noida resident, who belongs to Agra, has rented out a flat with his sister who is also working from home. During the initial days of the lockdown, he had moved to his hometown, but found working from home rather difficult there. “It is not easy to work with family around. There is always some or the other work at home and your office work gets disrupted, so I shifted back to my flat in Noida and I am loving working from home. I can also travel back to Agra whenever I want to,” he says. Saluja’s sister, however, misses the work environment at office and her colleagues too. “She can’t wait to resume work from office,” he shares.

The new hybrid

Opinions and preferences might differ, but whether you like it or not, the post-pandemic world could be a hybrid working space—neither completely remote nor completely work from office. Several corporate and tech giants have hinted at the same with their work-from-home policies. Google, for instance, has extended work from home for its employees till September this year. It is also in the process of testing a ‘flexible work week’ wherein employees will attend office for three days a week and work from home the remaining days.

Twitter went a step ahead in May last year and announced a work-from-home-forever policy even as Mark Zuckerberg signalled that half the organisation would be working remotely in the next five to 10 years. “We told employees in May that if they’re in a role and situation that allows them to work from home, they can continue to do so forever if they want. Opening offices will be our decision, when and if our employees come back, will be theirs. Regarding reopening offices, we don’t have a definitive opening date,” a Twitter spokesperson said.

Work Reworked, a December study by Microsoft, analysed how hybrid work is here to stay, as 97% business leaders in the UAE believed that their organisations will adopt a more hybrid work culture in the foreseeable future. In the survey, 82% of the 611 leaders and employees in large enterprises in the UAE agreed that remote working increased the productivity and provided additional cost benefits like reduction in spend on business travel. However, the survey also revealed an unavoidable challenge that remote working presents as 61% managers agreed having troubles in creating a strong team culture. The survey was commissioned by Microsoft in the UAE in September last year and was conducted by KRC Research with Boston Consulting Group.

“The year 2020 was one of transformational change. For most of us, it completely overhauled how we work, live, connect, collaborate, interact and learn. In fact, it compelled organisations to completely reimagine previously-held concepts about teamwork, culture and building social capital,” says Ira Gupta, head of human resources, India, Microsoft. “Moving forward, it is our goal to offer as much flexibility as possible to support individual workstyles, while balancing business needs and ensuring we live our culture. At the heart of the hybrid workplace are our people, so our efforts and plans will extend beyond supporting remote work and new safety processes. We are fully committed to giving our employees the right skills, tools and culture to be more creative, productive and collaborative, while ensuring no one is left behind,” adds Gupta.

Microsoft is not alone in going the hybrid way. Information technology company Tata Consultancy Services’ 25×25 work model also calls for a hybrid work culture. The work model envisages that by 2025, no more than 25% of its employees will need to work from office at any given point in time and any employee will need to spend no more than 25% of their time in office. A spokesperson shares that currently over 97% TCS employees are working remotely. The move, however, was not motivated by the pandemic and was pre-planned, as the company has an agile methodology of working. TCS’ Secure Borderless Workspaces™ (SBWS™) facilitated the ease of transition to remote working. The model enables remote access for employees, sets up a suitable cybersecurity framework and all project management practices and systems needed to ensure that work allocation, monitoring and reporting continues as normal. In this way, the SBWS™ model ensured that neither the quality nor the timeliness of client deliveries were ever compromised.

According to the spokesperson, the 25×25 work model will lead to 25% increase in velocity throughout, provide more equitable job opportunities and contribute to the well-being of employees, as well as help in the creation of a more sustainable planet.

Sharad Mehra, CEO, Asia-Pacific region, Global University Systems (GUS), a collaborative platform of international universities, which nurtures future leaders and employees in 40 countries including India, agrees that people have opened themselves to working from anywhere. “Increasingly, both leadership and organisations are realising the value of the well-being of their teams and the magic technology, which has taken the pandemic head-on. They have saved on office rentals and related costs, while realising that productivity and seamlessly fulfilling businesses goals have escalated in the new WFH scenario. In my opinion, when we return to normal, the future of work will be hybrid—a fusion of working from conventional physical office spaces from anywhere,” offers Mehra.

Recalibrating space

So will shifting to a hybrid workspace model mean lesser room for office—with lesser number of employees working from the office space? Not necessarily, as analysts believe that though co-working spaces may see a boom and the office design may undergo changes, the office will remain a constant.

“The acceptance of the WFH option by several companies may have given office space tenants the leeway to bargain with their landlords, but this trend will exist only for a short term or until Covid-19 uncertainties exist,” says Anuj Puri, chairman of the Mumbai-based Anarock Property Consultants. “As soon as a vaccine is widely available, the commercial space equation will even out. In 2021, office leasing activity is likely to fare better than in 2020, as a continued work-from-home culture will get compensated by the de-densification of office space required to provide social distancing for office-bound employees. We may see leases being renewed, but they will not reach previous peak levels,” he adds.

In 2020, the growth of office rental spaces stagnated, but hopes are high for the new year. “The main effort of commercial space developers in 2020 was to retain their old tenants rather than getting new ones. Rentals in office space in 2020 remained more or less stable, neither increasing nor decreasing since developers did not want the market benchmark to change. Instead, they offered discounts such as rent deferrals, camp discounts or rental waivers, so that their tenants’ overall rental outgo reduced to provide some relief,” Puri explains.

According to him, small and mid-sized enterprises such as early-stage start-ups have given up their original spaces and relocated to cheaper outskirts or even into residential setups. However, tier I occupiers are keen to retain the location advantages of their spaces for now. Puri feels the future will see a mix of working from office, WFH and WFA (work from anywhere). “While formats have been reinvented, space requirements have not reduced as such. A certain percentage of the workforce may continue to work from home, many employees will also return to the office because their work can’t be conducted from home,” he says.

A post-Covid design change in offices will also be seen, as a number of amenities will be prioritised by developers. Rishi Raj, chief business development officer, Max Ventures & Industries Limited (that operates the real estate arm of the Max group and Max Specialty Films Limited that produce packaging films), says Covid-19 has accelerated the need for quality where the traditional office space is at core supported by some activity at home. “However, the role of the office will still be significant though the design may evolve, as the developers may no longer provide only office spaces, but also several prioritised amenities like health, safety and sanitation, self-sustaining office campuses, carefully curated food courts, auditoriums and common areas, and better offline and online experiences like taking care of both the physical and emotional well-being of tenants,” says Raj.

He says that de-densification of office spaces is on the cards—where earlier, 50-60 square feet per person space was used in offices, the future will see 75-90 square feet of space being used per person, as separate work stations will become the new design norm instead of a single long work station. “It is important to understand that though the activities will be divided between offices and homes, everyone will have to come to office at some point in time,” Raj says. And hence, he predicts an upward trend in the demand for rental spaces in the coming years. “Economic recovery is on the cards and most are holding on to the office spaces. The pre-Covid numbers may not come back soon, but the graphs will rise in 2021,” he says.

The change in the way we work is likely to be accelerated by a digital push. An Ericsson IndustryLab report titled The Dematerialized Office, released in October last year, brought forth the expectations of the workplace of 2030. According to the report, nearly six in 10 employees foresee a permanent increase in online meetings and need tools that better support remote interaction. The survey covered 8,400 white-collar workers who are early adopters of AR, VR or virtual assistants from 16 countries, representing around 133 million employees. Half the respondents want a digital workstation, allowing full-sense presence at work from anywhere and 77% indicate that an internet of senses for business use would make their company more sustainable. Around 73% of senior managers believe that food in the company canteen can be digitally enhanced to taste like anything by 2030, while 66% think that, by 2030, technology will enable them to sense when a colleague is upset, which also means that their employer will know when they themselves are upset.

Michael Björn, head of research agenda, Ericsson Consumer & IndustryLab, and author of the report, says, “Office work will not go back to the way it was before the pandemic. Instead, employees will spend more time working digitally and, for this reason, drive the need for future technologies on a scale and at a pace that was unimaginable only a year ago.”

He adds, “For digital collaborations to be as interactive as the real thing, communications technology will need to take a giant leap forward. “This is about more than just better video meetings. It is also about collaborating digitally in the same room with colleagues, which is why interest in AR/VR technology has grown rapidly over the last six months.”

Sravanth Aluru, founder and CEO of Bengaluru-based company Avataar.Me, which empowers digital marketing and commerce experiences using AR, agrees that the future is not only hybrid, but AR/VR-empowered. “A digital platform has a bigger reach than a physical one and saves cost as well, so why would one spend on physical spaces when it can be digital? In the coming years, there will be a permanent digital reset. Even before Covid, digital walk-ins were complimenting physical ones and experiences were being brought in 3D formats in living rooms,” he says.

With significant changes in the way we work and live in the post-Covid world, the decade is set to set new standards and introduce new rules to the world.

Features of a hybrid workspace

  • Work from office two-three days a week and work from anywhere the rest of the week
  • Lesser pollution as lesser people commute
  • Lesser fatigue and better motivation as the employee neither goes to office on all days neither works from home full-time
  • Boost to gig economy as employees can juggle multiple job roles
  • Rise in modern co-working spaces
  • Return of traditional separate work stations

Work-from-home dynamic

Pros

  • Saves money as travel costs, expenses on food, etc, decrease
  • Travel time reduces, saving time for extra work or rest
  • Better safety as one remains at home
  • Lesser work stress as one works from home in comfortable setting

Cons

  • No work-life balance as one works for extended hours
  • Power cuts, internet problems might disrupt work
  • Lesser concentration with family members around
  • Fatigue as schedule becomes hectic

Quotes

When we return to normal, the future of work will be hybrid—a fusion of working from conventional

physical office spaces from anywhere

— Sharad Mehra, CEO, Asia-Pacific region, Global University Systems

At the heart of the hybrid workplace are people, so our efforts and plans will extend beyond supporting remote work and new safety processes

— Ira Gupta, head of human resources, India, Microsoft

Though the activities will be divided between offices and homes, everyone will have to come to office at some point in time

— Rishi Raj, chief business development officer, Max Ventures & Industries

A continued work-from-home culture will get compensated by the de-densification of office space required to provide social distancing for employees

— Anuj Puri, chairman, Anarock Property Consultants, Mumbai

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