Humanisation of the workplace

The COVID-19 crisis seems set to redefine the look and role of the regular office, and in terms of its character, it may be borrowing significantly from employees’ home offices

How much of the workplace will be the cubicle, and how much, the living room?

That’s a question based on a rapidly growing belief that what began as an unavoidable coping mechanism may actually end up becoming something of a norm.

Fancy George, workplace architect and senior director, KGD — Katerra Design Partner, believes “the regular office will no longer be a place where people are just crammed in to get the work done.” She foresees a time when the office will play more of a nurturing role, being something of a “parent office” that functions like, in her own words, “a ‘Greet and Meet’; ‘Collaborative Space’; ‘Space for a Townhall’; and ‘A Creative Space’.”

Shift in focus

Here’s what Fancy is driving at: If a huge chunk of the work can be done outside office, possibly from anywhere, the focus of why employees congregate at office is bound to shift, and depending on how much the home-office concept has caught on in an organisation, can even undergo a sea change. It’s extremely likely that the common workplace now has more room, so to speak, for initiatives that build organisational culture and promote team-building and creative collaboration.

Fancy supports her view with a few observations: “Some of my clients are prepared to stick to WFH till December 2021. Post-COVID, many of them are visualising a scenario where 80 p.c. of their workforce will be working from office, and the rest from home. The numbers will vary depending on the nature of work and sector. What is certain is that organisations will have to offer the WFH option to sections of their workforce. A certain percentage of the workforce will have that choice.”

These developments have the potential to humanise the workplace significantly, whether it is parked in the office building or the individual’s living room. Going by the experiences of a few organisations during the lockdown, where their employees shared videos of non-work related activities, including accounts of their personal challenges, the home offices are what can be expected to drive the humanisation of the workplace.

Wellness-centric spaces

Workplace designer Mahrooh Basar believes there are various layers to a well-designed workplace, and the primary concerns of physical comfort and well-being and work efficiency constitute just one layer. Here’s how Mahrooh puts it: “Creating an ergonomic space, and helping them with the right kind of technology are the main things to start with, while helping an employee set up a home office. But a good workplace would be way more than that.”

Fancy believes that in recent times, the emphasis on human-centric workplaces has been getting heavy. There is greater evidence of efforts to be aligned with goals similar to those presented in WELL certification. She elaborate that the WELL ethic requires that a raft of factors — “air, water, sound, light, fitness, nourishment, mind, materials, movement, community, innovation and comfort” — be considered while designing workplaces.

Fancy wants organisations to ensure these principles are extended to home workstations, which should go beyond the essential tools that enable work to be done efficiently, and get the individual to give equal weightage to having proper ventilation and sufficient natural lighting — achieved if the workstation is designed next to a window — a bit of greenery outside or close at hand to rest one’s eyes, and easy access to water.

Fancy and Mahrooh underline the necessity of movement in employee wellness.

“A designated workspace with work-related essentials and props can be central to a work office, but should not be restricted by it. The employee should cultivate the habit of moving around the house and working in comfort; props could be placed around the house to make sure the employee can carry out some of the work functions from different rooms, such as a beanbag in the living room to park oneself on and make a catch-up call with colleagues. For a virtual team collaboration meeting, one can move to the balcony. In a regular office, does an employee sit rooted to his chair the whole of eight hours? People move into different spaces to carry out different work functions,” says Fancy, suggesting that the home office should reflect the flexibility and scope of the regular office.

Mahrooh discloses that during the lockdown she has been missing her workplace for advantage of space it provided, and got her to move around. Being confined to home is limiting not just at the physical, but also the psychological level.

On a related note, Mahrooh touches upon the elitist nature of a ‘home office’, a concept that may come shorn of romanticism for a vast number of young employees who may be staying in PG accommodations, and strapped for space.

Now, the more powerful idea taking hold of organisations and corporate leaders is work-from-anywhere, and it has got positive implications for youngsters migrating to metropolitan cities in search of jobs, usually technology jobs. With the new thinking and work model tucked well in place, they may not have to stir from their home towns in search of opportunities, as work could be done on their home ground, as long as there is good Internet connectivity.

The new disruptions

Fancy believes that in the new normal, there should be greater acceptance of “disruptions” to work at home, of the kind witnessed sometime ago during a live interview on BCC News. Fancy is referring to the BBC’s interview with political science professor Robert E. Kelly about North Korea that was pleasantly disrupted by his two young children, one of them a toddler moving about in a baby activity walker, when they showed up in the background, which led to a flurry with which their mother swept them out of the room and the screen and closed the door.

“It led to a lot of debate. My personal view is that there is nothing wrong with such unexpected interruptions to work. It has to be taken in one’s stride,” says Fancy, suggesting that it is after all happening at home.

In a pleasant epilogue to the story, BBC News ran another interview, saying that this time the professor’s family is “meant to be in shot!”

Mahrooh is on the same page, and she believes that the mass scale on which WFH is happening has made people more respectful of the fact that someone could be taking an interview with their family around, and some of them could wade into view. This is a tolerance and acceptance that Mahoor wants to see carried into the post-COVID work environment and home offices.

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