Business as ‘Unusual’: What COVID-19 Means for Tomorrow’s Workplace Culture

Much before the novel coronavirus disrupted life and work for the human race, fast-growing tech startups had abolished cubicles and made way for sleek open-office floor plans to encourage collaboration and socialising among co-workers. For instance, when Facebook famously designed its enormous open-floor, cubicle-free California headquarters in 2015, it was to bolster creativity and effective collaboration among thousands of workers who shared the same work floor. 

However, the year 2020 has dramatically changed the narrative on how the future of the workplace will pan out once the dust settles on the pandemic. 

A shift to the new normal

Social distancing and stringent hygiene regulations have prompted the business world to adjust to how employees will transition from working in physical office spaces to working from home. Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg  recently announced that it would gradually shift away from its giant campuses and usher in a new work culture that will allow over 48,000 employees to work remotely from home. The decision is also triggered by the growing realisation that open-floor layouts increase the risk of spreading infectious diseases such as COVID-19.

There has been a lot of discussion around how the pandemic has advanced the arrival of the future of work that moves away from the conventional office-centric culture. Employees across industries have shifted to remote teleworking without being tied to a particular physical location as was the reality even as recently as February 2020. Taking a cue from tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, technology startups, too, have rolled out steps to help their workforce adjust to the new normal of working from home. As things stand, organisations big and small seem in no hurry to get employees back to the office. Tata Consultancy Services is working toward a plan that will require only one-fourth of its total workforce to come to its physical facilities by 2025.

Among the startup community, EdTech player Unacademy has announced that across teams, 60 per cent of its 1,000-strong workforce will work from home permanently. The decision of startups to work from home also stems from a pragmatic outlook that seeks to keep costs down on office rentals and other fixed expenditure. 

Reimagine and reopen the new office 

Not just globally, the extended lockdown has also adversely impacted the Indian startup ecosystem. The pandemic has caused a sharp decline in deal flows in India, with May 2020 registering as many as 20 deals falling through. Venture capital (VC) investments in Indian startups have seen a downward trajectory, falling sharply to $2.2 billion in Q1 2020 from $6 billion in Q4 2019.  According to a recent Nasscom report, nearly forty per cent of startups have temporarily halted their operations or are gearing for a shutdown. 

Although office meetings have moved to the virtual world—a trend that’s possibly here to stay—the benefits of the longstanding work culture that relies on in-person collaboration and brainstorming to empower employees to contribute to spontaneous problem-solving through team activities are unmatched.  It especially holds true for the startup landscape. 

In the pre-COVID-19 world, startups thrived in a collaborative work environment that fostered resourcefulness and innovation. Despite the changed work paradigm of telecommuting triggered by the pandemic, the benefits of returning to a physical office for early-stage startups are immense. Since face-to-face problem-solving and building the company’s team culture are more effectively done in person, startups around the world have already introduced measures to adapt to a new workplace where the safety and well-being of employees are paramount. The startups that have re-opened their offices are implementing revised work processes to enable team collaboration while keeping people apart, in adherence to the new rule of social distancing. 

For example, California startup Mission Bio aims to do things differently from what existed in the pre-COVID-19 world. Since the startup works in the area of cancer research, its nature of work qualifies as essential and something that can be effectively carried out only in its lab facilities. However, the startup swiftly adapted to the changed work scenario by modifying its open-floor plan and staggering the return of employees by allowing them to select shifts. Mission Bio also provides COVID-19 tests onsite to its employees.

As the above example illustrates, startup founders need to convince their workforce that safety and a sanitised work environment will be a top priority if they decide to reopen offices post the lockdown. In the new normal, employees will hold their organisation responsible for their health and expect their workplace to be sanitised and social distancing norms to be maintained in seating arrangements and in-person meetings. 

A recent global survey of startups revealed that 63 per cent of startups are in favour of reopening their offices, while 10 per cent have closed their offices permanently. Further, 81 per cent of startups said they would prefer a hybrid office model that allowed a balance of physical office space and remote working. 

The survey is a revelation of the power of collaborative teamwork and employee interactions to sustain the traditional startup culture that thrives on active employee engagement. Thus, while several businesses have shifted to remote working, there are still some that feel the need for their workforce to resume reporting to brick-and-mortar offices to foster interactions and sustain ‘office energy’ that is vital to the startup ecosystem.

There are other reasons, too, for startups to consider returning to the office. The unprecedented impact of the pandemic on businesses has compelled organisations to re-evaluate their employees’ well-being strategy and invest in their physical and mental well-being.  If offices reopen, stressed-out employees will be able to better cope with their emotional and intellectual needs as they would no longer require to work in isolation from remote locations. Further, people will once again have access to a healthy office culture that promotes collaboration among colleagues.

Moreover, collaboration is key for startups in the area of funding. Since VC firms are accustomed to meeting startup founders in-person to decide on the future course of funding and creating strategic partnerships, such meetings will never go away completely. However, in the current crisis, founders should identify which meetings require the physical presence of employees and other stakeholders and which can be managed from a remote location. A healthy mix of both approaches will help startups navigate COVID-19 with less stress.

The pandemic and the future of co-working spaces 

As recently as February 2020, trendy co-working spaces such as WeWork promised the advent of the office of tomorrow. However, in the pandemic-hit world, the once densely populated co-working properties are now facing critical challenges, such as loss of tenants due to the sharp drop in footfalls in India and other global locations. With the bulk of the world’s workforce working from home, the once-in-demand co-working companies have taken a massive financial hit due to clients’ unwillingness to renew short-term leases and return to these spaces due to concerns over safety issues. The concerns pertain to a lack of clarity over issues such as the number of people who would be allowed to work at a time in these locations and whether the office layout and ventilation standards would meet the current workplace regulations in the COVID-19 era. 

If customers have to be lured back to these co-working spaces, WeWork and its peers have to convince clients that stringent safety measures will be implemented to safeguard their health. The co-working operators must re-evaluate how best their office layouts can support social distancing by setting up sanitisation stations and restricting occupancy limits in meeting rooms.

Undoubtedly, the pandemic presents a unique opportunity for co-working spaces to reinvent their business model. The time is opportune for them to fight for their survival to retain their competitive edge both during the current health crisis and beyond it.

Sometimes, it takes a crisis of this unprecedented scale to fast-track collaboration and innovation among competitors. In what can be construed as a heartening development, more than 20 of the world’s largest co-working firms, such as Industrious and Convene in the U.S., JustCo of Singapore, and IWG PLC of the U.K., have united to  form a new umbrella organisation known as the Workplace Operator Readiness Council. The co-working firms have created a playbook that details the efforts of these organisations to make workplaces safer, in keeping with the demands of the pandemic era. The playbook also offers recommendations to enhance the safety standards in the workplace. Interestingly, the council also includes key stakeholders like landlords, design firms and epidemiologists to contribute their insights to enable clients to make a successful transition to reoccupy these prized rental spaces in the foreseeable future.

Looking ahead, the onus is on co-working spaces to adjust to the new workplace reality and explore new revenue streams that could soften the economic blow dealt by COVID-19. Crucially, co-working firms should also stay engaged with customers through virtual co-working memberships, as implemented by Ka Waiwai, a co-working space operating in Hawaii.  

Only time will tell whether co-working spaces will survive the long-term impact of the virus outbreak. However, as things stand, these organisations should focus on plying tenants to return, even at the cost of reduced rentals in the short-term. 

Paving the way for beyond the pandemic

Undeterred by the perils posed by COVID-19, businesses in New York City are devising new work strategies that offer workers office options closer to their homes to help them avoid long commutes in the public transit system. Eric Schmidt, former CEO, Google, is also in favour of this approach. He says, “We’re going to have to think about hub-and-spoke systems where some local people don’t travel so far because they don’t want to be in public transit for so long. So, we’re going to have to really rethink how businesses operate.”

For example, WeWork is  uniquely positioned to “set up offices in multiple locations, with flexible layouts and spaces.” The company has also gained valuable insights from its experience in China, where it was operating spaces in 100 buildings when the pandemic first broke out. WeWork was compelled to adopt technologies and roll out safety procedures that are now implemented in all its global locations.

One way forward for the Indian startup ecosystem would be to replicate this model and offer its workers flexible work locations closer to their home, thus avoiding high-density touchpoints in their daily commute to the office. Further, ever since lockdowns have been lifted, a staggered return to work has been seen in most geographies, including in India. Indian cities that are viral hotspots are also transforming to adjust to the new normal brought in the wake of COVID-19. While there is the possibility of low-wage workers not migrating to cities in search of employment opportunities, India’s urban workforce has also switched to work from home, impacting the demand for office space in the near future.

And yet, amid the uncertainty posed by the pandemic, large conglomerates and the global startup community have stepped up their efforts to seize new opportunities to build a new work culture. Through this crisis, startup founders and business leaders have extended their support to their workforce to help them adapt to a fluid organisational landscape that is poised to re-define the future of work. If this momentum continues, the possibility of building a safe and sustainable post-COVID-19 work culture seems more imminent than ever.

T-Hub Leads the Way for a New Work Culture in the Era of COVID-19

While many organisations are pushing back reopening their office due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases around the world, there are also those that are cautiously encouraging their workers to return to the office by implementing stringent safety measures. They are ushering in best practices to prepare their workforce for a gradual return to the physical office space.

The pandemic has also resulted in heavy monetary losses for startups that had invested in office spaces. Among the various challenges for businesses, they are compelled to continue paying rent for their office premises that have been shut for months, becoming liabilities for the organisations.

Since returning to offices still presents a risk in these critical times, T-Hub extends its full support to the larger ecosystem of startups, corporates, SMEs, academia, freelancers and consultants by building a smart and revolutionary workspace hub suited to everyone’s business needs. As a space provider, we have multiple products designed for various kinds of client – be it individual entrepreneurs or fledgling startups or even established large-scale enterprises. T-Hub’s workspaces cater to a varied range of requirements from clients.

T-Hub offers a state-of-the-art world-class infrastructure that serves the needs of the entire innovation ecosystem and encourages optimum productivity. The workspaces have been specially designed to foster the spirit of entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity. 

Interested in exploring the best workspace proposition for you? Let’s Talk.