THE TRANSITION TO A HYBRID WORKSPACE

COVID-19 disrupted the workplace as we knew it. By the second week of March, employers across India began advising their employees to work from home to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. However, not everyone can work remotely, and soon, the economy hit its lowest point in over a decade. Experts believe that the current slowdown is impacting the economy worse than the Great Recession of 2008.  According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, the unemployment rate shot up by 27.1 percent in the week that ended on May 3, 2020. The unemployment rate in April was 23.5 percent. While the lockdown initially affected only the unorganised sectors, the layoff wave soon hit the Indian startup ecosystem as well. The report also suggested that 23 percent of entrepreneurs reported a loss of jobs.  With the number of active coronavirus cases increasing, it is evident that it will take us a long time to get back to our desks and meeting rooms.  However, this disruption has brought in opportunities for startups to leverage technology and create products to increase the efficiency of working remotely. Several startups are now offering cloud-based solutions, enabling remote working, and even organising mental health programmes for the well-being of employees, even collaborating to tackle this ‘new normal’. Working in the new normal | Image Credits: Shutterstock Download YourStory Research's report on funding trends in the Indian startup ecosystem in H1 2020 So, how does the ‘new normal’ look like and what lies ahead in the future of work? A hybrid model Earlier executives across the board shunned the idea of working from home, believing it would hamper productivity. However, COVID-19 has shown us that no commute time and fewer coffee breaks have actually resulted in increased productivity among employees.  Companies have realised two things — most meetings can be just emails or a call, and renting an office is one of the biggest expenses, making working from home also economically viable for the company. Many believe that even after the pandemic is over, not everyone will rush back to their offices. Anant Maheshwari, President of Microsoft India, in an earlier conversation with Shradha Sharma, Founder and CEO of YourStory, said, “IT services companies will definitely have a ‘new normal’ of a hybrid workplace.” A hybrid workplace would essentially result in a flexible culture where employees can choose to work remotely or from the office. It could also mean one part of the workforce being in the office, while the other works from home. Rise of video conferencing platforms As boardrooms across the world struggled to function online, video conferencing platforms became one of the biggest gainers of the pandemic. In fact, Silicon Valley video conferencing startup Zoom was hailed as the “King of the Quarantine Economy”. In the initial days of the nationwide lockdown, it also saw rapid growth in India, becoming the top app on the Play Store. However, Zoom soon faced backlash amidst security and privacy concerns. But, several companies realised the business opportunity in the space. Google Meet was made free for all users while Cisco began offering free Webex licences. Then, multiple new players emerged in the market, offering video conferencing platforms and making the most of this ‘new normal’. These included Boston’s GoToMeeting, Bengaluru’s Airmeet and MeetFox, among others. Most recently, Reliance launched JioMeet, a video conferring app with unlimited free calling.  Zoom Founder Eric Yuan Also Read Google Meet, GoToMeeting, and other Zoom alternatives in video conferencing apps Rethinking office spaces The coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent nationwide lockdown had a southward effect on office spaces business. For a hybrid model to persist, workspaces have to be designed keeping ‘new normal’ norms in mind.  A report by CBRE on COVID-19 implications for Flexible Space states, “While further short-term pain is likely in the coming months, the sector’s long-term fundamentals remain sound, supported by several major structural shifts.” Sign up for Newsletters Check out our popular newsletters and subscribe This means coworking spaces and design startups have to take into account hygiene and sanitation, social distancing, and contactless automation. Commercial interior design startups are leveraging the opportunity to provide home office solutions to employees who are uncertain about returning to their offices. Tech-enabled commercial interior design startup Flipspaces pivoted its business model to persist the pandemic. It launched REBOOTSPACES to offer services for the next generation of commercial spaces. The Mumbai-based startup also launched home office solutions addressing the need for remote working experience. Pods designed by Flipspaces Also Read Pivot and Persist: Commercial design startup Flipspaces is helping companies like Google reboot office spaces Additionally, Bengaluru-based Workshaala launched a Homescape initiative, providing furniture necessary for people working from home.  Space is also seeing some traction with co-working space provider 91springboard raising Rs 45 crore recently from its existing investors. The company also reopened 14 of its 27 coworking spaces across the country. Coworking unicorn WeWork also committed $100 million investment in its India operation.  Aggressive use of AI  The new normal has also given rise to the rapid adoption of emerging and new technologies, across markets and industries. Artificial intelligence (AI) will benefit the new workplace by improving the productivity of employees. Mundane and repetitive work will be automated with the help of AI.  One example is the use of AI-powered chatbots. Even before the pandemic, consumer-facing companies adopted AI-powered chatbots to interact with their customers. This will be further accelerated to reduce administrative tasks and make processes more efficient. Thus, employees will be required to evolve their roles and learn to co-exist with AI.  Promoting wellness  Working from home may initially seem more of a boon than a bane. But, challenges are bound to arise with time. Employees with larger families, children in the house, and not enough space to set up an office will face productivity challenges.  Uncertainty of jobs, limited social interactions, and work deadlines while keeping up with personal duties at home will also become emerging concerns for mental well-being. During an unprecedented time like this, companies are also having to prioritise human concerns.  In India, conversations around mental health are considered a general taboo, and seeking professional help for mental wellness has always been an expensive affair. Image Credits: Shutterstock However, startups have begun providing counselling and mental awareness programmes to their employees. They are tying up with mental health experts or wellness platforms to ensure that their employees are able to maintain the work-life balance while the lines continue to blur.  For example, food tech giant Swiggy launched ‘Built around You’ initiative to support its employees and their families with unlimited tele and video consultation sessions with experts. Additionally, Mumbai-based CredR partnered with experts from Harvard University to conduct counselling sessions for its employees.  Upskilling and reskilling  Rampant job losses and an economic slowdown mean that the job market is getting more competitive. One of the most effective ways of standing out is by adding more skills to one’s resume or getting better at the existing ones.  A report by NASSCOM estimates that more than 40 percent of India's workforce needs to reskill by 2022. Edtech platforms are launching new courses and making existing ones more easily available to help users upgrade their professional skills. Image Credits: Shutterstock IntelliPaat, a skill-building startup, has been providing more than 150 courses on data science, AI, web technologies, and cloud computing, among others. Similarly, TalentSprint has tied up with educational institutions including IIT Hyderabad and Kanpur, and IIM Calcutta to offer courses on AI, machine learning (ML), blockchain, quantum computing, cybersecurity and fintech for students, preparing them for the corporate world.