The Economist: Back to the office: lessons from Asia

Originally published on The Economist

In the post-lockdown return to the workplace, some Asian countries are weeks or months ahead of those in Europe and America. In China, for example, around 90% of the workforce of Infosys, an IT-services giant, is already back on company campuses, an executive says. The transition is uneven—in India, 90% of Infosys employees continue to work from home. But firms across Asia now have the most experience in reopening workplaces safely. Relative to companies elsewhere, they are living in the future—and are therefore in a position to offer some practical advice. Welcoming back employees turns out to require a lot more than checking temperatures and providing face masks and hand sanitiser. The companies we spoke to offered tips in three areas: organisation, sanitation and automation.

 

  • Stagger arrival times to prevent crowding, and avoid overlap between arriving and departing shifts. Encourage employees to avoid public transport if they can. Where possible, fetch staff with company vehicles. Their capacity should be capped at 40%, India’s government says. Infosys buses serving the company’s 19 campuses in India are typically running at about 15% capacity, says Narsimha Rao Mannepalli, an executive in Bengaluru. Fares have been waived for the pandemic.
  • Slash lift capacity. Reducing the maximum number of riders by a factor of four, or even more, is commonplace. In many lifts, signage instructs riders to face the walls, says Amit Oberoi, who works for Colliers International, a multinational that advises users of commercial real estate, in Gurgaon, India. Talking is generally banned and masks are mandatory. Lift queues can be long, so set up a coffee bar nearby, adds Peter van Woerkum of the Amsterdam office of Cushman & Wakefield, a firm advising Asian firms on bringing back employees.
  • Apply paint or tape to floors and tables to space out employees and direct their movements. Markings should be bright and big, at least until staff learn the drill. To maintain safe distances, introduce one-way systems in corridors and allow only clockwise (or anti-clockwise) movement around groups of desks. Table seating should zigzag or be restricted to a single side. Cushman & Wakefield suggests installing different coloured carpet around desks to remind colleagues to stay back.
  • Ban flexible “hot-desking” in favour of assigned workstations. If possible, group team members on a single floor and prevent mixing with teams on other floors. That way, if an employee gets infected, only those on the same floor need to self-isolate. To minimise huddles around printers or water-coolers, move them out of corners and into central positions.

 

These organisational changes, to keep employees further apart, must be combined with a strong focus on sanitation.

 

  • Disinfect relentlessly, especially between shifts. Tatiana Gómez, a workplace consultant in Hong Kong with Herman Miller, a maker of office furniture, says some clients she visits in China sanitise photocopiers every two hours. Flipkart, an Indian online retailer based in Bengaluru, regularly disinfects even whiteboard markers, says Krishna Raghavan, its HR boss. Logging disinfection times and places into a company app reassures staff.
  • Limit things that must be touched. Infosys has removed door handles where possible—opening with a shoulder nudge is safer, Mr Rao Mannepalli says. Water-coolers and lifts that are operated by foot pedals are increasingly common in Asia, as are touchless bathroom taps. Carol Wong of the Singapore office of Cushman & Wakefield says brass keychain gizmos or “door claws”, with a stylus to tap keypads and a hook to open doors, are also becoming popular.
  • Open windows and reconfigure ventilation systems. Air conditioners typically recycle a lot of already-cooled air. This cuts electricity bills, but makes the circulation of airborne viruses more likely, notes Nitesh Bansal, head of engineering services for Infosys in Richardson, Texas. So the facilities’ cooling units have been set for “complete air flush out”, he says. Firms can trim the extra cost by turning thermostats up a notch.

 

Managers planning the return to work are being offered a range of high-tech tools to monitor and maintain social distancing:

 

  • Social-distancing buzzers are out. These wearable devices beep when a radio signal determines that another user has come too close. Some reckon the idea brilliant. But the gadgets have not caught on among Asia’s white-collar workforces. Relatively few firms are investing in the gizmos, says Mr van Woerkum, because regimented office cultures and respect for rules mean there is little need for them. Other firms offer camera-based systems that use machine learning to work out when people are standing too close together in offices, factories or warehouses.
  • Contact-tracing apps are in. Early in the pandemic, people entering Asian office buildings would be asked to provide their contact details, in case of an outbreak. This has mostly been replaced with scannable smartphone codes, and more capable apps are coming. While governments dither and worry about take-up of national tracking apps, firms can mandate app usage at work. PricewaterhouseCoopers, a consultancy, has developed a proximity-tracking app and tested it in its Shanghai office. It is now rolling it out more widely, and making it available to clients for $12 per employee per year. Buyers consider it “a godsend”, says Rob Mesirow of PwC.
  • But watch out for privacy rules. As economies switch from what Singapore calls the “circuit breaker” model of on-off lockdowns to managing workplace risk, local laws must be followed. Dutch companies, for example, may deploy infrared thermometers, but readings of body temperature can be neither stored nor seen by passing co-workers. Some jurisdictions require the naming of a safety czar.

 

A final lesson from Asia’s experience is the importance of company (and industry) psychology. Broadly, startups adjust faster than corporations, says Truddy Cheung of Colliers in Hong Kong—and tech firms adapt better than finance outfits, says Martin Axe of Steven Leach Group, a workplace consultancy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This may be because techies thrive on collaboration, whereas bankers have more of a competitive mindset.

More broadly, managers should expect employees to be more “stressed and irritable” in the face of these changes, warns Eduard Alcordo of the Australia Philippines Business Council in Sydney. The anthropological cliché is that Asian cultures are more collectivist, while Western cultures are generally more individualistic. When it comes to conforming to new rules to minimise the spread of covid-19, says Ben Waber of Humanyze, a Boston firm that researches workplace cultures, that may put American and European firms at a disadvantage. Be careful out there, folks.

Last Updated 21 March 2021