COVID-19 has gravely impacted the workplace, with large-scale shutdowns of offices, restaurants and malls being the norm everywhere. Being mostly categorised as ‘Assembly buildings’, the dense crowds of people occupying these establishments made them potent ‘virus chambers’, leading to their shut down through lockdown orders. As a consequence, employees have resorted to ‘work from home’ while members of the public are fearful of entering malls and restaurants. This has resulted in a sudden and tragic downturn in what was otherwise a booming industry.
Commercial office spaces in India have been characterized by large floor plates in high-rises serviced by high capacity elevators. Enclosed in glass facades, corporate offices have grand lobbies and large parking areas. Their employee work areas comprise clustered office cubicles designed to facilitate a collaborative work environment.
With the onset of COVID-19, architects will have to rethink the way they design office spaces for Corporate India. From glass-facade high-rises, epitomized by DLF’s Horizon Center in Gurgaon, companies could well consider smaller, low-rise individual buildings spread around a common green space. An inspiration of sorts would be Microsoft’s corporate headquarters in Redmond, Seattle, the likes of which is depicted in the photograph below.
These spaced-out corporate offices would facilitate social distancing among employees. They would also inhibit the growth of ‘virus chambers’. Further HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) systems must continually draw in the fresh air and avoid recirculating closed air. While this would lead to increased energy consumption, it can be offset through the deployment of rooftop solar panels and limiting cooling temperatures to 25 or 26 degree Celsius, controlling electricity costs in the process.
Legal Liability for Workplace-Contracted Infections in India – Factories Act and the Draft Labour Code:
The term ‘Workplace-Contracted Infection’ is used to depict any communicable disease which is contracted by an employee or third party at the workplace. Workplace infections tend to be contagious in nature, spreading through aerosol droplets and contaminated surfaces. Along with COVID-19, highly contagious diseases included Measles, Hepatitis A and B, the Flu and several others.
The Factories Act of 1948 prescribes mandatory criteria for cleanliness, hygiene and disinfection. Sections 11 requires factory floors to be cleaned at least once per week using disinfectants. Section 13 requires adequate ventilation by the circulation of fresh air in every room. Section 16 prohibits overcrowding by stipulating 14.2 cubic meters as the minimum volume of working space per worker.
Any violation of the provisions of the Factories Act, 1948 or rules or guidelines issued under it, is a punishable offence. Section 92 of the Act makes any violation of hygiene or cleanliness standards punishable with imprisonment of up to two years in jail.
The Factories Act of 1948 is likely to be strengthened in the aftermath of COVID-19. It is likely to be repealed and replaced by the Draft Occupational Health and Working Code of 2019. The Draft Code, currently pending in the Lok Sabha, proposes to apply to all establishments employing ten or more persons. Section 2(u) defines ‘establishment’ as a place where any industry, trade, business, manufacture or occupation is carried on and ten or more persons are employed.
With the broad and inclusive definition given to the term ‘establishment’, it is likely that not only factories but also corporate offices employing ten or more persons will be covered under the Draft Occupational Health and Working Code of 2019. Section 23 of the Draft Code imposes a statutory duty upon the employer to maintain safe health and working conditions in accordance with rules and guidelines prescribed by the Central Government. Any violation of health, hygiene and safety standards would be punishable under Section 90 with fines of up to one lakh rupees.
Future of Workplace Design Post-COVID-19:
‘Prevention is better than Cure’ is the fundamental principle that will form the basis of Workplace and Office spaces design post-COVID-19. Architects and Interior Designers will have to make the workplace as infection-proof as possible. Strict compliance with legal hygiene standards can be complemented with innovative building planning and interior design which will facilitate disinfection, de-densification and open ventilation.
From an architectural perspective, the first step would be to avoid high-rise skyscrapers. High-rises are heavily dependent on elevators, which are potent virus chambers. Low rise buildings with open and ventilated staircases will prevent them from clustering in cramped elevators with contaminated button panels. Municipal and planning authorities should consider permitting additional staircases free of FSI/FAR (Floor Space Index/Floor Area Ratio) which would aid social distancing among staff members climbing up and down the stairs.
In addition to low-rise buildings and ventilated staircases, architects must consider reducing the average size of floor plates in office buildings. Instead of one mega-structure, the permissible floor area can spread across smaller individual structures centred around a common green or recreational space. This would reduce employee-density in stairwells and lobbies and enable building-specific access restrictions.
Interior designers can also do their bit through innovative cubicle design that would enhance the distance between individual employee workstations. They can enlist the assistance of HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) experts to introduce cubicle-centric ventilation which would introduce fresh air rather than recirculate stale air.
Employee cafeterias, the preferred spot for socializing in the workplace, will bear the brunt of closures post-COVID-19 Lockdown. Here too designers can step in to the rescue by providing innovative vending machines, kitchen sanitation and enhanced automation.
Zero Infections – Zero Disruptions
Businesses post-COVID 19 will adopt a new mantra – Zero Infection, Zero Disruptions. Business continuity is sacrosanct and even a single day’s shutdown results in losses. Therefore the Doctrine of “Prevention through Design” will see widespread adoption in all aspects of workplace design. Coupled with strict adherence to cleanliness and hygiene standards, it will facilitate a quicker resumption of normalcy in a more resilient form. Therefore not only will the lessons of COVID-19 be remembered and imbibed but history will also be prevented from repeating itself.