Virtual Un-distancing — Commercially Speaking
Yesterday was a Saturday. It was such a busy day. Weekends have rarely been so busy workwise, at least in the recent past (that is ever since I took what is a formal break from subjecting myself to abject slavery). I had registered for back to back webinars and web-meets with virtually no room for a toilet break. But then, I could attend each of those meetings sitting on a white ceramic throne (better known as the WC) — who would even know? With a virtual on-screen backdrop and the relative “no disturbance” the bathroom affords, it may soon be the most sought after workplace suite at home. Is this how new homes will be designed with the bathroom becoming a true to its name — ”the restroom” or better still graduate to becoming a formal workroom? Disclaimer: Too much time spent sanitizing hands with alcohol may result in such a crazy thought process.
Yeah! I do know of noise cancellation headphones, but can you tell me ways to avoid the disturbance caused by the magnetic — attention-grabbing — multitude of activities going on at home? Like it or not, what’s important to you is perceived as an excuse for “kaam-chori” (work evasion) by the new colleagues you formerly called your family. For them — all this webinar business is the non-guilt version of feeling productive while watching the equivalent of subscription-free Netflix.
How do I tell them that this is a test run for life even after lockdown ends? Do they believe our world will ever be the same once the lockdown is eased until its complete end? One of the webinars I attended yesterday was debating just this aspect from a commercial RE space point of view. The paranoia that struck the world to secure public places against guns and bombs on the back of 9/11 and 26/11 is a mere dot when compared to the fact that now every person coming your way is a potential agent of death — intentions-agnostic. There is no denying this threat perception is real, and perhaps, the point had to be driven in hard like it has— to be taken seriously by one and all — through this grossly exaggerated concept of lockdown. In a previous webinar, I heard the professionally learned ones tell me that commercial, retail, and hospitality sectors are “ducked” with a capital F. So, I was interested in hearing the views of industry leaders who put in figurative sweat and blood into the planning, designing, creation, equipping and selling of landmark public structures — on how real people would be welcomed back to real places in the domain of real estate — in what most perceive as the ideal gambling spots for playing viral “Russian Roulette” with your life.
The Webinar titled “The Future of Commercial Real Estate And The Built Environment” organized by Featherlite brought together stalwart panelists needing no introduction in the Indian RE space: Mr. Irfan Razack (Chairman Prestige Group); Mr. Raj Menda (Chairman RMZ Corp); Mr. Ram Chandnani (MD CBRE India); Mr. Yatin Patel (Founder DSP Design); Mr. Arun Khanna (Director RE United Health Group). The session moderated by Mr. Manohar Gopal (MD Featherlite). I was looking forward to a challenging debate, but these gentlemen are not politicians and were on the same page on just about everything. I would have thought there was enough room for the moderator to question certain assumptions laid out by the panelists. Like, I would have (with no offense meant) challenged Mr. Irfan’s view that investors in commercial real estate have made over 40% returns in the past, and will not abandon it in the future on grounds of low single digit if not net negative yields for quite some time to come; or at least questioned the practicality (cost-benefit ratio) of Mr. Menda’s suggestions on how to make the workplaces safe for occupants. I guess Covid has helped in unifying our thinking at least on this front— quoting the PM — “Jaan hai to Jahaan hai” — therefore no-cost “trumps” life — does not matter how uneconomic it is. Let’s hope the investors and occupiers will think of it in the same way, and so also their shareholders.
Several interesting thoughts were floored, like eliminating almost all touch points; the gradual phasing out of open-office plans; central air-conditioning making way for localized units; the concept of meeting and board rooms, cafeterias, and recreation zones becoming a thing of the past; new security, social distancing, and attire (read masks and gloves) norms/protocols within the office; the treatment of allowing in visitors as much as out-sourced facility management staff; the presence of onsite medical and/or containment rooms; refurbishment with socially distancing furniture; introduction of daily sanitization and redesigning of restrooms. (I shudder at the thought of taking a crap in the cleanest of clean common loo). Will any of these changes make the workplace any more attractive from an acquisition point of view? Will enduring this new culture beat working from home or in the least enthuse workforce morale or team camaraderie? While I do agree that even I am suffering from the claustrophobia of an imposed “house arrest” and want to run out to any place larger than my bathroom to do some work or work-related socializing, I doubt that traveling to an office building will be an immediate temptation — especially when commute by any form of public transport or an even more harrowing personal one is brought into the equation. The social structure is already embracing an excess of paranoia to be called comfortable.
Somewhere within the conversation, I heard that 5% to 50% of any office operation can be handled remotely, and given the social distancing norms that would mandatorily come in place, office demand would stay the same — negating most of the release of space rented out by social-workplaces that may find themselves made irrelevant by Covid. In fact such was the optimism that everything will go back to normal in a year or two at most. I would love to subscribe to that thought. But these changes themselves require substantial time and money to get implemented and put in practice to allow for an overnight unwinding. Once set, the workplace culture would be as set in the new norms as it was under the old one a few months back. Then again — man made or natural, who can tell if such a situation may not hit us again? From a governance, environmental, and many other aspects, keeping people caged in homes is being looked upon as an ideal situation from the point of control. It does sound dystopian, but, there is a big difference between theoretical assumptions and the actual result once implemented. Like, will an important employee working from home now want to claim WRA (workplace rent allowance) in addition to HRA? There are too many variables for the next 24 months to pass knee jerk judgments. All I do know is that we are no longer the same humans we were at the turn of this decade a few months back, and un-distancing in the real world will take a long-long time. Until then, I will raise virtual toasts with friends and acquaintances on the web, like I did last evening at a session on “Scotch Whiskey and Golf” sponsored by Ballentine of course.