Re-imagining cities and the workplace

Sandhya Shekhar | Updated on June 16, 2021

‘Work near home’ will have to aligned with sustainable transportation   -  Tullio Puglia

In a post Covid world, ‘work near home’ with work hubs within 2-km radius would be a sustainable way forward

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen the world scrambling to find the most efficient ways of working virtually. Questions abound on whether the future of work should be just the way it used to be earlier, or entirely virtual, or a hybrid.

Perhaps the time has come for us to look at work arrangements, not merely from the limited perspective of risk mitigation strategies for organisations during such crises, but as an opportunity to rethink the fundamental blue-print of our cities and towns to build a more environmentally sustainable post pandemic world.

While working from home has definitely helped sustain institutions and organisations during the pandemic, there have been numerous problems.

The downside

1. Inadequate working infrastructure at home, like office equipment, robust connectivity, power back-ups, noise free workspace, etc;

2. Psychological issues of working in isolation;

3. Activities thriving on group work, especially those that are innovation centric as well as manufacturing and equipment based work as in research labs, taking a significant beating;

Many traditional organisations simply can’t wait to get back to the good old ways of working in comfortable office spaces.

What should be the way forward as far as work-formats are concerned? Can we re-imagine our cities in a way that addresses all the issues related to virtual work, whilst creating a vastly improved quality of life?

The answer in a nutshell is to ‘work near home’ instead of from ‘work from home’. This would require a well-planned distribution of Work Hubs (WH) and Super Hubs (SH). The distribution of WHs needs to be such that it caters to residents living within a radius of about 2 km.

Each WH will comprise of good quality modular office-space with essential infrastructure including common office equipment, robust connectivity, critical support services and parking space. Air filters, air-curtains and sanitisation tunnels at entry points, can get activated during times of health threats.

WHs can also become nodal points for solar powered charging stations for electrical vehicles. The immediate vicinity of WHs can be allocated for essential commercial outlets. Organisations can rent spaces from multiple WHs.

A Super Hub (SH) would be much larger with better infrastructure to cater to bigger groups from a single organisation for specific events or certain core activities and facilities that necessarily need to be co-located.

In addition to the infrastructure in the WHs, the SHs would be equipped with high speed connectivity, meeting rooms, auditoriums, food courts and hyper-charging facilities for electric vehicles. SHs can be created within a 2km vicinity of a key public transport system with the numbers and distribution based on the total working population in any city. Some corporate offices could be re-designated as SHs.

They might now house a much smaller number of employees based on a careful identification of the teams that necessarily have to be collocated. The rest of the space can be made available to other organisations. These organisations can pre-book space and facilities in the SH based on requirements of larger groups of employees to come together.

Rapid adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) can be facilitated due to shorter commutes. If the employee is part of a core collocated team or has to commute for a larger group meeting, the use of a good quality public transport can be encouraged. A well-planned system of EVs for hire from every stop of the public transport system to nearby SHs can ensure seamless connectivity and increase adoption.

The benefits

The potential benefits to different stakeholders are enumerated below:

City: 1. Drastic reduction in emission levels on account of reduced commutes for most office-goers.

2. A pull-based adoption of EVs and corresponding reduction in pollution levels.

3. A more systematic delineation of commercial clusters near WHs, releasing up pavements and green spaces in other areas.

4. Expansion of cities based on well-planned and self-sufficient hub-based clusters.

Organisations: 1. A WH comprising people from multiple organisations and diverse domains could encourage positive outcomes (as seen in research parks), compared to homogeneous groups, often working in a ‘compete’ mode.

2. Organisations will be able to leverage the advantages of virtual work, without the associated problems: of having to work infrastructure for employees at home.

3. Huge investments in large facilities in anticipation of growth can be avoided. A WH-SH model will provide the flexibility to expand/cut-back at will. They can also dynamically change and rotate members of core collocated teams, bringing in fresh ideas and greater agility.

4. Organisation risks on account of potential future pandemic like situations can be minimised.

5. This will increase process standardisation improving operational efficiency even within smaller organisations.

Individuals: 1. An average commute of less than 2 km for a majority of the workforce in any city sounds like utopia. The proposed model would liberate families from choosing between proximity to schools versus workplace and provide more family time.

2. Serious psychological problems of working in isolation without any social interaction, as in the case of working from home will no longer be there.

3. Infrastructure problems associated with WFH will not arise.

Infrastructure providers: Infrastructure providers like telecom, real estate, security, transport providers and essential services, will have a clearer roadmap for their own organisational plans. Specifically,

1. Telecom providers can align their networks better for peak requirements and backup plans.

2. The WH-SH grid map can drive the business models of EV providers and aggregators. It can also be the basis for a more systematic distribution of charging stations and allied services

3. Real-estate providers can re-structure their offerings. Large multi-storeyed apartments can delineate spaces for creating WHs. This could spawn a new breed of aggregators providing end-to-end services for WHs.

It might be best to implement this model first in a new township or a satellite town and then diffuse it into other areas. Multiple stakeholders including policy makers, city planners, industry, real-estate providers, telecom providers, public transport providers and key opinion leaders from the EV segment, need to come together to make this happen. Successful implementation could make India a role model where economic growth is not at the cost of sustainability.

The writer is a Strategy Consultant and former CEO IIT Madras Research Park. Views are personal

Published on June 15, 2021

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