Introduction

In the first few months of 2020, when the pandemic was still in its initial stages, many of us were asked to work from home. It was a refreshing change, a necessary step to ensure the health and safety of the employees. Many of us were even excited at the prospect of spending more time with our family and avoiding commuting altogether. 

All of us were faced with challenging situations from knowing how Zoom works to finding the comfiest spot at home with the least amount of distractions. We were slowly figuring out our new work environment while managing to have some light-hearted fun when our kids or pets decided to randomly barge in during work hours demanding our attention. Initially, this ad-hoc plan was assumed to be a temporary solution, but as the virus started surging unabated with no signs of stopping, we quickly got tired of this routine, and some of us did the unthinkable-actually wanting to go back to the office and have some face to face interactions. For those of you who miss the ambience of an office environment with people gossiping, phones ringing and printers beeping, here’s a useful site to recreate that environment. This relatively minor shift in our collective workplace has led to some transformational changes in the way we behave and the future of work itself, accelerating specific trends and obliterating specific industries.

What Jeans?

As people spend more time at home, their dressing styles have changed, preferring athleisure over jeans. In the US, Denim brands like True Religion and Lucky Brand have declared bankruptcy, with Levi’s reporting a 62% drop in its second-quarter revenue in the month of July this year. Levi’s also announced to lay off 15% of its corporate workforce. There’s been an increase in athleisure sales with Lululemon- a US domiciled athletic apparel retailer posting a 157% increase in online sales for the second quarter of this year. Another factor that is working against jeans is the fact that it’s often viewed as a capital expense compared to t-shirts which are more like impulse buys. Environmentally-conscious customers have also moved away from jeans, citing the enormous amount of water (estimated to be 10,000 litres) used in the entire product cycle.  

 Originally designed for miners, a humble pair of jeans can be worn for almost any social occasion and is universally loved for its versatility. Having weathered various changes in trends over the past few decades, it cannot be written off so easily-data compiled by Levi’s for the month of April 2020 reveals that 50% of the people globally wore some form of denim. On realizing that the pandemic will not last forever, people have resumed buying Jeans aided by the attractive discounts that retailers have been offering. 

The transformation of our homes into our workspace was not perfect. The desk at home was not suitable to work on, the wooden chair was not comfortable and the PC was a physical embodiment of Internet Explorer. On realizing these shortcomings, people wanted to upgrade their homes, and soon the demand for study tables, chairs, comfortable beds and recliners all went up. Furniture being a luxury for many there was also a spike in furniture rentals. Many large multinationals, companies in the Information Technology, BFSI and Consumer Products sector, incentivized the purchasing or renting of furniture for their employees.  

As nation-wide lockdowns began ensuring business continuity was paramount for businesses, forcing IT services, global enterprises and consulting companies to place large orders for notebook PCs which resulted in a 105.5% y-o-y increase in notebook PC shipments in the second quarter of 2020 according to IDC

What work-life balance?

As companies started declaring their intention to extend their work from home orders to next year or even permanently, the line between work and life slowly began to blur. A recent study by researchers from Harvard Business School and New York University, who analysed meetings and email metadata of more than 3 million people working in 21,478 companies across 16 cities in Europe, the United States and Israel has revealed some interesting insights. Their analysis compares the data during the lockdown period with data for eight weeks before the lockdown and eight weeks post the lockdown.

The results indicate that the number of meetings attended by the employees increased, on average, by 12.9% during the lockdown, and the average number of attendees per meeting increased by 13.5%. 

The average length of meetings fell by a little over 20%, with the net effect being people spending 11.5% less time attending meetings.

Analysing the number of hours between the first and last email sent/meeting attended by an individual in a day, revealed that on average, the length of the workday has increased by approximately 48.5 minutes. Longer workdays were a common trend across all the 16 cities during the lockdown. 

  With more companies forced to switch to online meetings, Microsoft reported that the number of minutes spent on Microsoft Teams meetings per day ballooned from 560 million on March 12th, 2020 to a whopping 2.7 billion minutes on March 31st, 2020. In its latest Work Trend Index, Microsoft surveyed over 6,000 information and first-line workers from eight countries which revealed that India was ranked second in terms of the percentage of workers facing increased burnout in Asia at 29%. The report also stated that 41% of the workers in India cited the lack of separation between work and personal life as negatively impacting their well-being, which resulted in increased levels of stress. 

What Office?

The office has been at the epicentre of all the tectonic shifts caused by the pandemic. The employers have started altering the workspace to make it safer for their employees by installing touch-free doors, voice-command elevators, digital sensors, higher quality air filtration systems and powerful cleaners. Amazon’s Alexa for Business may be widely adopted, removing the need to touch buttons or surfaces, and there can also be increased usage of UV lighting to disinfect offices. 

The pandemic has also accelerated certain trends in the office real estate space- pushing more companies away from long term leases (10-year leases) towards favouring short term and more flexible ones. Even co-working spaces known for their flexible terms have seen a decrease in demand from their clients. Co-working spaces have to go back to the drawing boards to draw up a strategy that does not involve packing as many people as possible in an area. 

Real estate costs are a less-discussed trigger that has made companies enforce work from home. Food delivery giant Zomato (Startup Giants: Zomato vs Swiggy) which reportedly closed 125 of its 150 offices worldwide during the lockdown stated that real estate was one of its highest expenses. In August this year, Pinterest announced that it is cancelling its lease on a new 490,000 square-foot office building in San Francisco, USA stating that it is exploring a permanent shift towards remote work. 

As the bottom-line of many companies take a hit, it is financially wise for companies to shift their workforce to their own homes and save on rent obligations. The restaurant and travel industry have been at the receiving end of the changes taking place in the office and are facing an existential crisis. Online meetings have taken a toll on the airlines’ industry with business travel accounting for nearly 60%-70% of all airline traffic. WSJ reported that business travel in the month of July this year was down by almost 97% from its 2019 levels and an estimated $2 trillion (USD) of corporate travel will not happen in 2020. In a quarterly earnings call in July, Starbucks cited empty office corridors as the reason for a loss of around $ 2 billion (USD) y-o-y. American multinational conglomerate 3M also reported a 13% fall in sales in the 2nd quarter of 2020 on a y-o-y basis due to the lacklustre performance of its abrasives and adhesives business and a 25% fall in demand for Scotch tape and Post-it notes.

What Privacy?

Driven by the increasing need for “employee safety” and to ensure “productivity” employers have resorted to increased workplace surveillance.  Many companies have reported using monitoring software to take screenshots of an employee’s laptop, mandated that webcams should be always-on and scheduled an increased number of daily check-ins, measures that show complete disregard for an employee’s privacy. One of the software which can be installed on a computer makes a timeline of all the apps/websites that an employee visits in a day, categorizing them into productive and unproductive and assigning a productivity score to each employee. Companies operating in this industry have an arsenal of tools to monitor an employee like tracking an employee’s mouse usage to assess whether they’re active, recording emails and even their keystrokes.

To ensure that employees return to a safe and healthy workplace, companies have resorted to using smartwatch-like devices to enforce social distancing measures; these devices are capable of capturing immense amounts of information, especially health-related data. Some of these contact tracing solutions can be installed on an employee’s phone designed to be activated only when they enter the workplace, to track their whereabouts. These solutions are highly accurate and pinpoint the employee’s exact location down to the room where they are standing in.

Conclusion

With the pandemic permanently altering our workplace, the office we once knew will never be the same. The solutions in response to the pandemic which were initially ad-hoc will continue to be used in some form or manner in the near future, with unknown repercussions for the future of work and personal life.  Employers and the employees should be considerate and mindful of each other’s needs as we go through unprecedented times while uniting to ensure a safe and healthy work environment.

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Rajan writes about the startup ecosystem on VCBay. He is a Master of Business Finance graduate from XIM University, with a passion for all things finance and technology.

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