COVID-19 impact: It’s time to reimagine work culture and transform cities

The pandemic has taught us to rethink lifestyles and question our need to travel to work every day

By Sugeet Grover
Published: Monday 17 August 2020

Let us imagine a central business district (CBD) as a setting for a theatre.

The first act has a delayed start, but as it begins, our characters are introduced. They bring noise and chaos onto the stage.

There is a huge associated demand for parking space during this act and the driver can be seen jostling with the parking person to find a nice spot for his / her car. Some of the characters can be seen grabbing a snack, while others getting their shoes polished. Everyone is in a hurry to reach their offices.

In the second act, people come out of their offices once again to grab lunch. This creates the associated demand for a food stall to come up, maybe accompanied by a paan shop and another selling juice.

In the third act, the first act almost gets repeated in reverse and the same space, which was jam packed at 10 am, starts to become emptier after 5:30 pm. By 7 pm, it is unrecognisably desolate.

It is, however, the fourth act where the audience expects the rest of the characters and story elements to get introduced — the family, friends, leisure and humour. But as the audience waits, patience starts running thin.

The change in the setting seems to have taken a very long time, most of which seems to have been wasted in ‘commute’, the characters on the new stage (called the ‘residential zone’) seem to be more tired, and the introduction of new characters is rushed up before the characters call it a night. The audience is disappointed.

Let’s shift this to another setting called the ‘mixed land use’. The change in setting does not take time and the characters seem to be in good mood. The chaos and pollution has reduced. There is less commute and the saved times has allowed space for a new act, called leisure and play.

Cut to our life stories — where the workplace setting is often far away from residential areas. It exists as the city is divided into zones; central business district; and large commercial complexes.

This segregated zoning ensures to-and-fro travel. The scene of chaos merely shifts. The parking space, which was in short supply in the CBD now finds itself abandoned, while its demand rises in residential zones where neighbours can be seen arguing for a spot.

While the commuters lose time and peace of mind, the city loses its most valuable resource-space that is rendered useless in the CBD because of lack of distribution of activities throughout the day.

The opportunity

If anything, the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has taught us to rethink our lifestyles and question our need to travel to work every day. After all, in the age of internet, zoom meetings and webinars can be virtually conducted and physical distancing is possible.

A large nature of work in cities is of tertiary nature, a major part of which can be done from home. This can affect the way offices function and reduce the need for all employees to be physically present every day. Information Technology companies are already contemplating a move of making many of its employees work from home and make this a ‘new normal’.

If more firms follow suit, the need for huge office buildings and central business districts would change. Apartments cannot get bigger at the same rate, and people may not have the space or atmosphere to work from home.

This would mean that more people would opt for co-working spaces close to their homes. This could be a game changer, for it would provide the cities to better distribute their activities throughout the spaces and rid themselves of the idea of zoning.

The benefits

Only a handful of professionals are allowed to function from residential zones, including doctors, lawyers, architects, etc. This needs serious rethinking: Many more professions of similar nature that do not disturb surrounding residence and have no requirements of special services should be added to the list.

This new work culture would bring associated demand for food joints, cafés, stationary shops, etc. The peppering of these activities throughout the city will have three major impacts.

  • Saving commute time and its associated benefits of less pollution and traffic
  • As mono-functional zoning takes a hit, the city can use its land more efficiently
  • Better distribution of activities would be associated with safer streets and public spaces as they would not go unused and hence have less likelihood of being used for unlawful activities

Our cities have equated commute with cars for too long. While redesigning of streets is a welcome step, we need to go beyond the main roads.

As the work gets closer to home, the commute will take place through the interiors of neighbourhoods. It is these streets that will also require structuring to encourage non-motorised transportation.

While last mile connectivity has been a concern in cities, it is time to imagine ‘last mile’ to be the only commute a person should undertake.

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