Reopening the Office? Here’s How to Stymie Transmission of Covid-19.
Originally published in July 2020 by Scott E. Page in the Harvard Business Review
Businesses from Bangor to Barstow have begun reopening. As they do, the safety of their employees and customers — from both real and perceived risks — have become paramount concerns. Concerns over catching and spreading the coronavirus mean that the roughly 40% of workers able to work from home likely will continue to do so. But for the majority of workers, a physical return looms in at least some capacity.
Work that requires physical interactions — construction, retail, food service, entertainment, sports, medical care, education, and salons — will require significant changes to the physical environment and individual behaviors. In designing those changes, leaders should aim for a path-breaking strategy: creating behavioral protocols and built environments that break transmission paths.
While social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, and wiping down surfaces make those workplaces safer, limiting the spread of the virus depends on identifying and disrupting systems of connections. It will require mapping out transmission networks and breaking key links in those networks, a strategy quite similar to the one the intelligence community has long used to break up illegal networks.
In other words, effective re-opening strategies focus on breaking up connecting paths rather than just reducing number of connections. Two workplaces might have equal numbers of potential connections through which the virus can spread; but if one workplace disrupts more pathways, it will be doing more to stop the spread of the virus.
The logic works as follows: All networks are made up of nodes or points and connections between them. In the case of the virus, a connection is a transmission pathway between points. That path could be airborne respiratory droplets or some surface. Airborne transmission occurs through face to face interactions or, in some cases, from droplets lingering in the air. The masks and barriers we’ve all become accustomed to are part of the strategy to break this path. Surface, or fomite, transmission occurs when an object’s surface has been touched many times by many people who transmit the virus to the object, which is then transmitted again to another person touching that surface, be it a door handle, bathroom keys, a chair back, whiteboard markers, conference room desks, the steering wheel on a forklift, or any number of others.
Both networks matter and must be understood. The first, a person-to-person (P2P) network, maps out which people physically interact with whom. It might seem that the key is to disconnect as many people from each other as possible, but that’s not as important as disconnecting key paths for the virus. For example, Barron Industries, a casting foundry in Oxford, Michigan, was required to remain open as a government supplier. It worked with the Economic Growth Institute and constructed a person to person network. That exercise revealed that certain individuals connected otherwise disconnected groups. In network theory, these are known as bridging links. In a pandemic, they can carry infection from one group to another, which is more damaging than it being carried from one person to another within a contained network. Therefore, breaking these paths by making bridging links virtual prevents widespread contagion.
The second network, a person-object/place-person (POP) network connects people to objects (or places) and then those objects back to people. Drawing a POP network requires three simple steps:
- Make a list of people and a list of objects
- Draw edges connecting people to the objects that they touch or locations they visit
- Draw a line between two people if they touch a common object or visit a common location
The diagram below shows a POP network for seven employees and five objects. The edges have been colored so as to identify which object the two people touch. The individuals identified as C, D, and E are connected because they all visit the coffee machine.
The POP network reveals a path-breaking strategy: remove the whiteboard. Doing so disconnects the network.
While the coffee machine and the whiteboard each created the same number of connections, the whiteboard was far more important to the network as it created multiple bridges.
An even more powerful path-breaking strategy overlays the POP network and the person-to-person network. The figure below shows a disconnected P2P network and a disconnected POP network, then combines them as a full transmission network. Though each intervention looks strong on its own, together the two successful interventions fail as a system. Node A bridges the two, creating clear transmission paths that need to be broken even further.
If your workplace has just a few employees, you can construct the two networks with a survey followed by a day or two of observation. The resulting networks might look similar to the ones in the figure. In larger workplace, you can build up the networks by distinguishing between local and distance spaces. Ask people who they interact with in their immediate vicinities and who from more distant locations. If multiple people from different locations interact in close proximity with a common person — maybe someone who assigns rooms or hands out mail, then those connections need to be made virtual. Do the same for objects and places. You may find that people on different floors use a common stairwell creating a pathway between isolated floors. Far better, if you have two stairways for a three-story building, you can assign each upper floor a separate stairway. You break the path. The key takeaway is that you need not construct full networks in order to identify people or locations that create bridging links that can become super-spreaders.
Successful strategies look beyond reducing the number of connections and think about disrupting the networks those connections create. While it is true that each intervention that reduces contact — be it contactless pizza pedestals, paper menus, or plexiglass barriers — will help, the most effective re-opening strategies will leverage path-breaking ideas. The process of developing those strategies requires that you identify the networks between people and people and objects in your workplace and then start disrupting viral pathways.