COVID-19 LOVES CUBICLES
The US isn’t remotely close to done with the health and economic impact of COVID-19. When I wrote an earlier version of this article about a week ago, the data already told a dispiriting and frustrating story. Not only was the US doing far, far worse than every other developed country, but the trends were going the wrong way and our behaviors driving the trends were changing way too slowly.
Today, the curve still hasn’t bent in the US (though it looked like it had a few weeks ago!) even after lockdowns, stimulus programs and lots of suffering as the hotspots have mostly moved south and west. In fact, the curve seems to be bending upwards!
The list of “oh my god, the ICUs are almost full” towns and cities is growing. AND, WE STILL DON’T HAVE ENOUGH PPE TO KEEP HEALTHCARE WORKERS SAFE!!!
Further hindering effective mitigation strategies are new and old bad-faith and incorrect arguments (like this example) being made even as the world’s scientists have provided us much more knowledge about COVID-19:
- the spike in reported infections is being caused by testing increasing (positivity rates are actually increasing despite increased testing — see chart below and source here and here)
- deaths are going down so we shouldn’t worry about catching it (which is expertly debunked here)
- herd immunity is the only option (it isn’t!)
- it’s really not that bad if you’re healthy before getting it (read this to understand that this just isn’t true)
We’ve had so many opportunities to learn — first from China, then Europe, then from Washington State, then from New York City and Michigan. The list goes on. We’ve had 6 months, but we’re still not getting it right. Unfortunately, we’ll have yet more chances to learn as Florida, Texas and Arizona (with other states like South Carolina close behind) are beginning to reach the levels of infections, hospitalizations and general suffering that New York City was experiencing at the peak of its horror.
We know that, as individuals, simple steps like wearing masks, social distancing, staying home when possible, NOT EATING IN RESTAURANTS OR GOING TO BARS(!!!) and being diligent about hand washing can have a huge impact on reducing community spread.
There is somehow a notion that we overreacted in the US despite having more deaths than any other country, having new hot spots pop up nearly every day and only having reduced cases in areas where we made radical changes (like staying at home and social distancing).
As others have pointed out, doing the right things feels like overreacting while doing nothing feels good until it’s too late to reduce the suffering.
The chart below shows that the US has more deaths and more confirmed cases than any other country and is unfortunately likely to maintain that status (perhaps Brazil or India will earn that notoriety).
Vice President Pence even went so far as to proclaim that we wouldn’t experience a second wave before we even have the end of the first wave in sight. While his editorial was patently absurd, his words in the business paper of record are going to further encourage businesses “to go back to normal” and pretend as if we aren’t in the worst pandemic in modern history. Another variation of this is the equally ridiculous “v-shaped” recovery argument. Further, the administration has just adopted a likely-to-be-short-lived message that “we just need to live with COVID-19”.
It’s as if 98% of the US (assumes ~2% of Americans have been exposed) were covered in dry, gasoline-soaked kindling while fires burn and sparks are flying everywhere. Controlling the spread of some of the largest fires (NY/NJ) doesn’t mean the risks are over. It also doesn’t mean that we have to be resigned to letting the whole place burn down.
As I write this, Arizona, Texas and Florida, among other states, are experiencing exponential infection growth with only minimal plans (though Texas just made masks mandatory!) to take mitigating actions. The graphs below show the 3 day moving average of new confirmed cases.
States like New York, Illinois and New Jersey have seen dramatic decreases in new infections, but are now beginning to reopen more businesses such as salons and outdoor dining. And, recent and ongoing protests (despite their profound righteousness) and especially political events that refuse to encourage precautions are unfortunately likely to further feed the spread of this virus.
In states like NJ, NY and IL, it’s not safe yet to go back to shared indoor spaces (restaurants, office buildings, bars, etc), however it’s MUCH safer in those states BECAUSE people generally DID STOP going to shared indoor spaces.
As we learn more, it’s clear that there are many parts of our lives that can be restarted safely (like walking outside and some retail shopping). However, it’s no time to pop the champagne and declare ourselves on the other side of this.
The virus is still out there, dangerous, contagious and has only infected a relatively small % of people so far.
Additionally, data clearly show that people from all demographic groups can face serious risks if they are infected — even otherwise healthy working-age adults like this tragedy, new evidence of potential brain damage and this video shows. The chart below shows deaths from COVID-19 (not including likely deaths attributed to pneumonia). And, even people who survive often face debilitating and sometimes permanent impact (another source here).
The strong desire for a return to normalcy is ubiquitous and understandable. And, perceptions (however dated or misguided) that people need to work in the same building to be productive is still prevalent among many company executives.
While a growing number of the most successful companies in the world have moved or are moving to primarily remote working, most companies haven’t made that jump yet and don’t seem likely to at this moment.
There are many reasons why executives, owners, boards and investors want their office buildings full and bustling again.
Many managers believe that their employees need to be closely watched (i.e. micromanaged) to be productive. But, it turns out that micromanagement is actually destructive.
Some executives believe that bringing people back to the office shows their resolve, courage and/or commitment. Some think it projects strength to customers or other stakeholders. It makes managers feel like they’re doing something to regain lost ground or capitalize on new opportunities. And, many get their news from sources that are dramatically underplaying the seriousness of COVID-19 further galvanizing their desire to bring people back to the office.
In addition to providing nominal or even negative gains in productivity, pushing employees back to their offices (or cubicles) is a bad business decision. It creates moral hazards, puts employees and their families at risk and introduces significant top and bottom line risks to businesses.
Office environments have some very unique characteristics — such as movement patterns, the use of cubicles and the hierarchical nature of relationships between people in these environments. Below, I’ve attempted to detail each of the unique characteristics and how they may contribute to the risks of people coming back to the office.
- Employees who take appropriate precautions will get dramatically less benefit from being in the office than rule breakers. Employees who always wear masks, stay away from other people, eat alone, ride elevators alone, have no ad-hoc hallway conversations, avoid in-person meetings and never look at other peoples’ computer screens will be frustrated and get nothing from being in the office except extra stress. In other words, compliance with rules is inversely proportional to the incremental value of being in the office (be safe OR be effective). Employees will be (indirectly) rewarded for NOT following all precautions. Leadership may also start to tie rewards and accolades — with words like commitment, courage and dedication to describe employees who put themselves in danger by bending the rules, especially over time, further incentivizing people to take more risks. Ironically, the last decade’s focus on innovation and risk taking stands at odds with enforcing 100% compliance with rules like these
- Peer pressure tends to lead to less compliance — as the recent example of many NYPD officers not wearing masks shows — even despite being the very people on the front lines of the extraordinary crises in their city about a month before! Importantly, compliance tends to benefit the other people in the office. Partly because the US has failed to procure or produce sufficient n-95 masks for consumers (we are STILL facing a shortage of PPE for healthcare workers), most employees won’t have access to masks that will protect themselves. They are dependent on their co-workers — some of whom are likely to be dubious, rebellious, ignorant, apathetic or just irresponsible
- Some employees will inevitably get COVID-19. Some will contract it from others inside the office environment, while others will contract it outside the office and bring it in. Even in the best case scenario where the employee is quickly diagnosed and isolated (which is difficult with so much asymptomatic, pre-symptomatic and mildly-symptomatic spread), companies will have to shut down their offices for an extended duration and/or do extensive contact tracing and testing. They’ll also have to notify any outside parties who might have come in contact with this person(s). In any scenario where someone working in the office tests positive and/or shows symptoms for COVID-19, a company’s reputation, employee morale and bottom line will suffer. Also, there is still a stigma associated with testing positive for COVID-19 which could lead to some people NOT staying home, telling other people and otherwise doing the right things
- There are likely to be lawsuits. While it’s possible that states and/or the federal government will be providing some type of limited immunity, it’s still likely that there will be lawsuits that will clog the system and cost companies money. It’s even possible that individual decision makers may find themselves facing lawsuits. How long until we start seeing ads saying “did you or someone you love get COVID-19 while working at ABC company between June and August of 2020…?” Here are some examples of the types of potential lawsuits employers face. Here are examples of over 1350 lawsuits already filed. There are also new OSHA documentation requirements that might create more evidence for potential lawsuits
- Office building HVAC systems may be COVID-19 spreaders. Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems do not do a great job of filtering air — even failing to remove particles much larger than aerosolized viruses as studies into Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) have shown. As these systems usually run all the time, cycling 100% of the air in a building once about every 15 minutes and with current research suggesting that aerosolized COVID-19 germs from sneezing, coughing, singing or yelling will remain airborne for 10+ minutes (with no airflow) and can remain transmittable for approximately 60 minutes at typical office building temperatures, the risk of someone catching COVID-19 from a building’s HVAC is non-trivial. Experts are recommending opening windows and not running central a/c, but most office buildings don’t have opening windows and can’t turn off the a/c or heat. (Here is a second source. And a third that’s a bit more optimistic about HVAC transmission. Here is a more recent update from NPR.)
- The flow of air from vents to returns — which was designed to efficiently blanket the entire space is also likely to efficiently move aerosolized viruses around even before being sucked back into the ducts. Here is another letter from 239 experts explaining that indoor aerosolized transmission is responsible for most infections. Here is a Japanese supercomputer model that demonstrates how aerosolized germs can travel indoors (TL:DR they can go very far, very quickly). Here’s a study from a cruise ship that demonstrates how lingering aerosolized droplets are likeliest source of transmission.
- Cubicle walls aren’t effective barriers for aerosolized germs. Cubicles are usually open to common areas (like hallways), are much closer together than the range that germs can travel through the air and most walls aren’t tall enough to offer any protection at all from people walking or standing nearby. And, people often eat, drink and talk (sometimes yell) while spending hours a day in the same spot. Experts are suggesting COVID-19 may ultimately (finally) force the end of cubicles. Cubicles were terrible for many reasons before COVID-19, but in this moment, if you can take a moment and imagine that you are a vindictive monster who wants to create the perfect environment for spreading COVID-19, you’d design cubicle farms in an office environment!
- Executives who decide when/if/how to return to working in cubicles do not have skin-in-the-game. They usually sit in offices with solid walls and closing doors. Top executives are often further insulated from personal exposure with private bathrooms and meeting rooms. This matters because it reduces the likelihood of them erring on the side of caution, proactively enforcing protocols and adapting quickly to new information
- Shared common areas, like bathrooms, kitchens, cafeterias and elevators/stairs are very high risk environments. Sharing common ammenities like coffee makers, water dispensors and vending machines also introduce more risk as people tend to congregate and touch the same surfaces. Elevators and enclosed stairwells introduce risks for people many minutes after an infected person has passed through (especially if they didn’t wear a mask and/or sneezed/yelled/coughed/sang on the elevator). In other words, even if occupants of a building followed a strict protocol of 1 person on an elevator or on the same flight of stairs at a time, there could still be a significant risk of exposure
- Many people (for political/selfish/ego reasons) won’t comply with rules like mask wearing, social distancing, limiting meeting sizes and extra hand washing. They may even actively pressure via exclusion, ridicule or criticism others to disobey the rules. We are already seeing this in public spaces and retail businesses where people are passionately refusing to wear masks. Further, many people won’t pressure compliance on rule-breakers, especially with the hierarchy in larger companies. How many entry level employees on an elevator are going to insist that an executive standing 3 feet from them must put on their mask?
- Conference rooms could be relabelled “super spreader rooms”. People spend 30–90 minutes in close proximity — often sharing and debating ideas. This regularly includes talking loudly, gesturing and touching shared surfaces (like white board markers or laptops) while being less than 6 feet away in a relatively small space with minimal air movement and while consuming their morning coffee or afternoon refreshment. Further, the muting impact of masks will further encourage people to remove their mask. Studies of classrooms (which tend to be larger and have better airflow than most conference rooms) have suggested that most classrooms could only safely house 10–20% of their normal capacity (with 100% mask compliance) — again suggesting that most meeting rooms simply can’t safely be used by more than 1 person at a time
- Employees have to remove their masks to eat and drink throughout the day. And, unless everyone eats their lunch and drinks their coffee alone at their desk or outdoors, they’ll be forced to stay far away from others while eating or risk potential transmission. There aren’t many good options — sitting alone at a table in a cafeteria to talk to someone 6+ feet away at another table is hardly better than eating alone. Likely, people will just become complacent and sit together to eat and/or start dining in restaurants again (where COVID-19 risk is definitely real). Remember, all it takes is a sneeze, cough or yell without a mask (i.e. when drinking or eating) for aerosolized COVID-19 germs to travel 20+ feet
- Visitors to the environment would have to observe all the same protocols as employees. This is very tough to impose on customers, vendors, job candidates and other outside visitors and again breaks down the system of safeguards that might be in place. There are countless examples of people who refuse to observe mask-wearing or social distancing for idealogical reasons or ignorance and the social pressures often involved in meetings with outside parties may reduce the likelihood of protocol compliance
- People will often develop a false sense of security — being around familiar people in a familiar place — and likely drop their guard or become complacent in ways that they might even take outside the workplace with them. If nobody gets sick in the first week or two, people are likely to think everything is ok and let their guard down
- Mostly ineffective feel-good measures, like fever checking, would compound the false sense of safety. While fever checking would catch a few cases in time to prevent spread (at a large enough n), it would very likely create more risk by falsely increasing the perception of safety. The most recent research suggests that, in addition to significant amounts of asymptomatic spread, pre-symptomatic spread and mildly symptomatic spread, many seriously ill COVID-19 patients never actually develop fevers or other observable symptoms. Other feel-good measures like limiting the number of people in conference rooms, elevators and common areas and hand sanitizing stations reduce the probability of infection, but may ultimately reinforce a false sense of safety
- Most offices won’t be able to provide free/subsidized and convenient regular testing for asymptomatic people. Without this, it’s effectively impossible to start to pull back the necessary precautions in the office. It’s not only logistically tough and expensive, but would also require navigating complex patient confidentiality and medical records laws. Even in Major League Baseball, an organization with essentially unlimited funds and very wealthy employees that literally controls where employees live and where they can go, disciplined testing has failed to control COVID-19. This is also true of the U.S. President’s own staff, security detail (and here) and family members who are tested daily to weekly, yet are catching and spreading COVID-19. Amazingly, the US is on the verge of another severe testing bottleneck (labs are about to be overwhelmed!) which will further exasperate this issue by making testing so delayed as to be ineffective
- Reopening offices will force many parents to put children into childcare. While children have thankfully mostly seen only mild symptoms from COVID-19, there is evidence that they are spreading it to their families and communities. It’s unclear whether schools will open up this fall (here is why they should not) and we don’t seem to be doing the right things to make this possible. So, by pushing children, especially younger children, back into daycare, camps or school, community spread will likely increase — including, of course, the likelihood of an employee with children bringing COVID-19 back into the office. There is still some ambiguity about the spread of Covid-19 at daycare as this article suggests: https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/06/19/summer-camp-during-coronavirus-will-look-little-different/. Here is a Harvard study on what it would take to open schools with lower risks (TL:DR it’s really hard!).
In summary, after doing the research for this article, I can’t help but feel sad and angry that many people are going to needlessly suffer — physically and emotionally — because we aren’t doing all the things we should be doing.
I can imagine a typical American family with 2 children in school and 2 working parents trying to do the right things and being forced to go back to the office — which then means their kids have to go to school in person. They’re now all statistically at very high risk of getting this destructive disease. All it takes is one person at the office or at school to sneeze on, cough on or even just talk to one family member for the whole family to get sick.
I recognize that none of this is easy. There will inevitably be trade-offs. To quote Nassim Taleb — “Things always become obvious after the fact.” However, in this case, they’re already obvious. Please don’t force employees to come back to the office until we get a handle on COVID-19.
It’s rare that most people get the chance to be real life-saving heroes. This is one of those opportunities. Please stay safe out there!
While I recognize that many of you reading this will not be decision makers, I strongly encourage you to engage your management in this discussion. Your voice can have an impact. Even if you’re in a low-risk group and don’t feel vulnerable, you know, care about and interact with people who aren’t — family, friends, co-workers. Please be safe out there for them — even if not for yourself.
If I can be helpful in making this argument, feel free to share this article or reach out to me (www.geoffnesnow.com).
Some additional links: