Consider the difficult story of one biotech firm. 175 of its managers from around the world gathered for a meeting in Boston in February. They met in a hotel meeting space and went out for a group dinner. Following the meeting, many of them went on to travel further and participate in other conferences.
The following week, a number of participants reported flu-like symptoms. It was Covid-19. Massachusetts health officials have now tracked 32 cases of the novel coronavirus to that one meeting in Boston. Those infected include two attendees who returned to Indiana, five people who returned to North Carolina, a Pennsylvania man who then attended a conference in Florida, and four executives who then attended an investor conference, among others. Sixty employees rushed to the hospital to be tested.
The impact extended to their families and communities, too. Two schools in Wellesley, MA closed to disinfect when they learned that a parent had attended the Boston meeting and become ill. At another Boston-area school, a student whose parent participated in the management meeting tested positive, as well.
A corporate coronavirus success story
Another company, Webasto, has a similar story but also shows how you can successfully manage this crisis. Webasto is an auto parts supplier based in a small town outside Munich, Germany. In late January, an employee from China visited company headquarters for training. She had just seen her parents, who live in Wuhan.
She didn’t know at the time that she was infected with Covid-19. She didn’t have symptoms until she returned from her trip. But, within days of the training seminar, 16 people had gotten the virus as a result of the meeting. This included 9 colleagues in Germany, 5 of their family members, and 2 employees in China.
Fortunately, the company acted quickly and aggressively. It appointed a task force, worked with local authorities, and ultimately ended up shutting down the headquarters offices for a full two weeks. The response worked. As of now, everyone in the company survived and is virus-free. (Read the full story here: The Company That Fought the Coronavirus and Won.)
Helping employees keep their distance can be key
This last experience reinforces the importance of adopting a strong response plan for your company. As we explained in a previous post, it’s critical to determine the exposure risks in your workplaces, communicate with employees, teach and reinforce good hygiene, and provide appropriate supplies. High-hazard jobs, such as in healthcare, will require even more significant measures.
But, as the virus continues to spread, especially in the United States, every workplace should consider where in its response plan it can reduce person-to-person contact for employees, including by: encouraging telework, reducing or canceling travel, and even closing offices if necessary. You won’t be alone. Twitter, Microsoft, Apple, and Google, among many others, have all reportedly asked employees to cancel travel and to work remotely.
Not every job can be done remotely. But, if you maximize teleworking and minimize meetings for those who can, everyone will be safer. Experts believe that the virus spreads most through respiratory droplets traveling up to six feet between people. And it spreads exponentially. According to the WHO, each infected person can, in turn, infect 2.5 others (the “reproductive number”). That’s a potential nightmare if it gets loose in your workplace.
But, it also means that the benefit of every contact avoided is multiplied. If the infected person stays home and/or others who might have caught it are not there to catch it, you can prevent transmission. Even if only a third or a half of your teams can work remotely or skip a meeting at any given time, you might significantly reduce the chance of transmission and especially, an out-of-control outbreak. As drastic as it sounds, it is a step worth strong consideration.
And if you’re not already convinced, this kind of “social distancing” has now been mentioned in OSHA’s latest alert to employers about the virus. It’s doubtful OSHA would cite a company that becomes overwhelmed by a pandemic except in the most extreme circumstances of willful misconduct, such as somehow knowingly and recklessly exposing employees without taking any reasonable precautions. But, no one wants to be the poster child for the harm that comes when prudent measures are not taken.