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  • 12th Mar 2020

Covid-19: The role of corporations in spreading or containing the pandemic

Yesterday, 11 March, the NYC Stock Exchange registered the largest dip in the market since the global financial crisis of 2008. While a potential oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia undoubtedly had an impact, another global occurrence was likely a factor – the coronavirus.

With up to 110,000 reported cases registered across 95 countries, companies are facing unprecedented operational challenges – from labour shortages to travel bans to disrupted supply chains. Industry titans have shifted their ways of working… and Wall Street has taken notice.

The economic impact of operational disruptions is difficult to quantify, with some experts predicting a looming global financial recession. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that the coronavirus is, first and foremost, a global health issue, and we should not underestimate the role that organisations can play in thwarting its spread and impact. 

That is why we, at the Behavioural Insights Team have identified some effective organisational practices and leadership behaviours that companies can endorse to support the containment and delay of Covid-19.

Follow the leader

As an inherently social species, humans tend to copy the behaviour of others, particularly those who are in positions of authority. Company leaders therefore have a unique platform to model evidence-based, positive health behaviours to slow the spread of Covid-19.

Last week, the Tanzanian President John Magufuli became a social media sensation when he exchanged a foot greeting with opposition leader Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad, instead of a handshake. In addition to avoiding handshakes, leaders can role model a whole range of conducive social norms.

Creating organisational social norms

Companies and their leaders should generally rethink the norms they want their employees to follow in the face of the coronavirus. In many organisations, employees believe that showing up to work even when they’re sick is a sign of commitment. With the coronavirus circulating, such norms are likely to accelerate the spread. 

To change ingrained behaviours, companies should clearly endorse the new norms of staying home when workers feel ill, working remotely, and avoiding travel to high-contagion areas. HR and managers should state clearly and repeatedly that employees with symptoms need to work from home, and that being at work when coughing will be perceived negatively. This promotes conducive social distancing behaviours as employees are more likely to work from home if they predict social repercussions.

With more and more employees being encouraged to work remotely, Covid-19 also creates a unique opportunity to establish new norms around remote working practices. Increased trust in remote working among sceptics may prove to be a positive legacy of the outbreak. 

Making it easy to do the right thing

Many employees are likely to feel stuck between an unhelpful and shapeless fear of the coronavirus and force of habit that puts them at risk of catching and spreading the virus. Aside from endorsing good behaviours and norms, companies should do what they can to make responsible behaviour as easy as possible for employees.

To guide employee behaviour, companies should put out short rules of thumb and issue simple virus policies. Rules of thumb (such as washing your hands for 20 seconds or more) and policies (on travel and remote working, for instance) should refer to official guidance such as the NHS and CDC guidelines. The shorter and simpler company guidance is, the more likely it is to be followed. 

Additionally, companies should make working remotely and videoconferencing as easy as possible. Remote working tends to be frustrating when video calls are poorly organised and hard to understand, but it doesn’t have to be so, as the recent popularity of corporate messaging platforms such as Slack and Zoom has shown.

Reduce uncertainty 

Complex policies can lead to uncertainty among employees regarding whether they will be paid for sick leave or during periods of self-isolation. The UK government has announced sick pay from day one for those affected by the coronavirus but it’s unclear if this applies to gig-economy workers.

Workers on zero hour contracts face the choice of whether to self-isolate or get paid. This means that gig-economy workers are structurally incentivised to ignore advice around containment and delay behaviours. Companies will need to clarify or change their sick leave policies to tackle these misaligned incentives. 

Organisations and their leaders, while unlikely to stop coronavirus in its tracks, have a critical role to play in reducing the impact of the disease and fulfilling a duty of care for their employees during this pandemic. Let us know what evidence based behavioural strategies you are deploying to support these efforts.

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