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  • 13th Oct 2020

How can we support physical distancing in the office?

As office workers in many parts of Australia are returning to workplaces, we’re confronted with the ‘new normal’: the need to maintain physical distance. For many employees, even simple rules like “stay 1.5m apart” are proving hard to consistently follow in practice. Fortunately, behavioural science gives us clues as to how we can design the work environment and practices to encourage physical distancing and help keep us safe in the months ahead.

Supporting physical distancing at a major Australian bank    

To understand how to best support physical distancing in workplaces, we partnered with a large Australian bank and Professor Robert Slonim to undertake some rapid research. This formed part of a broader objective for the bank to become a COVID-safe workplace, and to find creative ways to help their employees do the right thing.

As one of Australia’s biggest employers, the bank had been quick to implement a range of measures that prioritised employee and customer safety over the last 6 months. They moved rapidly to support working from home, implemented industrial quality cleaning, restricted numbers in meeting rooms, introduced temperature checks at entrances, and added clear signage in buildings. And, as for many workplaces, boosting physical distancing behaviours was a top priority.

We started by collecting data from observations, surveys and focus groups, and reviewing existing administrative data (such as building entry and exit times), in order to diagnose the behavioural issues and identify opportunities for practical changes.

The good news: most people want to and do comply

Most team members were keen to comply with physical distancing rules—and most of them did, most of the time. Observational data showed that the majority of those entering the building kept a distance of 1.5m from others. Where there were issues, these understandably occurred at peak times. Likewise, people didn’t tend to overcrowd tables in the building’s cafés, especially at smaller tables (where adding an extra person is much more noticeable than at a larger table). Employees also suggested that they wanted to encourage others to follow the guidelines too.

The challenge: certain norms and environments enable breaches

Just because people want to follow the rules, though, doesn’t mean they always do so. This is an example of the classic problem of the intention-action gap. In addition, our surveys and focus groups showed that there was a gap between the number of people who felt that it was right to tell others to leave a full meeting room, not enter a crowded lift, or stop gathering at the building entrance, and the number who said they were likely to actually do this in practice. This suggests bystander inaction plays a key role in preventing people from speaking out when others aren’t following physical distancing guidance.

This gap can be seen in the diagram below. We asked bank employees whether they thought it was right to tell people who were breaching the 1.5m rule at the building entry to space out. Most people agreed. However, when we asked them whether they would take action, many stated they weren’t likely to do so. Even some of the people who strongly agreed that it was right to take action stated that they were very unlikely to do so.


Routine and automatic behaviours also affected physical distancing, especially while queuing at counters and cafés during peak periods. Where there were clear markers that reminded people to stay 1.5m apart while queuing, people did so fairly well. But when the reminders were less salient or the social and physical environment encouraged pre-COVID routine behaviours, this norm quickly dropped off. Clear examples of this were café counters that have traditionally encouraged people to lean over them to speak to servers, waiting times during which people focused on their phones rather than their physical proximity to others, or when staff were queuing with friends or team mates whom they have routinely stood close to in the past. Ironically, some of the measures implemented also accentuated these issues.

The “watch out”: even good intentions can backfire

Despite good intentions, some of the new measures being widely implemented across workplaces can create unintended consequences. For example, as people entered the building, they initially had to go through a temperature check queueing system and had the opportunity to use hand sanitizer. However, this meant that people were funneled into tight spaces, increasing the likelihood of people standing within 1.5m of each other—especially during the 9am peak. This should serve as a final warning: sometimes the best intentioned changes open up new and different risks. It’s important to keep evaluating your measures, to make sure they’re achieving their goal.

The fix: designing around human behaviour

To overcome bystander inaction, employers should empower their people to reinforce positive behaviours and challenge non-compliance. They can do this by drawing on social norms to highlight that most people think it is right to encourage physical distancing and that all employees have the right to speak up and take action when others aren’t following the rules. Identifying and using managers and influential team members to help shift social norms can be vital in encouraging others to do the right thing—especially since our qualitative data suggests that senior management aren’t often the best role models in terms of physical distancing.

To avoid people falling back into old habits, the key is to create environments that discourage these routine behaviours and keep the need for physical distancing salient. Following our research, the bank has implemented a number of changes; for example, they have gone beyond floor markers and signage and installed physical barriers to prevent people from standing too close to café counters. They have also removed excessive furniture from meeting rooms and café tables to ensure the ‘affordances’ don’t facilitate the wrong behaviours, and have introduced life-size eye-catching reminders of how far 1.5m actually is. Additionally, they are proactively encouraging flexible start times, to smooth the morning, lunch and evening peaks and reduce pressure on entry and exit points.

Want to know more?

If you want to know more or are interested in working with us on similar projects, get in touch.

Thanks to Professor Robert Slonim, Alex Berger, Julia de Sterke, Laura Chapman, Harrison Nguyen and Michael Zhang at the University of Sydney.


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