Business Performance During a Disease Outbreak

The novel coronavirus is causing a pandemic of COVID-19 infections. There is no debate on this fact. The pandemic is dramatic and terrifying – we have widespread illness and death not only across the United States, but across the globe. The numbers are staggering and increasing.

We have changed our behaviors in the face of this crisis. We readily take on steps that only a few weeks or months earlier would have been seen as difficult or onerous; we wash our hands (endlessly, it seems), we resist touching others and objects others have touched, and we self-isolate to stay safe and healthy.

We long to return to “normal.” We not only want to interact with others, but we want – and need – to return to work. The economy demands it, and we personally hope for it. But how do we do this and stay safe and healthy? How can we return to work and not cause a new spike in infections?

In 2009, we conducted research into exactly this – safely working in the face of a disease outbreak. At the time, it was in response to a possible Avian Influenza outbreak.

The study (a summary article can be found at addressed topics and activities that are now familiar: social distancing and improved hygiene. While these were not commonplace in 2009, they are now part of our everyday lives.

The research simulated an outbreak and studied workplace behavior at an IT support facility. The 75 participants exercised both social distancing and rigorous hygiene practices. The office layout, staff entry points, and equipment restrictions were carefully planned. We monitored staff compliance with those conditions and measured their productivity under those circumstances.

The results showed no notable decrease in performance, even with dramatically different behaviors. There were complaints, principally around relative isolation, but compliance was good. Unanticipated benefits resulted – they participants said they intended to continue some of the hygiene measures going forward.

The study concludes that “cautious optimism that business and government organizations could, in fact, work through a crisis – if they prepare.” We are now in a time of planning to reopen businesses in the face of continuing COVID-19 presence, and we need that same preparation. While more research is needed, we should consider adopting some or all the research approaches. In some ways, we are much better prepared and accustomed to both social distancing and improved hygiene, and we may expect that the study conditions would be better accepted, and result in even better business performance.


by Douglas Himberger, PhD, Principal Consultant

Dr. Douglas Himberger is a consultant in business strategy and performance improvement. He has supported clients in public health, security, and other domains, and conducted research in these areas. He holds a doctorate in Physics and serves in various non-profit leadership positions.

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