Work Chris Ferguson
Designing the pandemic-ready workplace
In 2007, Bridgeable was hired to develop solutions for people working in offices during a pandemic. The results presented the bleak reality of how workplaces may look, a spectrum of how people may respond to a pandemic, and the kinds of products and services that will become commonplace in a world with the omnipresent threat of a potentially deadly viral infection.
A model to explain pandemic attitudes
With the global threat of SARS in recent memory and concerns about a potential swine flu pandemic (H1N1) on the horizon at the time, our U.S.-based healthcare client hired us to shed light on how they could help workplaces during a pandemic.
Our team of researchers conducted research at medical conventions and offices. We engaged with experts on flu and pandemics, as well as with HR and safety managers and executives who would play a role in developing and implementing pandemic-related policies. What our research uncovered was not a series of singular viewpoints of how to respond within the workplace, but a stratification of behaviours and attitudes towards a pandemic that we termed the “continuum of concern.”
The Continuum of Concern
Our team visualized how people in our research were predisposed to low, medium, or high levels of concern that were directly linked to three dimensions: their role, their information sources, and their local context.
(De)escalating workplace concern
Interestingly, people at the “low concern” end of the spectrum tended to be middle managers or lower, and their prevailing attitude was concern over the stigma of staying home sick. This “rugged frontiersman” response to being sick wasn’t completely unexpected. What was surprising was how preoccupied “low concern” people were with the perception of being weak or unproductive, even when confronted with the potential health impact that this behaviour could pose to broader society during a highly contagious pandemic.
While people could be placed along the continuum based on their current attitudes, one of the most interesting phenomena we observed during our research was how people moved up or down the pandemic continuum. People can dramatically change their level of pandemic concern based on their exposure to reliable informational sources that track increases and decreases, as well as news media covering local and national outbreaks.
People can dramatically change their level of pandemic concern based on their exposure to reliable informational sources.
In fact, simply knowing the volume of cases in their area corresponded to a significant increase in concern for our respondents. For example, some “high concern” HR professionals kept close contact with colleagues at medical centres in order to track how rapidly the flu was spreading, along with the duration and severity of infections. Others frequented the CDC website to track how well vaccines were matched and how severe the flu outbreak was on a seasonal basis.
Understanding this continuum led us to design workplace solutions that could provide employees with timely access to credible data while ensuring they felt confident that the proper protective equipment and emergency response supplies were close at hand.
Three Keys to the Pandemic-ready Workplace
Based on Bridgeable’s project from more than a decade ago, here are three design principles that remain relevant when preparing your physical space for a return to work:
- Understand the continuum of employees’ ingoing attitudes, ranging from indifference to concern or panic. Understand that the continuum of concern is dynamic, and attitudes can change quickly.
- Develop consistent and transparent reporting on the health threat level within your specific facility. Establish and share your data sources to ensure credibility and include federal authorities, and, where possible ,regional and site-specific data.
- When preparing your physical space, be sure to balance the need for concern with a sense of preparedness. Onboard your team with high-visibility interventions that meet quality and health standards and are well stocked and organized. Ensure employees feel confident and have a sense of control over the physical environment.
Creating a pandemic design language
Even if workplaces are opened during a pandemic, people will not return to work until they feel safe doing so. Balancing the need for concern and a sense of preparedness within the workplace design is key. In our project, the result was a suite of products that would inform and protect employees while gently reminding them of the potentially deadly threat.
The design language we developed consisted of soap-bar shapes with a sanitary white finish. In order to address concerns that there were enough supplies on hand,and to boost feelings of safety and control, transparent and translucent materials were used to increase visibility of the quantity of safety supplies and PPE.
As we begin the uneasy phase of reopening our workplaces, we must be guided by each employees’ place on the continuum of concern. Our organizations will be required to strike a careful balance between indifference, concern, and panic. This balance will be dynamic and tested regularly. Undoubtedly, we will continue to receive a variety of positive or negative signals, until COVID-19 runs its course. Or, at least, until the next pandemic arrives.