Reopening the Office? Here’s How to Stymie Transmission of COVID-19.

Businesses from Bangor to Barstow have begun reopening. As they do, the safety of their employees and customers — from both real and perceived risks — have become paramount concerns. Concerns over catching and spreading the coronavirus mean that the roughly 40% of workers able to work from home likely will continue to do so. But for the majority of workers, a physical return looms in at least some capacity.

Work that requires physical interactions — construction, retail, food service, entertainment, sports, medical care, education, and salons – will require significant changes to the physical environment and individual behaviors. In designing those changes, leaders should aim for a path-breaking strategy: creating behavioral protocols and built environments that break transmission paths.

While social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, and wiping down surfaces make those workplaces safer, limiting the spread of the virus depends on identifying and disrupting systems of connections. It will require mapping out transmission networks and breaking key links in those networks, a strategy quite similar to the one the intelligence community has long used to break up illegal networks.

In other words, effective re-opening strategies focus on breaking up connecting paths rather than just reducing number of connections. Two workplaces might have equal numbers of potential connections through which the virus can spread; but if one workplace disrupts more pathways, it will be doing more to stop the spread of the virus.

The logic works as follows: All networks are made up of nodes or points and connections between them. In the case of the virus, a connection is a transmission pathway between points. That path could be airborne respiratory droplets or some surface. Airborne transmission occurs through face to face interactions or, in some cases, from droplets lingering in the air. The masks and barriers we’ve all become accustomed to are part of the strategy to break this path. Surface, or fomite, transmission occurs when an object’s surface has been touched many times by many people who transmit the virus to the object, which is then transmitted again to another person touching that surface, be it a door handle, bathroom keys, a chair back, whiteboard markers, conference room desks, the steering wheel on a forklift, or any number of others.

Both networks matter and must be understood. The first, a person-to-person (P2P) network, maps out which people physically interact with whom. It might seem that the key is to disconnect as many people from each other as possible, but that’s not as important as disconnecting key paths for the virus. For example, Barron Industries, a casting foundry in Oxford, Michigan, was required to remain open as a government supplier. It worked with the Economic Growth Institute and constructed a person to person network. That exercise revealed that certain individuals connected otherwise disconnected groups. In network theory, these are known as bridging links. In a pandemic, they can carry infection from one group to another, which is more damaging than it being carried from one person to another within a contained network. Therefore, breaking these paths by making bridging links virtual prevents widespread contagion.

The second network, a person-object/place-person (POP) network connects people to objects (or places) and then those objects back to people. Drawing a POP network requires three simple steps:

  1. Make a list of people and a list of objects
  2. Draw edges connecting people to the objects that they touch or locations they visit
  3. Draw a line between two people if they touch a common object or visit a common location

The diagram below shows a POP network for seven employees and five objects. The edges have been colored so as to identify which object the two people touch. The individuals identified as C, D, and E are connected because they all visit the coffee machine.