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Coronavirus: A workplace that brings many people together defies logic of social distancing

The four pillars on which all of humanity’s resistance is built in such cases are: Testing, contact tracing, quarantine and social distancing. Each has a significant role to play.

Last Updated: Mar 16, 2020, 02.22 PM IST


By Rajesh Krishnamoorthy

A team that has a lot on its plate these days is the one in charge of business continuity. Of course, the business managers always have to figure out what will happen to revenue, cost and cash flows, but most discussions these days are about how each of their business can continue to service its clients on the face of the displacement or potential displacement due to the deadly Covid-19.

Whether written or not, it is fair to assume that everyone has a Business Continuity Plan (BCP). In some industries, this is mandatory. In others, although optional, this is a good practice and provides a plan B should normal life get affected. Those entrepreneurs who employ a few staff directly do have their own jugaad 2.0 BCP. They worry both about continuity and cash flow in the same breath given the key man role that they play.

In many organizations, there are mock BCP drills to make sure that when things actually go wrong, people aren’t unfamiliar with who will initiate the exercise, what one has to do and how one has to do it.

Getting back on the major issue at hand – tackling a pandemic and how should we act?

The four pillars on which all of humanity’s resistance is built in such cases are: Testing, contact tracing, quarantine and social distancing. Each has a significant role to play and without looking at all four, the resistance will crumble, and we will be exposed. Given that before something becomes a pandemic, it originates in some location / some region and then, due to carriers – be it humans, animals or anything else, it spreads across other regions – testing / screening becomes a key aspect of containing the risk of contracting the disease.

This is largely taken up by the governments as they control the entry and exit of people or goods in each country. Hence, airports, sea ports, train stations etc. become the obvious locations to initiate scanning. However, when this part of the resistance fails, or some infected people – knowingly or unknowingly slip out of this process, they end up being the messengers of Covid-19 wherever they move. Someday, they have to show up for treatment and that is when the next and often laborious effort kicks in – contact tracing. Where have they travelled? Who are the people they have come in close proximity? Find all of them.

Try doing that with a WhatsApp forward you got – ask the person (P1) about who sent it to him. Then ask that person (P2) who sent it to him, then find out (P3) who sent it to him …. so on and so forth to arrive at the origin of the forward. Imagine the effort needed on the ground that has to be put in for contact tracing.

If someone took a flight, then a train, then a bus etc to reach some place and that person was a carrier….the tracing back can actually be back breaking to the resistance team. So, once you find out these people who were contacted by the carrier, what do you do?

Of course, keep them away from the rest of the people so that while they are provided treatment, they don’t end up spreading it and further the problem. This is quarantine… keeping them away. And as it always happens, contact tracing is very tricky… you can never be sure you got all of them quarantined.

So, it does mean that we could have carriers walking at large, not knowing that they are carriers too. Which bring us to the fourth formidable pillar of resistance, social distancing. An obvious term, it just says, as much as possible, don’t get into groups, don’t involve yourself in group activities, don’t end up in a crowd – or just plain and simple, be by yourself and nobody else.

Density of population is the highest in cities. The objective of social distancing is to reduce the probability of contact between people who are infected and people who aren’t. If we achieve that, then, the pandemic will automatically curtail. Understanding this is extremely important.

Let us get to the corporate world and why in many ways, what the Government put in place can be squandered by our behavioural continuity. A work place that brings together a lot of people is in all ways adding to the risk of the spread of the pandemic. It defies the very logic of social distancing. What are a few days, weeks or months of work in comparison to the morbidity and mortality that lack of social distancing can bring? Is there a solution – yes… it is called work from home. Is that possible for all employees – maybe most? But is that approved policy across companies?

A dipstick check I did with friends from varied industries tells me that there is no written work from home policy in majority of our companies. And hand on the heart, most of them have to give a simple feedback – managements believe that working from home will not happen. If people are not at the office, then, they won’t work. To a lot of people who never have worked from home, the initial days of being allowed to work from home can be like a child with a new toy. While that is perfectly understood, some unfortunately never grow out of their toys.

In any city, if the roads continue to show peak traffic on one side of the highway during working days in the morning and on the other side of the highway in the evenings, it is obvious that people are still gathering together under one roof and working. If you see that in your city, be rest assured, social distancing is failing.

Managements of companies need to really get their act together to have a clear work from home policy – one that should be drafted with the intention of having maximum number of their staff dispersed, yet working.

This is a behavioural shift in management thinking. It is also about dispelling the myth of absent in office is equal to enjoying a holiday. Employees have to act in a matured way – being allowed to work from your home sweet home is not to be construed as being given a holiday. Sure, you can answer your door bell, but keeping away netflixing habits is an equal behavioural shift.

So, if we need business continuity, first and foremost we all have to stop such behavioral continuity. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson are the founders of Basecamp (previously 37signals), a trailblazing software company and in 2013, they wrote a book Remote. It is the read for today. Remote shows both employers and employees how they can work together, remotely, from any desk, in any place, anytime, anywhere. So, ding-ding-ding - introspection time.

Try imagining any business without humans. Try imagining humans without any economic activity. Well, if all can’t force ourselves in times like a pandemic to bring in that vital change as soon as possible, nobody can save us. So, we better change.

(Rajesh Krishnamoorthy is Vice Chairman, iFAST India Holdings, Singapore)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)

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