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How to Think About Your Business Structure During a Pandemic

In our last blog post, we discussed how businesses will need to make significant changes in order to help mitigate the spread of coronavirus after the lockdown, and argued that some of these changes should be maintained permanently, in anticipation of future epidemics. While we briefly addressed some of the more basic changes several months ago, we thought that we’d talk a bit more about how owners could think about the broader structure of their business in order to better adapt it to a pandemic reality.

When considering your business, it’s important not to look at things too broadly. Nationally, the goal now is to slow the spread of the disease. Mathematically, this means a lower R0, and practically, it means a health system that is not overloaded. However, looking at the number of cases on a national, or even a state level, can obscure the reality of how disease spreads – through chains of individuals. 

Any given individual can infect any number of people, with R0 simply being the average number of those infected by any one sick person in a given population. Breaking up these chains, as individuals and businesses, is how we can lower R0 nationally, but keeping your business from becoming a cluster of disease is important on the small scale for a number of reasons. First and foremost, from an operational perspective, breaking up potential chains of transmission will help keep everyone from getting sick at the same time, meaning that your business won’t be unexpectedly crippled.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways that you can disrupt chains of transmission within your business. The first is to modify your work environment such that it is less likely for workers to get each other sick while there (there are many recommended ways to accomplish this, which we’ll review in a later post). In this sense, you’ll be reducing the “R0” of the population of your workforce. The second is to create separate work spaces that don’t overlap.

In an ideal world, everyone would work from home; that way, your business could never become a cluster for transmission. However, that obviously isn’t practical for most businesses. Nonetheless, you might still be able to set up multiple “offices”. For service work that is actually restricted, partly or fully, to an office, this could be accomplished by having staggered work hours, where one group of employees works out of the office only in the morning and another is there only in the afternoon (with thorough sterilization after every shift being a prerequisite). Setting up a second office is a much more difficult undertaking and likely wouldn’t be practical for you, but there are more options available than ever if this is within the realm of possibility – you could consider hotels, for example.

By separating workers into different groups that don’t mix, it becomes much easier to keep your entire workforce from getting sick at once. It also becomes much easier to maintain critical functions. For example, if the two field workers get sick, then there will still be one other isolated individual working from home who is able to do some of their work.

Regardless, depending on your business, you may have different options available to you in this regard. Any way that you can keep employees in different “buckets” would be useful in this context. From a risk management perspective, redundancy lends itself to this approach; if you have two employees that work on similar projects, that can’t be easily replaced by other workers, and that can take over for each other if one gets sick, make sure to keep them in different groups that are isolated from each other if at all possible. Most importantly though, if you have employees who, as part of their work responsibilities, must physically interact with outside individuals, do everything possible to separate them from the rest of your staff.

Again, some business structures lend themselves more to compartmentalizing than others, but this way of approaching the question is still useful, regardless of what type of business you have. Take a supermarket chain, for example. Retail workers have been particularly exposed to coronavirus since the pandemic began. In addition to being essential services, the open nature of grocery stores and the free flow of customers puts workers at extremely high risk.

Fortunately, there are still many ways in which groups of employees can be isolated from each other. First, employee shifts could be synchronized, such that they are restricted to working with the same group at all times (obviously, in all cases, employees should not be doing different shifts at different stores). These groups of employees could then be isolated from other groups by limiting them to only one function at a time – for example, one shift could consist of just working cash registers, or of only restocking shelves. And of course, restocking should be restricted to a time when no customers are present in the store, and when no suppliers are in the stockroom – if necessary, short closures during the day, between floor shifts, could be used for restocking purposes, with sterilization of both the floor and stockroom preceding and following (sterilization during the day might be difficult given time constraints; new sterilization methods, like UV irradiation, could help, though there still might be certain legal and practical restrictions on available techniques depending on the products being sold).

Another possible approach might be to completely close access to the store to customers, with one group of employees interacting with customers for curbside pickup and a separate group preparing orders, on the floor and in the storeroom. Both groups would limit interaction as much as possible. Keeping customers out of the store would significantly decrease the chance of individual workers being exposed to coronavirus, while, as in other cases, restricting contact between groups would decrease the chances of sick employees infecting others. While keeping customers from entering would be a dramatic change, this approach is already being seriously considered.

In addition to providing stability to your business, taking these and other precautions are important because they help to safeguard the health of your employees, as well as to help limit potential legal exposure and comply with regulatory requirements. However, as far as employee health, there is only so much that a given business can do, since work is only one potential vector through which an individual can get sick. In this regard, while restricting the potential introduction of coronavirus into the workplace is in itself important (as shown in the previous example), it is nonetheless equally important to accommodate those employees who are higher risk – for example, by providing them with additional flexibility in their work tasks and having plans in place for employees who become sick. We’ll discuss more practical measures like these in a later post. And as far as the legal perspective goes, there are too many issues to go into here, so we’ll address some of those concerns in a later post as well.

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