Could your organization continue operations during an outbreak of pandemic influenza or a biological attack of the plague? Most business executives would prefer not to think about this question, but they should. An outbreak of avian flu could cause up to 40 percent of employees to be absent from work due to illness, the need to care for ill family members, and fear of infection, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It could also trigger US$3 trillion in economic losses as businesses struggle to maintain operations in the face of widespread illness and death, according to Dr. David Nabarro, who has been leading the United Nations’ efforts to contain avian and human influenza since 2005. As for bioterrorism, a U.S. Congressional commission warned in December 2008 that a terrorist attack will likely occur within the next five years, and that “terrorists are more likely to unleash an aerosol can filled with pathogens than to strike with a nuclear weapon.”
Nabarro and other health officials have been urging businesses to prepare for a pandemic by readying a variety of social-distancing and infection-control measures. These measures, which entail avoiding close contact with others and observing strict hygiene practices, are widely recognized as effective in restricting the spread of disease, but little data exists on their potential impact on business operations. Would employees actually comply with such restrictions? And, more important, how would the measures affect morale and performance?
To address these questions in a rigorous, controlled workplace study, Booz Allen Hamilton (the Washington, D.C.–based strategy and technology consulting firm) joined with Lockheed Martin Corporation and the Safe America Foundation to conduct a first-of-a-kind experiment. If businesses and government agencies are expected to adopt these social-distancing and infection-control measures during a pandemic, they will need practical, realistic lessons to help guide implementation and ensure both compliance and smooth, efficient operations.
Simulating an Outbreak
For our experiment, we exercised Lockheed Martin’s Pandemic Response Plan during a simulated infectious disease outbreak at one of the company’s regional IT support offices. The call center has approximately 75 employees, including about 25 contract employees, who assist corporate employees with their computer and network needs. The simulated outbreak lasted three weeks, during which time employees followed the same strict regimen of behaviors that would be demanded of them during a real infectious disease crisis.
The social-distancing measures, for example, required employees to stay at least three feet away from one another and avoid physical contact, such as shaking hands. They also had to enter and exit the building at a single door; replace face-to-face meetings with teleconferencing; cancel workshops, training sessions, and other public meetings; refrain from sharing office equipment of any kind; and abstain from using the cafeteria, vending machines, and microwave and other food-related appliances. With regard to infection control, employees had to adhere to a stringent hand-hygiene regimen that included using alcohol-based hand sanitizers and antimicrobial wipes after touching common areas, such as telephones or door handles. They also had to keep their own immediate area disinfected and take out their personal trash before leaving for the day.
Prior to beginning the study, we set 80 percent compliance as the minimum level needed for a realistic study, and then monitored employees’ compliance through on-site observations and self-reporting by employees. Performance was measured using Lockheed Martin’s own metric, called Occupancy Time — the time employees spend on work-related tasks, such as providing assistance to people over the phone. We compared the employees’ Occupancy Time during the three-week experiment with their performance during the three-week periods immediately preceding and immediately following the experiment. In addition, we compared their performance during these three periods with Lockheed Martin’s regional call centers — our control group — that did not implement the disease prevention measures.