Tag: COVID-19



Many employers have already begun transitioning employees back to the office, while others plan to resume in-office work in the coming months. But after more than a year of working from home, is returning to business as usual even possible? Or desirable?

Employees have changed amid this pandemic. The more a company can match employee preferences and the optimal work conditions required for a given role, the better off they’ll be in terms of hiring and employee retention, according to Peter Boumgarden, an organizational behavior expert at Washington University in St. Louis.

Boumgarden

“Working from home has a level of flexibility that is hard to match in a traditional environment,” said Boumgarden, the Koch Professor of Practice for Family Enterprise at Olin Business School. “Research by Nicholas Bloom and colleagues suggests that employees value this benefit, even seeing it as equivalent to the value they would get from a non-significant pay raise.”

And it’s not just flexibility that employees want.

“We know that autonomy — especially perceived autonomy — is a huge driver of employee satisfaction,” said Markus Baer, professor of organizational behavior at Olin Business School. “Just having the sense that you have control of your schedule and when to do certain tasks can boost motivation.”

Of course, there are benefits to working in the traditional office setting for individuals and teams. Interdependent work that requires coordination and input from multiple people is easier to accomplish in person. So are nonlinear tasks like brainstorming. Being co-located also helps employees feel connected to the team and provides networking opportunities that can help them advance their careers. This kind of rich social connection can be hard to mimic online, Boumgarden said.

Despite some of the benefits, some employers are seeking a return to more traditional working conditions.

“In my view, the return to office is driven by some mix of companies trying to recapture some of those lost elements, the desire to use expensive office real-estate set up for this strategy and, perhaps, because the old world still feels a bit more familiar,” he said. 

No one-size-fits-all approach

The question should not be whether to return to the office, continue working remotely or some hybrid option, but rather: What is the nature of the employee’s work? That’s what should drive return-to-work plans, Baer said.

Baer

For individual contributors, going into the physical office is less essential. In fact, many people have found over the past year and a half that they are more productive working at home without the typical office disruptions.

However, co-location becomes increasingly important as work becomes more interdependent and complex — especially when frequent communication is required, Baer said. Collaborative tasks such as ideating or coordinating projects are accomplished more efficiently in person.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean employees need to be in the office full time. For many teams, the ideal arrangement will change week to week based on current work needs, Baer said.

“There’s some research that shows that teams do really well when they have bursts of activity. I could envision teams coming together for a week or a block of intense activity to solve a problem and then disband when the problem is solved and it’s clear who is going to do what. Once those tasks are complete, the team can reconvene,” Baer said.

Hybrid challenges

From a productivity standpoint, a well-planned hybrid arrangement offers the best of both worlds: time in the office to plan and coordinate work, and uninterrupted time at home to complete tasks. Hybrid arrangements also enable employees to retain an office footprint while keeping some of the flexibility they’ve enjoyed over the past year and a half. For these reasons, Boumgarden believes hybrid work will be the future for many organizations. However, the challenges of hybrid work are significant, perhaps even more so than traditional in-person offices and fully remote work environments, he said.

“There’s some research that shows that teams do really well when they have bursts of activity. I could envision teams coming together for a week or a block of intense activity to solve a problem and then disband when the problem is solved.”

Markus Baer

“Very few of our offices are technologically or socially set up for a world where half of the workers are in the office and half are working from home,” Boumgarden said. “Managers needs to be thinking very hard about workflows required to drive efficiency and innovation in this new set-up. Overcoming these challenges will require investment of time and capital on the part of leaders.”

There are also employee management issues to overcome in a hybrid model. For example, if one person decides to work from home more frequently and another stays in the office, will they be seen equally by their superiors?

“I would argue that true clarity of expectations is critical. Workers should know both what the stated expectation is, but also what is the implicit norm,” Boumgarden said.

Lessons learned

For those who plan to return to a traditional office work arrangement, there are still lessons to be learned from the great work-from-home experiment. For starters, leaders need to revisit how frequently they schedule meetings, Baer said.

“When people are co-located, it’s easy to call a meeting to discuss something, but oftentimes these meetings are unproductive and nothing is really accomplished that couldn’t have been done in a simple email exchange,” Baer said.

The same communication tools that kept teams running while working remotely — such as Microsoft Teams, Skype or Slack — can still be used to inform employees or collect information without forcing them to sit through yet another meeting.  

Boumgarden hopes the experience of managing remotely will ultimately change how leaders do their jobs when they’re back in the office.

“For managers, I hope there are lessons learned about how one manages toward outcome versus micromanaging process alone,” he said. “Let’s start by acknowledging true contribution cannot be linked to minute and hours alone. For example, I might have an exceptionally productive hour that is equivalent to my typical four hours of output. The next day, I might have four hours of time that distill down to less than an hour of true ‘productivity.’ Or what about the breakthrough that occurs on a run or while lying awake at night? How should this be managed? Does it count as work time? These are the questions our next generation leaders should be asking.

“All this said, as soon as we realize that contribution does not neatly map onto time blocks, our way of assessing work should evolve,” Boumgarden continued. “I hope managers start to think about how they might creatively evaluate progress toward goals, while at the same time realizing that people work in different ways to reach this value.

“By not being able to micromanage over the last year-plus, I think many people had a realization that their actual management was much more superficial than truly additive of value,” he added.  

But perhaps the most important lesson we all learned over the past year and a half is the importance of remaining flexible.

“I think there is value in saying new models are still experiments. A company might roll out one approach to hybrid for some time and then adjust back as the data gives insight around what is and is not working,” Boumgarden said.




On May 13, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 do not need to wear masks or practice social distancing indoors or outdoors, except under certain circumstances.

The announcement came as a surprise to many, including business owners who suddenly had to reevaluate their mask requirements and how these changes might impact their employees and businesses.

In a November 2020 studyRaphael Thomadsen, professor of marketing, and Song Yao, associate professor of marketing, both at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, found mask mandates boosted consumer sales by 5% on average. But that was before COVID-19 vaccines were readily available.

Below, Thomadsen and Yao share their perspectives on how the new CDC guidelines might impact businesses.

How might the new CDC guidelines impact retail, restaurant, travel and leisure business? 

“I think it is too early to tell what the impact of this will be,” Thomadsen said. “My sense is the business effect does not come directly from the rules, but on whether people feel safer with these recommendations.

​Thomadsen

“Travel and restaurants were already beginning to pick up beforehand. That said, I suspect that there is a segment of the population that will be assured by the CDC recommendations and will start going out. In that sense, I think that the recommendations will probably help the restaurant and bar category in particular, where wearing a mask might not be feasible.

“For everything else, it is harder to know at this time since there is evidence that masks helped people be confident that they are safe while shopping. On the other hand, those studies are from before the time of vaccines, so there is good reason to think that the masks may not make as many people feel safe as before.”

“I also think it may take a while to tell the impact of the new guidelines. But my reasoning is that many local governments and business are hesitant to relax the mask requirement yet,” Yao said. “Talking with some colleagues and friends, I also notice that many people say they will still wear masks, and some even said they would reduce their visits to groceries if those stores start to relax right away.

“In a couple of weeks, if the case number remains low, local governments, business and, more importantly, customers may become more confident going out shopping.

“In short, the guidelines probably do little to boost the business. Rebuilding confidence is more crucial, which requires more vaccinations and reduction in case numbers.”

Are businesses caught between a rock and a hard place if they do or don’t continue to require masks?

“I think this depends a lot on where the business is located,” Thomadsen said. “In St. Louis, I have observed most people still wearing masks at supermarkets or other stores, and even some stores still requiring masks. I suspect that these businesses are OK requiring the masks — the number of people who are truly anti-mask, to the point of not accommodating polite requests, in the country is relatively small. If there is another surge, I think that those businesses can go back to requiring masks.

“That said, I do think there are some areas in our country where there is stronger pushback. This probably affects the Walmarts and more corporate businesses more than the small local businesses, who probably already ignored the mask mandates if their customer base strongly opposed them.”

What do businesses need most right now? 

Yao

“Beyond the multiple rounds of stimulus checks, I feel the government still needs to figure out some innovative approaches to boost vaccination rates,” Yao said. “While the vaccination passport idea may be infeasible, some financial incentives for vaccination may not be a bad idea. Ultimately, this would be good for public health and businesses alike.”

 “From my perspective, the largest issue currently impacting businesses is that many supply chains are not running at full capacity,” Thomadsen said. “It is hard to get supply chains to get synchronized, so I think that is to be expected as the economy gets back to full strength.”

Added Yao: “As Raphael pointed out, it may worthwhile to figure out the weak links in the supply chain and spend some money to fix those first.”

Less than half of the population is fully vaccinated, and children 11 and under are not yet eligible to receive a vaccine. Was this move too soon?

“This is a hard question. I would have preferred that we use vaccine passports rather than this type of guidance,” Thomadsen said. “However, such a system is costly and perhaps politically fraught. I also do not think that this policy incentivizes people to get vaccinated, so from that point of view, the decision was not a great one.”

“On the other hand, you cannot keep things closed forever, and cases have already fallen a lot. Most people who want to be vaccinated have gotten vaccinated, except for children, so it is not clear how beneficial waiting would be. 

“Most importantly, though, the declines we see likely reflect not just the vaccinations, but the fact that people who had COVID previously are less likely to get COVID again. The best estimates are that half of the people in the US had COVID, where only about 20% of these cases were diagnosed. If we take early estimates the we need 70% community immunity to contain the spread of COVID, we are there when we add the vaccinations and the cases together (even accounting for overlap). I am not saying that people who had COVID shouldn’t be vaccinated – there are many cases of people getting COVID twice. However, as long as people who had COVID are less likely to get it again, what we are seeing now is that, as a community, this reduced susceptibility is likely enough.

“I expect we will know whether this decision was a good one in about two weeks. If cases continue to plummet even after two weeks then it was the right call. If cases plateau again – or – even rise, then it was too early.”




President-elect Joe Biden has signaled that fighting the COVID-19 pandemic will be an immediate priority for his administration. He recently announced a coronavirus advisory board of infectious disease researchers and former public health advisers along with an updated strategy that will include increases in testing and contact tracing, as well as transparent communication.

But Inauguration Day is still a month away. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is likely to increase to 20 million by the end of January, nearly doubling the levels around the time of his election, an Olin COVID-19 forecasting model predicts.

The model, which accurately forecasted the rate of COVID-19 growth over the summer of 2020, was developed by Olin’s  Meng LiuRaphael Thomadsen and Song Yao. Their paper—presenting the model and its forecasts—was published November 23 by Scientific Reports.

“One of the key reasons for the increased accuracy of this model over other COVID-19 forecasts is that this model accounts for the fact that people live in interconnected social networks rather than interacting mostly with random groups of strangers,” said Thomadsen, professor of marketing. “This allows the model to forecast that growth will not continue at exponential rates for long periods of time, as classic COVID-19 forecasts predict.”

The evolution of COVID-19 depends on how much we, as a country, continue to social distance or return back to normal levels of interaction. This chart shows forecasted cases in the U.S. through the end of January 2021 based on our current social distancing levels, as well as less and more social distancing.

An interactive online version of the model also allows users to observe the impact different levels of social distancing will have on the spread of COVID-19. The current social distancing reflects an approximate 60% return to normalcy, as compared with the level of social distancing before the pandemic. If we continue, as a nation, at the current level of social distancing, the model forecasts that we are likely to reach 20 million cases before the end of January 2021.

“Even small increases in social distancing can have a large effect on the number of cases we observe in the next two and a half months,” Thomadsen said. “Going back to a 50% return to normalcy, which was the average level of distancing in early August, would likely result in 5 million fewer cases by the end of January.

“We could effectively squash out the COVID growth within a few weeks if we went back to the levels of social distancing we experienced in April.”

Raphael Thomadsen

“We could effectively squash out the COVID growth within a few weeks if we went back to the levels of social distancing we experienced in April,” he added.

However, the researchers caution that this is likely a conservative estimate due to increased testing and the upcoming holidays.

“In our model, we assume that only 10% of cases are ever diagnosed, meaning that we will start to hit saturation,” said Song Yao, associate professor of marketing and study co-author. “However, more recently, testing has increased, and probably more like 25% of cases are diagnosed. In that case, total COVID cases would increase beyond 20 million in the next few months unless we, as a society, engage in more social distancing.”

“The upcoming holiday seasons will present a great deal of uncertainty to the outlook of the pandemic as people travel more at the end of the year. This will likely make our forecast an optimistic one,” said Meng Liu, assistant professor of marketing and study co-author.




Something is out to kill you. How do you react? Do you respond based on whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat?

“One would hope that when your life is on the line that partisanship drops out, right?” said Olin’s John Barrios, assistant professor of accounting.

Barrios

Wrong. It doesn’t. Not according to Barrios’ National Bureau of Economic Research working paper titled “Risk Perception Through the Lens of Politics in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

Barrios coauthored the paper with Yael Hochberg of Rice University.

As COVID-19 began its epic march across the United States, politicians and commentators were divided on the severity of the public health threat. Barrios and Hochberg examined people’s behavior whose perceptions of risk were informed by the news media and those of the partisan leaders. They found that the partisan divide was reflected in the social-distancing behavior of individuals.

Their research shows that a higher share of Trump voters in a county is associated with lower perceptions of risk during the pandemic. As the share of Trump voters rises, individuals search less for information on the virus. They also engage in less social distancing behavior, as measured by smartphone location patterns.

Why patterns reverse

The patterns persist in the face of state-level mandates to close schools and businesses or to stay at home. They reverse only when conservative politicians are exposed to the virus or when the White House releases federal social distancing guidelines.

“Perception really matters in terms of how you behave,” Barrios said. “And it’s even more important in these epidemics because of the externalities that our behavior has.”

Some might be very cautious because they perceive COVID-19 as dangerous. “Yet if my neighbor doesn’t really care, it doesn’t matter how much I stay in my apartment if he knocks on the door after he’s been walking around the whole of Chicago,” Barrios said.

Barrios set out to understand how individuals perceive the guidance from both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and those in political power. “Our idea was: To what extent would we observe differences in the behavior of these individuals? Given that the political party in power at this point is a Republican president, while the House (of Representatives) is Democratic.”

Even after controlling for economic characteristics in an area and the actual risk of contracting COVID-19, “we still observe a difference between high-Trump areas versus low-Trump areas,” Barrios said.

Over the course of the pandemic, governments have issued various directives regarding closing nonessential businesses and schools and sheltering in place. On March 16, federal guidelines for social distancing for a 15-day period were announced. Compliance with the directives varied substantially across counties with high and low shares of Trump voters. “In high Trump voter share counties, there is a significantly lower reduction in both average daily distance traveled and in visits to nonessential businesses,” Barrios said.

Those patterns shifted dramatically once the pandemic began affecting Republican politicians. Barrios’ paper notes the emergence of COVID-19 infections among participants at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference early this year. On March 9, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and the chairman of CPAC self-quarantined after exposure to someone with COVID. After that announcement, people in counties with high Trump voter shares shifted their behavior. They reduced daily distance traveled and visits to nonessential businesses.

“They’re kind of catching up,” Barrios said. “Democrat areas in the same time period are still becoming more conservative, they’re social distancing more. It’s just that Republican areas are now doing it at a higher rate because they’re catching up because they’re taking it seriously.”

Same risk, different perspectives

Barrios said  “it’s worrying” that partisanship affects compliance with public health policy. “We’re not saying that the Democrats were right or Republicans were right. We’re simply saying that it’s very noteworthy that despite being exposed to the same risk, we still see different perspectives,” he said.

“Our main point is: If you want to think about policy and compliance in this voluntary, free society that we live in, the sources of this information matter and affect how we perceive that information,” Barrios said.

“And the fact that we have either news sources or political leaders that have diametrically opposed views on subjects, for whatever reason, seems to affect the behavior of individuals in ways that have real consequences—in this case, human lives.”




The economy and coronavirus pandemic were two of the top issues for voters in the 2020 election, according to exit poll surveys. Notably, 52% of voters said controlling the pandemic was more important, even if it hurts the economy. But what if we didn’t have to choose?

In communities where masks were mandated, consumer spending increased by 5% on average, showing that a safety rule can stimulate economic growth as well, according to a new study from the Olin Business School.

Researchers found the effect was greatest among non-essential businesses, including those in the retail and entertainment industries—such as restaurants and bars—that were hit hard by the pandemic.

​Thomadsen

“The findings exceeded our expectations and show that we can have a strong economy with strong, commonsense public-health measures. Mask mandates are a win-win,” said Raphael Thomadsen, professor of marketing and study co-author.

Thomadsen, along with Olin’s Song YaoNan Zhao and Chong Bo Wang, analyzed the impact of social distancing and mask mandates on both the spread of COVID-19 and consumer spending. They used cellphone location data to track the degree of social distancing in nearly every county in the U.S. and compared that with community voting patterns, coronavirus infection rates and consumer spending rates.

The researchers found social distancing has a large impact on reducing COVID-19 spread, while the evidence on mask mandates is mixed. But while social distancing reduces consumer spending, mask mandates has the opposite effect. They also found that social distancing decreased in communities with mask mandates, magnifying the positive effect on spending.

Feeling safer to spend

Yao

“Preventive measures such as social distancing and facial masks should be considered as pro-business,” said Yao, associate professor of marketing. “When people feel safer to spend, or more importantly, when the pandemic is kept at bay, the economy is more likely to have a quick recovery. Not to mention the lives that will be saved.”

Perhaps not surprising given the political lines drawn over masks, they also observed that political affiliation had a significant impact on social distancing. Even after controlling for local characteristics such as the population density, income and other demographics, counties that voted for President Donald Trump in 2016 engaged in significantly less social distancing than counties that voted for Hillary Clinton.

“If the entire country had followed low levels of social distancing seen in Trump-supporting areas, we estimate there would have been 83,000 more American deaths from COVID to date, which represents a 36% increase over the current death count of 225,000 Americans,” Thomadsen said.

They estimate the tradeoff would have been a relatively small boost in the economy. Consumer spending dropped $605.5 billion from April to the end of July, compared with the same time last year. The country would have recovered $55.4 billion, or approximately 9%, had all counties remained as open as the most pro-Trump areas.To put it in more dramatic terms, Thomadsen said this means that opening up is only a reasonable policy if one values lost lives at roughly $670,000 each or less. This value was determined by dividing the hypothetical $55.4 billion boost to the economy by the 83,000 lives lost in this scenario.

“The calls to open up the economy come with huge costs of COVID spread and only modest benefits of increased economic activity,” Thomadsen said. “Opening the economy before getting the virus under control only makes sense if you put a very low value on life.”