Yes, You Should Work From Home to Help Fight Coronavirus Spread
File image of a person operating a laptop computer in his home. (Photographer: Angel Navarrete/Bloomberg)

Yes, You Should Work From Home to Help Fight Coronavirus Spread

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(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- You want to do what you can to protect yourself and others from the spread of the new coronavirus. You’re already washing your hands raw, bumping elbows instead of shaking hands, pressing elevator buttons with your knuckles, and valiantly fighting the urge to touch your face. What else can you do to fight Covid-19? Well, you could just work from home today instead of going to the office.

I know, I know: Most people can’t do that. Only 29% of U.S. workers in a 2017-18 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey said they had the option to do their jobs from home. Those who can tend to have much higher incomes and education levels than those who can’t. Doing your job via an internet connection is simply not a possibility for most people working in retail, food service, manufacturing, health care, and lots of other sectors.

But this is Bloomberg Businessweek, and, according to the BLS, 60% of people in management, business, and financial occupations can work from home. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you can WFH at least some of the time. There’s also a good chance your employer will be ordering or strongly encouraging you to stay away from the office in the near future, as several prominent tech companies already have. But you don’t have to wait.

Think of it as your own little contribution to lowering R₀, the reproduction number, generally pronounced “r-naught.” R₀ is the average number of people an infected person is likely to infect, thus determining whether an epidemic spreads (R₀ is greater than 1) or peters out (R₀ < 1). It varies by disease, with measles at a spectacularly contagious 15 or so, and the average for the seasonal flu usually around 1.3. Current estimates of Covid-19’s R₀ are in the 2s.

Changing behavior can change the effective R₀, though. One way to think of R₀ is that it’s the probability of infection given contact with an infectious person, multiplied by the contact rate, multiplied by the infectious duration. Hand-washing, elbow-bumping, and the like bring R₀ down by lowering the probability of infection given contact with an infectious person. Working from home does it by reducing the number of contacts.

By not going to the office, and by staying off public transportation if that’s how you usually get there, you’re not just protecting yourself from the virus, you’re protecting everyone who still has to go into work or take the train or bus. Such behavior is often labeled social distancing. It may feel a bit anti-social, but during an epidemic it’s actually quite pro-social.

In China, making everybody stay home seems to have brought the coronavirus’s R₀ below the disease-spreading threshold, at least temporarily. More limited shutdowns such as school closings have also been shown to play a role in curbing or at least slowing past influenza epidemics.

Given Covid-19’s seemingly minor impact on children, schools might not be the best target this time around. All the more reason to stay out of the office. Also, such moves have generally been most effective when a virus has only spread to a small percentage of the population. Waiting until the epidemic is raging is too late.

Just you staying home from the office isn’t going to have a major impact, of course. But it’s still something, and—unlike, say, forgoing restaurant meals or movies or travel—it comes at a low economic cost. It may even come at no cost at all, considering that remote workers generally appear to get more done than their in-office peers. One big experimental test of this: In 2010 and 2011 at Shanghai-based travel agency Ctrip (now Trip.com), productivity rose 13% among call-center workers who were allowed to work from home.

So, seriously. Do it for your co-workers. Do it for your fellow commuters. Do it for firefighters and delivery workers. Do it for humanity. If you can, work from home.

Fox is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jim Aley at jaley@bloomberg.net

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

Also read: Coronavirus Got You Working From Home? Expect a Pain in the Neck

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