Grattan Institute is sending its staff home. Here’s why other employers should urgently consider doing the same

Grattan Institute’s 30 staff will be working from home from Monday. We thought we’d tell you why, because our reasons for closing our inner-Melbourne office may help other employers – and employees – who are grappling with this very difficult decision.

The less people are physically near each other, the lower the rate of transmission of coronavirus. That’s why ‘social distancing’ – or more accurately, spatial distancing – is a key strategy to slow the spread of the virus. But for the 13 million Australians with jobs, this spatial distancing can affect their ability to work.

We recommend businesses that can feasibly allow staff to work from home should do so as soon as practical. Here’s why.

As of Thursday 19 March, we estimate there is a 10 per cent chance that at least one employee in a company of 500 people has already interacted with a person with COVID-19.

That’s based on the following assumptions. First, in keeping with research by Imperial College London, we assume that two-thirds of people who contract coronavirus will develop symptoms significant enough that they will self-isolate. That would leave one-third of cases in the community, with only mild symptoms. These people are unlikely to get tested. So we assume that for each two confirmed and quarantined cases, there’s one case in the community.

Second, we assume that workers interact with five unique people in the community each day, such as family members, colleagues, and people in supermarkets or cafes. This assumption might be too high if people have been practising spatial distancing, but could be too low if people are carrying on business-as-usual. We assume the population is ‘well-mixed’ – that is, that Australians are free to move about. Given low levels of interstate travel now, the virus may spread slower in states where cases per capita are low.

Finally, we assume that cases in Australia will continue to grow at the same rate as now – doubling every 3-to-4 days. This is slower than in Italy or Iran, but faster than in Singapore or Japan.

Our estimate does not imply there is a 10 per cent chance that someone in a company of 500 people has the virus, but of course the risk of infection increases with the number of times staff are exposed.

The larger the business, the more likely someone has been exposed. The risks are higher for NSW-based companies (because there is more untracked community transmission there), and lower for companies in other states. And the chances increase with each passing day.

Of course, working from home is not possible for everyone. Some companies’ core business is face-to-face human interaction. The easier it is for a business to allow staff to work from home, the lower the risk of infection which should be tolerated.

While Telstra was able to send 20,000 staff home last week, employees at businesses such as cafes, electrical services, and supermarkets need to be physically present to do their job. These employees should follow hygiene advice and practise spatial isolation as best they can in their jobs. This is especially the case for workers providing essential services: grocers, police, and healthcare professionals, for instance.

And companies that do implement working-from-home policies need to provide staff with adequate assistance to set-up their home, and then provide ongoing support. Companies should ensure that social interaction opportunities continue, albeit virtually.

Community based psychology services should be re-purposed to support people working from home. And if childcare centres close, having more adults at home reduces the need for nannies, potentially freeing up childminding services for parents in the healthcare sector.

Decision-making is hard in the face of uncertainty. But businesses need to act early to protect their staff – and the community.

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