Culture Challenges: How to
stop a COVID-19 outbreak
from breaking your business

By Paul M. Mastrangelo

If the connection between this virus and culture is not readily apparent, think of it like this. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) advice to protect yourself and prevent the spread of the disease is entirely behavioral – that is, by modifying some of our habits, we can reduce the outbreak’s effect for ourselves and for our workplace communities. Call it a “Behavioral Inoculation” for your business. As culture experts, changing established habits among members of an organization is exactly what we do.

Based on the evidence available right now, this virus may not be as lethal as other outbreaks we are familiar with, but it seems to be spreading much more quickly. In part the spread is accelerated because the symptoms of the disease come on slowly, and they are not markedly different from allergies, the common cold, or the morning after a rough night: a dry cough, a slight fever, feeling tired (some patients also reported aches, nasal congestion, a runny nose, a sore throat, and diarrhea). The WHO estimates that 80% of people will recover without needing special treatment.

• The first challenge, therefore, is limited awareness that individuals have a problem or will cause others a problem.

Despite its subtleties, one study showed the virus caused severe breathing problems for 17% those who contracted it, with older people, those with high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, or those with other health complications having higher risks of more acute symptoms. The condition is severe enough that the WHO estimates 2% of those who contract the disease will die.

• So, the second challenge is that what appears to be a minor illness will cause severe health problems for almost 1/5 of those infected, which at best increases health costs and at worse takes lives.

Next, the disease does not discriminate among an organization’s workers, suppliers, or customers, but it does feed off of any concentrated social group. If one individual is infected, that person’s family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and service providers are at risk. Dominoes in close proximity fall in a short span of time, which is why the city of Wuhan (population of over 11 million) turned into a ghost town. Not to diminish the health risk, but the business risk is that a large number of people who are necessary for your business will be sick, caring for the sick, or banned from their normal activities.

• The third challenge is that just one person’s illness could quickly remove workers, suppliers, and customers.

Finally, the actual transmission of the disease is, to be blunt, through spit and snot. The liquid that exits our body when we sneeze, wipe our nose, spit, and speak contains the virus, and it is passed on to others when it gets into their eyes, noses, and mouths. However, it is not just about keeping a distance of 3 feet or more from each other, because the virus can survive on surfaces (door knobs, railings, computers, phones, money, credit cards, tools, coffee pots, etc.) for hours & possibly days depending on circumstances. People who touch these infected surfaces and then touch their own eyes, nose, or mouth often become infected. The avoidance behaviors that are necessary for all of us to protect each other, while simple enough, are not common habits – in fact many are contrary to the expectations we have at work. Our work ethic tells us that others are depending on us to go into work even if we know we are sick. Many workers feel it is detrimental to their careers – or paychecks – to stay at home when someone in their house is sick. And there it is. For all the benefits of having an engaged workforce committed to showing up for the job, it also increases risk that your organization will be hit hard.

• Indeed, the fourth challenge is that your work culture encourages the spread of disease among the people you need the most.

Accelerating Cultural Change to Reduce Health and Business Risks

To prevent this virus from damaging your workplace, you will need to alter the behaviors of workers (and quite possibly customers and other people who interact with your workers). The WHO has provided recommendations for how to slow or stop an outbreak, and I will summarize them here:

  • Regularly wash your hands with an alcohol-based rub or soap and water
  • Keep at least 3 feet away from someone coughing and sneezing (the CDC says the virus can be transmitted by as much as 6 feet away)
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • Cover your mouth and nose with your bent elbow or a tissue when you cough or sneeze
  • Stay home when you experience a dry cough, a fever, or difficulty breathing
  • Stay aware of local outbreaks and precautions put in place.

How can you influence all the people who interact with your employees to behave in this fashion? A template for planned organizational change that I created over ten years ago (a book chapter I labeled “Creating Infectious Change in Global Organizations” in sad irony) will help outline an answer.


One simple and inexpensive preparation you can implement right now is to start employees thinking about work processes and behaviors in place now that would put your business at risk for a viral outbreak. We are offering two ways of doing so.

  1. Using the WHO recommendations, CultureIQ has created an Organizational Virus Protection Assessment to assess behavioral risk factors that will need to be addressed if the virus were to spread further within the US. Please use this assessment to consider where your organization is most vulnerable.
  2. CultureIQ has also created a lighthearted Keep-Us-Safe Quiz that is designed to educate employees about healthy and risky work behaviors while creating some buzz or “water cooler” talk about precautions that can be organized now. Please use this as a follow up to the first assessment OR as an initial step in ensuring your staff is considering their safety and the safety of others. Try to emphasize the fact that everyone needs to have each others’ backs – we have to protect our teammates.