Work culture, habits
must change fast
to stem coronavirus in the U.S.

By Paul M. Mastrangelo

Max Weber, the German sociologist whose writing on division of labor has influenced organizational designs to this day, introduced the term “Protestant Work Ethic.” Even though he equated the motivation to work hard with a specific form of religious belief (not something I agree with), he labeled a visible part of our American identity in the United States.

We take pride in working very hard, and we consider it a responsibility to do so. That motivation is at the heart of our breakneck economic innovation; the internet, GPS satellites, and smartphones were all created in the US. Identifying with hard work is something very similar to what business leaders call employee engagement. Companies with higher engagement have shown to be more productive and profitable.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar at a briefing about coronavirus on Jan. 31. White House Photo by Keegan Barber.

Yet, it is that very pride in “getting it done” that will make the U.S. and all of the work organizations based here highly susceptible to this pandemic threat known as the COVID-19 coronavirus. Because this coronavirus often has mild symptoms like the common cold, or can have no symptoms at all, most American employees will go to work, and most parents will send their children to school.

Mandate the masks

Because most U.S. citizens are not accustomed to wearing masks when they are sick, COVID-19 may spread very quickly. To be clear, the virus seems to have a fatality rate of less than 2%, but that could still mean hundreds of thousands of lives on the line in America alone, especially those who are not in perfect health, as well as the youngest and oldest among us.

At best, when this coronavirus takes root in the U.S., it will mean people will be home sick, and there will be disruptions to the work schedules of even the healthy employees who have to care for others. At worst the spread of COVID-19 will mean severe illnesses and fatalities. It is just a matter of time before our workforce, our society, and our economy will be hit very hard.

This is a perfect storm, with a contagious virus that sneaks up on people who prefer to ignore cold-like symptoms and do their work. Engagement, in this context, is going to kill us, literally–unless we modify our work culture very quickly.

Here are some critical changes we need to make now:

  • Regardless of where your organization stands on working remotely, that is the best way of preventing the spread of a virus among your workforce. HR leaders need to consider policies that will encourage work being done from home.
  • IT leaders need to consider mobilizing equipment that will enable a remote workforce, at least temporarily.
  • We have to get over our disdain for wearing masks. I overheard a woman who works in healthcare (!) being agitated that her employer was requiring her to wear a mask in certain situations. This behavior has to take on a different symbolic meaning. Instead of associating it with sickness or paranoia, the wearing of a mask must be associated with heroism and sacrifice. These are people who are trying to keep everyone healthy and able to work. Distributing masks to employees and posting signs that portray masks in a positive, communal manner is a great first step. Having leaders model the behavior of wearing a mask at work is an important addition.
  • The number one threat to health and safety when this pandemic arrives is America’s long-lived value of coming in to work no matter what. That behavior has to be redefined as a threat to friends, coworkers, businesses, and our country. The message must be emphatic: If you are sick, stay at home.
  • For hourly workers, staying at home may not be financially achievable, and leaders need to consider how they can cushion that blow. In China, some factories have cautiously rumbled back to life, in a limited way, by having fewer workers come in, and then monitoring them carefully. This will become easier as coronavirus testing gets more efficient in America, which should happen soon, since the CDC announced on Feb. 27 that it has fixed testing glitches.
  • Next, the idea that a healthy employee who has a sick child or family member should come into work will also need to be eradicated. This is more than a work/life balance issue now; staying home to care for the sick allows time to pass for employees to ensure they are healthy and not able to infect others.
  • Finally there are the little things that we all need to be incorporating into our routine. We need to frequently wash our hands. We need to be disinfecting doorknobs, computer equipment, coffee pots – anything that we touch that also gets touched by others. We have to keep sneezes to ourselves (for example, sneezing into our arms rather than our hands). We need to wear masks, use tissues, and stop touching railings, desks, and other objects with our bare hands. These are behaviors that need to become just as infectious as the virus itself.

We have to spread a culture that will prevent a spreading virus.

Paul M. Mastrangelo is a Principal Strategist at CultureIQ. He answers questions about culture and strategy in a new bimonthly series, “Ask a Strategist.” You can reach out to him with your questions at

Related Resources: