How behavioural economics can limit the spread of COVID-19 in offices

Harry Davenport's essay earned a Distinction on the IPA's Advanced Behavioural Economics course in 2020.

With the possibility of restrictions easing in the next few weeks and months, Wavemaker's Harry Davenport explores how behavioural economics could be used to influence people and help reduce the spread of COVID when offices re-open as part of the IPA's Advanced Behavioural Economics course.

COVID-19 has affected our society on a scale unparalleled in recent memory. In the UK alone, millions have been locked down in their homes, hundreds of thousands have been infected, tens of thousands have died. COVID-19 and its consequences are now a reference point relevant to every human; it is an era-defining zeitgeist which will reshape social and economic structures, attitudes to public health, and ways of interacting as a society for years to come. These changes have manifested throughout lockdown, so our re-emergence into the world and adaption to the ‘new normal’ will be heavily scrutinised and incredibly important in reducing the future spread of the virus. One of the most pressing issues for employers and workers is our return to offices. While the days of hot-desking, shared kitchen equipment, and buffet cafeterias may be a thing of the past, there are many ways in which the spread of COVID-19 can be reduced in offices using behavioural science and the EAST framework. In this essay, I will discuss how this framework can be effectively deployed, and how working in offices is something that can be safe and encouraged soon. With any behaviour change exercise, it is important to define the outcome we seek and to identify exactly which behaviour we need to influence, thereby ensuring any change witnessed can be reliably and efficiently measured. In the context of the office, the behaviour we are seeking to encourage is that of good hygiene and compliance with social distancing rules to minimise the future spread of the virus.

The path of least resistance

To encourage behaviour change, the EAST framework suggests we need to make our desired course of action as easy as possible. This may seem a complicated place to start, given lockdown has been defined by difficulty and restriction. Encouraging any behaviour in the coming months will be judged against the difficulty that has come before, so I believe 'making it easy' is the most relevant aspect of the framework in the context of this brief. We know that people will generally go down the path of least resistance, accepting the default or pre-set option. Making this option the behaviour you seek to encourage is crucial in producing effective behaviour change. In the context of reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the office, we need to ensure practicing good hygiene is the default option. In the current context, PPE and hand sanitiser is the most prevalent way of staying hygienic around others, and as such, adequate provision of protective equipment is essential in making good hygiene the default. Hand sanitiser stations could be added to points in the office where germs are transmitted on surfaces: outside lifts, by doors, by the kitchen. To give an extra nudge, tickers could be added to display how many times each surface had been interacted with that day. A simple sign displaying the number of times a particular lift button had been pressed that day, alongside a suggestion to clean your hands as soon as possible would ensure sanitiser stations outside the lift doors were used frequently.

You are the 37th person to press the button for the 8th floor today. Make sure you clean your hands when you exit the lift.

Seeing these stations as part of the office, embedded into every area makes their use feel normal, sensible, and default. Masks could also be provided for each employee. In providing this equipment, we can reduce any friction that may impede behaviour change. Placing the onus on people to purchase their own masks and hand sanitiser increases the friction costs associated with the desired course of action. By providing masks and hygiene products in the office, the effort of this action is removed.

Social distancing

In terms of social distancing, we have seen a host of innovations emerge across the globe to encourage people to keep their distance in social spaces. Cafes in Paris have placed large stuffed toys in alternating seats to ensure people are always at least 2m apart, while gyms in California have developed individual workout spaces separated by plastic walls. These solutions remove the option for any other course of action – you physically cannot get within 2m of other people and use these spaces. Taking inspiration from these innovations, we could remove excess chairs entirely to encourage people to stay in their workspace. Further, we could remove the wheels from office chairs to discourage people scooting over to their colleagues’ screens to share information. As before, these simple innovations make the desired course of action the easiest to perform, and therefore encourage effective behaviour change.

Making it easy also involves simplicity of messaging. In the context of lockdown, people have been bombarded with multiple messages that have evolved over time so the need for clarity of message has never been more pertinent. The negative reaction to the government’s vague concept of ‘controlling the virus’ gives a prime example of what we need to avoid. In addition, we know that personalising messages and tailoring them to specific situations makes them more attractive to people, and therefore more readily received. By simultaneously simplifying the message and personalising it, we can encourage behaviour change. For example, displaying the message 'keep floor 8 squeaky clean by using me' on a hand sanitiser station by an entry, we are both making the message easy to receive, the action easy to perform, and the message more attractive and visible through personalisation.


This leads onto the next element of the EAST framework, making it attractive. As seen above, the key elements of making any behaviour or action appear attractive are by drawing attention to it through things like design or personalisation, and by making that action more appealing. An example of simple design hints could include lines on the floor designating where each person’s workspace begins and ends, subtly implying desired behaviour. Pre-lockdown, it was commonplace in offices to reuse mugs and kitchen equipment throughout the day, leaving them unclean in shared kitchen spaces. To solve this unhygienic issue, we can deploy attention grabbing design and engage with the 'make it social' element of the EAST framework. Workers could be given the chance to design their own mug, personalising it to them. This would harness several behavioural science heuristics. Per the IKEA effect, we know people place a higher value on things they create themselves. Allowing workers to design their own mug would encourage them to take greater care; people would become less likely to leave them unclean (and therefore unhygienic) in shared spaces, as it would be immediately identifiable who was responsible. This touches on Cialdini’s theory of social proof, and how we tend to herd as a species, and do not want to stray from the norm and stand out. Another way to encourage behaviour change is to apply action in the context of social spaces where people want to be seen to be conforming to the norm. We have 2-minute timers on our toothbrushes, so why not introduce 20-second timers on our sinks? If we make it socially unacceptable to stop washing your hands before the timer stops, we can encourage positive, hygienic behaviour change in offices.

Finally, any effort to change behaviour needs to be timely, ensuring people are nudged in their most receptive state. We know that when people experience significant life events, they are more likely to try new brands and shake habitual patterns of behaviour. It can be argued that the COVID-19 pandemic represents a once in a generation life event for the entire population, therefore everyone should be receptive to behaviour change. As such, the lifting of lockdown and the ‘new normal’ it engenders presents an invaluable opportunity to nudge the population. Making it timely is also about managing the immediate costs and benefits. People are influenced more readily by immediate benefits than those delivered later. Contextualising good hygiene in immediate terms is therefore important in encouraging behaviour change. We can emphasise how being hygienic will make the office a pleasant, calm space to be in, contrasting with the frequently hectic work from home lives we’ve become accustomed to.

Encouraging positive behaviour change

In conclusion, the EAST framework provides a plethora of methods to encourage positive behaviour change in the wake of COVID-19. While returning to the office may be a source of anxiety for many, adopting the practices and behavioural science heuristics above can provide a sense of safety and security once working at the office is again the norm. Using the EAST framework, we can make our desired behaviour easy, and simplify messaging to encourage action. We can make it attractive and social, encouraging people to engage with hygiene practices because its beneficial to them, and out of social responsibility to others. Any action taken will be timely, given the receptive state people will be in post-lockdown life event. In sum, the EAST framework presents a productive and effective model around which to base any effort to combat the spread of COVID-19 in offices post-lockdown.

Harry Davenport is a Planning Manager at Wavemaker. This essay earned him a Distinction in the IPA's 2020 Advanced Behavioural Economics course. Add yourself to our interest list for the course’s next intake

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and were submitted in accordance with the IPA terms and conditions regarding the uploading and contribution of content to the IPA newsletters, IPA website, or other IPA media, and should not be interpreted as representing the opinion of the IPA.

Last updated 01 May 2024