New Study Shows How the Coronavirus Moves Around an Office

Screen capture. Playtime

We are definitely not going back to the way we were.

There are some people who are itching to get back to the office, tired of being trapped at home. But things won't be the same when they return. According to Maxwell Strachan in Vice, "The new order will make familiar spaces look foreign and minimize what was once one of the major benefits to office life: face-to-face interaction. The open office plans that allowed employers to squeeze workers together will likely become a thing of the past, at least temporarily."

In fact, based on the findings in a new study Coronavirus Disease Outbreak in Call Center, South Korea, the offices in Jacques Tati's movie Playtime are looking very plausible and attractive.

Plan of call center in Korea used in study of coronavirus spread

Park SY, Kim YM, Yi S, Lee S, Na BJ, Kim CB, et al./CC BY 2.0 Floor plan of the 11th floor of building X, site of a coronavirus disease outbreak, Seoul, South Korea, 2020. Blue coloring indicates the seating places of persons with confirmed cases.

On March 9, 2020, after being notified of an outbreak of COVID-19, a team of investigators checked out 922 employees who worked on the lower commercial floors of a building in Seoul, and 203 residents who lived on the upper floors. They tested everyone within 24 hours and then monitored them all through quarantine, and used cellphone data to send 16,628 text messages to anyone else who stayed more than five minutes near the building, telling them to go get tested. (Try that in North America!)

The first person in the building to have symptoms was on the tenth floor, but the second was on the 11th in the call center. By the time they checked out the offices, it had spread widely through the office space.

This outbreak shows alarmingly that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) can be exceptionally contagious in crowded office settings such as a call center. The magnitude of the outbreak illustrates how a high-density work environment can become a high-risk site for the spread of COVID-19 and potentially a source of further transmission. Nearly all the case-patients were on one side of the building on 11th floor.

M. Hulot gets the elevator all to himself/ Playtime/Screen capture

Interestingly, the outbreak was pretty much concentrated to half of the 11th floor, even though workers from all floors were crowded together in the elevators, leading to the conclusion that "the duration of interaction (or contact) was likely the main facilitator for further spreading of SARS-CoV-2." This bodes well for those worried about elevators or even passing someone closely on the street.

There is no scale on the drawing, but people in call centers in Korea are probably packed a lot more tightly together than office workers in North America. But they are still a lot tighter than they used to be, and as Professor Jonathan Dingel told Strachan of Vice, “The open office plans that have people sitting shoulder to shoulder shouldn't be operating at full capacity anytime soon.”