As the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States continues to rise, working from home may not be the worst idea. Here's why—plus, how to talk to your boss about working remotely.

By Jennifer Nied
March 04, 2020

Coronavirus, aka COVID-19, is making headlines as more cases pop up around the world and closer to home. It can be super overwhelming wading through it all, but it's not time to enter major panic mode. There are simple ways to switch up your routine to keep yourself healthy, starting with remote work during the COVID-19 outbreak—something that employers should already be considering, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Major companies including Google, Coinbase, and Twitter are already telling employees to work from home as the coronavirus spreads. "Our goal is to lower the probability of the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus for us - and the world around us," reads a post from Twitter about the company's new policy, which CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted about as well.

Pre-coronavirus, nearly 70 percent of employers said they allow remote work on an ad-hoc basis and 27 percent said they allowed full-time telecommuting, according to a 2019 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management.

So, does working from home diminish your coronavirus infection risk?

That's a yes, according to M.D.s.

"The coronavirus is transmitted by coughing/sneezing in addition to touching infected surfaces," says Edo Paz, M.D., vice president of Medical for K Health. "This means that people are more likely to get infected if they are in close proximity to other people throughout the day: sharing space, desks, kitchens, and surfaces. This is especially true if you use mass transit to get to work, as this exposes you to even more people in close proximity." (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Coronavirus Transmission)

While you don't want to play into scare tactics or become a total hermit, there are real benefits to avoiding the workplace until the coronavirus outbreak is contained. "Anything where items are shared, especially things like shared landline phones, shared computer stations, can increase the risk of what's called the indirect spread of infection," says Darria Long Gillespie, M.D., emergency room physician and national spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians. "Indirect spread happens when somebody coughs or sneezes on an item or on their hand, touches that item, and then somebody else comes up and touches that item, picking up the infection." (So, should you start wearing a mask? First, check out what experts have to say about whether or not N95 masks can really protect you from COVID-19.)

Okay, I'm convinced. How do I switch to working from home during the coronavirus outbreak?

For starters, your company may not have a corporate policy that comes into play for this specific situation, says Nicole Lapin, career expert and New York Times best-selling author of Rich Bitch and Boss Bitch. "So, there may be exceptions, on a case-by-case basis and dictated by news and safety of employees." It's up to you to be proactive about your health. (Speaking of being proactive, here's how to prepare for coronavirus and the threat of an outbreak.)

It's also a good idea to have an open conversation with your boss about what needs to be done in person vs. what can be done remotely, says Lapin. "Come in with a plan that dictates very clearly what can be done at home or out of the office."

Also, focus on your value to the company when you talk to your boss about working from home in light of the coronavirus. How you frame, and phrase, your ask matters. "Keep in mind, at the end of the day, these are businesses that are driven by bottom lines," says Lapin. Show your boss how your working from home is beneficial to the company and how you can be more productive. "You want to think how it's going to help the greater good, but also that you yourself are a valuable asset," she adds.

What happens once you get work-from-home status amid the coronavirus outbreak?

Be prepared for the not-so-glam side.

"There are some safeguards that should come into play," says Lapin. "For your own mental health, create a separate space away from your bedroom and living areas for working." She also recommends getting yourself ready each morning just like you're heading into the office.

"It can actually be detrimental to your mental health if you're working in pajamas all day long," she says. "Be ready to have face-to-face communication so you don't feel too isolated and have no human contact."

This is also where video conferencing tools like Skype and Zoom will likely come into play, as they help connect team members working remotely.

"I can't recommend using video in meetings enough," says Marissa Salazar, a product marketing manager for Microsoft Teams. "As a remote worker myself, I can say it goes a long way in helping me connect with my colleagues at the home office."

While Dr. Gillespie doesn't endorse drastically changing your habits, she says, "If it is easy for somebody to be able to work from home and opt to stay home, then that's not necessarily a bad idea over the coming weeks." (And if you can't work remotely, don't freak out—just be sure to know the coronavirus symptoms and the truth about the coronavirus mortality rate.)

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.

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