Nudging the World Toward Pandemic Preparedness: Lessons for Organizations

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Writing research on behavioral nudges during the COVID-19 pandemic has given me an interesting perspective on how our world is handling this situation. It is well known that human behavior is riddled with biases and heuristics and we are seeing their impact on peoples’ responses to social distancing guidelines. For example, protests around the world fighting for loosened restrictions of non-essential business closures may be explained by two common biases:

  • Present bias: Placing more weight on immediate rather than future gains. People may be prioritizing immediate income gains from physically returning to work earlier than advised, risking an occurrence of a second wave, even though their total income gains would be greater if they practiced social distancing for longer so that the occurrence and severity of the second wave is reduced.
  • Optimism bias: Overestimating the probability of positive outcomes. People are overestimating the likelihood of not contracting the virus as a result of returning to work prematurely.

So, what does this mean? Will our biases inevitably pave the way for COVID-19 to take over? Behavioral scientists would say there is still hope. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein have spent their whole careers studying nudges: behaviorally informed interventions that predictably encourage behavior that benefits an individual or the collective good, without limiting any options of choice. Nudges make us challenge the negative aspects of our biases and use their positive aspects to encourage better decision making. Nudges have been used in a variety of contexts to create environments that promote optimal decision making. A common example of nudges is placing healthier foods at the front of the cafeteria line to encourage individuals to stock their trays with those options rather than less-healthy alternatives further down the line.

Nudges have been applied on a global scale to assist in the fight against COVID-19 and have already made significant impacts. Organizations may apply these tactics to optimize behavior during this pandemic. More specifically, organizations can look at reminder, pre-commitment, and graphic nudges to significantly boost engagement, productivity, and compliance of health and safety guidelines.

Reminder nudges to boost engagement

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has implemented a reminder nudge in the form of text messages. They are sending texts to two million people a day, including high-risk populations and those who have identified as having COVID-19-related symptoms. These text messages include guidance on how people can effectively self-isolate, the importance of self-isolating, and other information such as how people can manage their mental health during this time. Although recipients are able to opt out of these text messages at any time, a survey found that over 85% were happy to receive the texts (Burd and Coleman, 2020). These nudges are effective as they are timely, consistent, and simple reminders that help keep the importance of social distancing front of mind.

Reminder nudges are also effective in an organizational context. Humu, a nudging platform aimed at improving employee behavior, opened its services to the public to help individuals through the transition to working from home. Every few days, Humu sends concise email reminders to consenting employees with a suggestion on how they can improve their work-from-home conditions. These suggestions vary from taking mental health walking breaks to setting up video call touchpoints with colleagues to encourage informal interactions. This easy and quick intervention helps employees establish healthy work-from-home habits that promote engagement and reduce the risk of burnout.

Pre-commitment nudges to boost productivity

A pre-commitment nudge creates accountability by enabling people to commit to a behavior prior to completing it. The NHS is incorporating this type of nudge within their reminder nudges. One of the reminder texts they send encourages people to establish a verbal commitment to their friends or family to self-isolate for the recommended number of days. This uses people’s inherent commitment bias – a bias that encourages people to follow through on the prior commitments they have made – to act in a more optimal way.

This nudge can be applied in an organizational context by encouraging employees to pre-commit to daily goals while working from home. The concept that establishing goals helps motivate employees to achieve them is not new. However, the simplicity and intuitiveness of this intervention precisely demonstrates the magic of nudges. Nudges are not large and intrusive changes to current processes. Rather, they are intentional adjustments to processes that achieve significant results when done effectively.

Graphic nudges to improve health and safety practices

Simple graphic nudges like marking tape to indicate where people should stand in lines may also be applied in an organizational context when employees return to onsite work. Graphic nudges have also been used to encourage handwashing, one of the most effective ways to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Researchers were able to increase handwashing among primary school students from 4% to 74% with simple graphic nudges – stickers of colored feet and hands that created a path from the toilets to handwashing stations and ensuring the stations were visible and easy to find (Dreibelbis et al, 2016). Graphic nudges are easily implemented interventions that are particularly useful for encouraging health and safety procedures.

Although nudges cannot be the only tool used among the many available in the pandemic toolbox, these small interventions have helped encourage practices that limit the spread of COVID-19. As well, there are many learnings from these interventions that are not limited to COVID-19-specific applications. McLean & Company’s upcoming research on Nudges: A Paradigm for HR to Influence Employee Behavior explains how nudges can be used as a tool to support any organizational strategy through a six-step framework:

By Alyssa Lampert

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