Coronavirus Is Triggering Fear of Going to Work

Illustration of a woman commuting to work with silhouettes of people and Coronavirus models.
Illustration: Getty Images

By: Tekla S. Perry

You’ve heard of FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out? That concern is scarce these days. Right now, the big worry of tech employees is the novel coronavirus, and it’s causing a Fear of Going to Work. For want of a better acronym, let’s call it FOG. And FYI, it’s leading to a lot more people who are WFM (Working From Home).

Blind, the firm that provides anonymous social networks for verified professionals, says FOG is huge and growing. Blind surveyed its users this week, asking “Are you hesitant to go to work because of the coronavirus outbreak?”

Nearly 6,000 employees from more than 1,000 companies responded. (The majority of Blind’s users are tech professionals, including some 58,000 at Microsoft, 45,000 at Amazon, 19,000 at Google, 15,000 at Facebook, and 14,000 at Uber.) The vast majority of respondents—70.1 percent—reported that they are either very or somewhat hesitant to go to work out of concern about coronavirus

And that fear is growing. As the survey percolated out to the users of the Blind app, the amount of concern among respondents grew, from 67.8 percent on 1 March to 76.1 percent on 4 March. (Each respondent could only answer once.)

Many of these tech professionals are acting on their fears. In a followup survey of more than 2,000 professionals conducted on 4 and 5 of March, 76.1 percent of respondents at Amazon, 81.3 percent of respondents at Microsoft, and 84.1 percent of respondents at Expedia indicated that they are currently working at home. All three companies are headquartered in the Seattle area, where a cluster of cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has been confirmed. With the exception of LinkedIn, a greater proportion of tech professionals in Silicon Valley reported that they are still going into the office, particularly at Google. One has to wonder if office perks have anything to do with that.

Viral trepidation is also impacting productivity. The Blind survey found that 40 percent of total respondents admitted that their own productivity has dropped because of fears about the virus. And the productivity impacts are also trending upward.

Blind didn’t investigate whether the productivity hit is coming because of travel constraints, work from home rules, time spent disinfecting work surfaces, or simply the energy people are putting into researching and discussing the threat.

chart

Adding both to the information available—and to the risk of distraction—Blind opened up a discussion channel dedicated to the coronavirus. On that channel, the chatter includes sharing, confirming, and disputing rumors; tips for virus prevention; and, of course, computer virus jokes.

In my unscientific sampling, I read anonymous posts from an Amazon employee who confirmed reports of a positive virus test within the company, an Indeed employee who discussed peers who came down with “the worst flu of their lives” after international travel but recovered without seeking treatment, and a Microsoft employee outside the United States worried about a constantly coughing coworker. There were also many posts reporting on tech companies encouraging employees to work from home or at least loosening their telecommuting policies, as well as a few that are fighting that trend.

Last month, as news of the novel coronavirus was just beginning to spread, Blind ran another survey, seeking to determine whether fear of the virus was triggering discrimination. More than 7,000 professionals responded, with 11.6 percent indicating that they had witnessed “backlash towards employees of Chinese descent.”

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 6 March 2020.