According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, open-plan workplaces are playing a pivotal role in the spread of illness at work.


Open-plan work environments are often touted as advantageous for all workplaces and the push for companies to redesign their workspaces with an open-plan layout in mind has been substantial. The theory is that open layouts encourage accountability and collaboration all across the board from each and every single team member. The disappearance of the privileged executive office with closed doors is replaced by common working areas, a symbol of team unity and equality.


While the level of collaboration actually inspired by open-plan offices may be questionable, as pointed out by an article in The New Yorker, other and more alarming research points out that open-plan offices may in fact be detrimental to the health of employees.


Individuals who work in open-plan offices are reportedly at high risk of becoming ill more frequently and with worse symptoms when compared to those in a more traditional work environment, like those that include private offices. In fact, according to The Wall Street Journal, “Those most likely to take a few days off from work were workers in open offices with 4 to 9 people per room and those in open offices with more than 24 people per room.”


There are a few ideas as to why this trend is occurring. Higher collaboration means more shared working spaces. Having such close quarters allows for the easy spread of germs, as there are more shared surfaces, including computer keyboards, phones, and desk surfaces.

Additionally, environmental stressors may share at least part of the blame. Open-plan offices are associated with unfiltered noise and unlimited distractions that are cited to cause stress for many workers. This stress is linked to lowering productivity and to having a negative impact on workers’ health.


Do you work in an open-plan office? Do you find yourself or your coworkers ill often?


If so, there may be a few ways to help relieve parts of the problem. While the spread of germs may be inevitable on some level, encouraging employees to sanitize shared working areas on a daily basis may prove to be helpful. Limiting stressors may be more easily done and can help to keep employees healthier and more productive. In many university libraries, there is often a separated area designated to quiet, private study. In this area, talking and other forms of noise are discouraged and privacy is offered in the form of screens or panels, allowing independent workers to thrive and concentrate fully on the task at hand. Open-plan offices can apply this strategy as well by setting up a similarly designated area. Although it may be difficult to totally block out noises or interruptions without soundproof, solid walls, having a designated area that is mostly quiet and mostly private can create a refuge for employees who find themselves irritated by the stress of constantly being surrounded by activity and distractions.


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