For as long as we’ve had open space offices, we’ve had musings on the downsides of these workplaces. Open offices, it’s told, are making us less productive, less active, and more miserable. But could they also be making us sick?
A review of studies on the subject and a chat with an expert on how common viruses spread reveals that yes, open offices put us at a greater risk of getting sick. It also reveals that humans are disgusting, walking germ-factories, that every office is a person-sized petri dish of infection, and that we should probably all just work from home.
Despite all the public discussion on the topic, there hasn’t been a huge wealth of scientific study on the effects of the open concept office on employee health. However, the handful of published studies all shows a similar trend: Open office plans are associated with employees getting sick more often.
One study of more than 1,800 Swedish workers found that people in open plan offices were nearly twice as likely to take short term sick leave (of one week or less) than those who worked in private offices. A survey from Denmark showed employees in open plan offices were 62 percent more likely to take a sick day than those with their own separate office. Another survey from Canada had similar results, with open office workers taking an average of 3.1 sick days in a year, compares to 1.8 sick days for employees who worked from home. Open offices have also been associated with higher rates of Sick Building Syndrome—a condition where workers get headaches and respiratory problems—and with higher stress levels, which have been linked to weakened immune systems.
All of the evidence we’ve got points to employees in open concept offices getting sick more frequently than those in private offices or those who work from home. But why? First, let’s do a little virus 101. The “common cold” is the term we use for a bunch of viruses, which all cause similar symptoms when you’re infected. Seasonal flu is caused by a handful of strains of influenza virus. For these two ailments, the virus is spread in three main ways:
- An infected person touches their nose or mouth, picking up the virus, and then touches a surface. A healthy person then touches that surface, picks up the virus, and then touches their face, infecting themselves.
- An infected person coughs or sneezes and a nearby healthy person inadvertently inhales or swallows some of the infected spit.
- An infected person coughs or sneezes, leaving behind a cloud of viral particles, which a healthy person walks through and inhales.
Once you understand how winter sickness spreads, it’s easy to see why an open concept set-up with few or no physical barriers between employees eases transmission.
“It is really a common sense thing,” said John Noti, a microbiologist who researches infectious disease transmission for the Centers for Disease Control. “People are slobs and will cough and breathe on you and touch your space. So if you’re physically separated by something, where people don’t have access to your workspace, it’s logical that you will be less likely to get infected.”
Even something as simple as a cubicle could decrease the risk of infection, because it puts a barrier between you and your colleagues, and prevents them from touching your stuff or coughing in your face. But in an open environment, even the colleagues sitting three seats away could be a health risk.
“If you’re in a workspace where all of your desks are together then you cough, those small lung droplets which contain flu could conceivably travel to the person sitting next to you, maybe even five or six feet away from you,” Noti said.
But he pointed out that even if you have a separate workspace or even a private office, it’s still possible for a virus to make the rounds. Just think of all the shared space where you touch the same surfaces as other people and interact with coworkers (the bathroom, the kitchen, the copy machine). And because office spaces often have forced air systems, those “clouds” of viral particles could get pushed around and into your space.
At this point in the conversation, I audibly gagged, but not to despair. The common sense tips we’re taught for avoiding colds can help cut at least some of the transmission routes: washing your hands, not touching your face, getting a flu shot, and staying home if you’re sick. But short of quarantining yourself in the broom closet, if you’re in an open concept office—and you probably are, because about 70 percent of offices are now—you might just have to resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to get sick this winter. Probably more than once.