We've probably all read headlines like this which lambast open offices for their propensity to contribute to employee sickness and illness more than their private office counterparts. As someone who works in an open plan office with workstations arranged close together and with winter just around the corner, germs are something I've been thinking a lot about recently.

Modern Workplaces

You've all heard about the collaborative benefits associated with open plan workspaces. Information travels more quickly, teams work more directly, and relationships are formed due to proximity. 

Open plan work places have even been taken to the next level in some offices by offering shared workspaces and hot desk stations. Employees who are frequently out of the office can share desks to help consolidate the square footage needed by large corporations.

Work lounges have been constructed to bring more a relaxed atmosphere into the workplace. Instead of employees needing to head out to the local coffee shop, they can simply gather in the company lounge to recharge around coffee and snacks.

Wall Street Journal notes a recent study:

"The authors have a few hypotheses as to why open-plan layouts are worse for employee health. Packing more workers into close quarters could increase the spread of infection, or workers without their own offices could be exposed to more “environmental stressors,” including noise and less personal control over their surroundings."

Unfortunately for all of us using some or all of these modern workplace amenities, they can all spell bad news in the germs and sickness transmission department:

  • close employee proximity can increase the spread of infections and sickness
  • shared workstations can spread sickness and infections between those using them
  • food crumbs in lounges can be a breeding ground for sickness causing bacteria

Fighting Germs and Sickness

One of my favorite places to look for new research and trends in office design is Steelcase's 360 Magazine which recently had an article about the use of anti-microbial technology to help fight germs and sickness in the workplace. The basic idea behind these technologies is that they can be applied to surfaces, thereby inhibiting key functions of germ cells.

The most common way for germs and infections to spread is person-to-person—touching hands, sneezing, coughing, etc. Germs can also be spread by indirect contact—touching an object where germs can linger. “When you touch a doorknob handled by someone ill with the flu or a cold, for example, you can pick up the germs he or she left behind. If you then touch your eyes, mouth or nose before washing your hands, you may become infected,” warns the Mayo Clinic website.

The article notes that rather than using these surfaces everywhere, it would be most important to place them in where there is higher probability of harmful germ contact. But of course, these technologies aren't completely figured out yet, and aren't widely available for regular use. 

So until we can be 100% safe from the stuff scientists create, here are a few tips for fighting office sickness and germs:

  1. Take Sick Days – Instead of coming in to the office with your gross germs and infecting everyone else with your sickness, please do us all a favor and stay home.
  2. Wash your Hands and Cover Your Mouth – The best way to not blast your germs all over the office via your sneezes (other than wearing a SARS mask) is to cover your mouth. And once you get your germs on your hands, please wash those things off—or better yet, sneeze and cough into the inside of your elbow. 
  3. Clean Germy Places – Kitchens and bathrooms are pretty much the worst for germs, but don't forget to regularly clean items used by numerous people like phones, copy machines, remote controls, keyboards and door handles.

How does your office handle the sickness and germs in the workplace?


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