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Your Open Floor Plan Is Making Everybody Sick (Literally)

The flu appears to spread a little bit easier when employees don't have personal space to protect them.
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At least in theory, open floor plans allow employees to collaborate, discussion to flow, and culture to grow. They might also make it a whole lot easier for the flu to spread, according to new research.

The study, which was recently covered on Quartz, comes from Sweden and was published in late January in the journal Ergonomics. Its findings are based on data from the Swedish Longitudinal Occupational Survey of Health, examining the rates at which employees took short-term sick leave across companies employing each of seven different types of office designs. The different office types ranged from large open offices to cell offices to uber-private cell offices.

Open office plans in the study--small, medium, and large--saw significantly higher rates of employees who took short-term (less than a week) sick leave compared to those in closed offices.

The implication: people are more likely to get sick when they're working in an open office. Men, specifically, showed a greater propensity to call in sick at offices with flex plans, or offices with no assigned seating.

These findings are fairly intuitive. Putting people in the same space makes it all the more likely that something contagious could spread.

'Sickness Presenteeism'

But the authors also considered some of the psychological factors that might play a role in their findings. Offices with more privacy might mean smaller teams, they say. They then site previous research showing that employees on small teams show a higher rate of "sickness presenteeism"--that is, they work despite being sick, perhaps because they feel like they play an important role on those teams.

Such heroism, of course, does nobody any good if it just gets everybody else sick. More likely, people in private offices are protected by the ability to segregate themselves from others.

Don't Change Your Floor Plan; Just Be Smarter During Flu Season

That points to one possible solution for this issue. If you manage an open office, it might behoove you to encourage more remote work during cold and flu season; if an employee feels a little bit under the weather, good enough to work but maybe feels like he or she is coming down with something, perhaps they'd be better off taking a day working from home with easy access to soup and tea.

The Wall Street Journal also reports furniture companies are creating office chairs and desks that kills bacteria. In the meantime, providing plenty of hand sanitizer and reminding everybody to wash their hands won't hurt in a fight against germs.

The potential for greater sickness isn't the first negative attribute assigned to popular open floor plans. Another recent study suggests that productivity can take a hit in open offices too, because employees don't feel comfortable taking shortcuts to get more work done while in front of their managers. (This has a positive benefit as well, as it suggests open floor plans could prevent employees from seriously violating protocol.)

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Feb 27, 2014




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