That trendy open office you work in might be making you sick. Touted for encouraging collaboration and creativity, open-plan offices, the kind made popular by the tech industry, are proving to deliver anything but that, according to recent studies. Researchers are finding the benefits of open-office design are mostly offset by a range of distractions, loss of productivity, stress and health issues.
If you work in an office with open-plan seating—and chances are you do because about 70 percent of offices in the United States are open-plan design—you may feel stress from the lack of privacy and inescapable noise. Or perhaps you’re getting a cold or the flu more often.
These issues aren’t in your head – they’re real. One study of Swedish workers found that workers in open-plan offices with six or more people called in sick more often than those who worked in private offices or flexible work spaces that allowed for some privacy and quiet. In fact, workers in open-plan environments were twice as likely to take up to a week of sick leave than those who worked in private offices.
A survey conducted in Denmark revealed that people who work in open-plan offices were 62 percent more likely to take a sick day than those with their own office. Another survey from Canada Life Group Insurance showed employees who worked in open-plan offices took over 70 percent more sick days than those who worked from home.
Germs spread quickly
One reason people in open-plan offices are more likely to get sick is because these environments make it too easy for germs to spread. More than half of commonly touched surfaces in an office – doorknobs, coffee pots, desktops—can become infected with a virus when one person goes to work sick.
In 2012, researchers at the University of Arizona conducted a study on the spread of germs in an office on the UA campus. Some of the participants received droplets on their hands at the start of the work day. Most of the droplets were plain water, but one person unknowingly received a droplet containing artificial viruses mimicking a cold, the flu and a stomach bug.
Four hours later, researchers sampled commonly touched surfaces in the office, as well as employees' hands. Their findings were astounding. More than half of the surfaces and employees were infected with at least one of the viruses.
"We were actually quite surprised by how effectively everything spread," said Kelly Reynolds, UA associate professor of public health and co-principal investigator on the study. “And that was in an office environment where people work primarily in isolated spaces,” she noted.
Another way people may become sick from open-plan offices is from stress. To focus – really focus – most people need barriers between them and distractions, as well as the freedom to adjust their environments (lighting, temperature and noise) to suit their needs. In a shared open space, workers have little or no control over their immediate surroundings, or the behavior of their coworkers. Lack of control can make people feel stressed and helpless.
In turn, this can hurt motivation and an overall sense of well-being.
Noise may be the most problematic aspect of the open-plan office, however. Researchers have found that noise takes a toll on workers’ ability to recall information, solve problems and even do basic arithmetic.
Psychologists at Cornell University studied clerical workers who were exposed to open-office noise for three hours and found they experienced increased levels of epinephrine, also known as adrenaline—the fight-or-flight hormone. The psychologists, Gary Evans and Dana Johnson, also found that the workers made fewer ergonomic adjustments to their computer work stations to improve their physical comfort.
The end of open-plan office design?
Although the open-plan office is unlikely to go away, it is adapting. The “flexible office” appears to be the next generation of office design. The flexible office incorporates a range of spaces and gives employees the autonomy to move between them as needed. For some, that may be the perfect balance of shared and private work space.
Share your story
Have you worked in an open-plan office? What was your experience, and how did you manage the noise and distractions? Tell us—we’d like to hear your story.