Nothing to Sneeze About

Konrad Putzier wrote in the Wall Street Journal how after years of crowding office workers into ever-smaller spaces, we are finally coming to realize that our high-density offices are ideal places to spread disease. Because so many of us are spending so much time in open offices, epidemiologists say we must rethink how we design work spaces to account for the fact that every cough and sneeze sprays tens of thousands of disease-ridden droplets into the air.

Three years ago I wrote an article about how more than two-thirds of employees’ desks are situated in open-plan layouts. I titled it Meat Loaf Was Wrong: Two Out of Three IS Bad. In it I told how study after study showed open-office floor plans have unintended consequences – they actually decrease the productivity they were supposed to enhance. The unending barrage of sights, sounds, and smells from every direction shortens our attention spans, disturbs our ability to concentrate, and increases our frustration.

Scientists who study people in open-plan offices continue to find employees suffer on every measure because the new spaces are disruptive and stressful. Instead of feeling closer, employees feel distant, dissatisfied, and resentful. Research shows the loss of productivity is twice that of private offices.

Near the end of my article, I added this:

Here’s yet one more drawback – open floor plans affect our health, too. There are more opportunities for sharing germs, resulting in more sick employees and higher absenteeism.

Saving money by putting people in close proximity is nothing new. The military has been cramming soldiers and sailors together since the days of sailing ships. For years, the airlines have been crowding us into ever-smaller seats. Business travelers call airplanes flying metal germ tubes because jammed-together passengers breathe the same recycled cabin air with hundreds of strangers. Cruise ships carrying ten times as many passengers in their floating hotels have a long history of passenger illnesses spreading quickly in their densely-packed environments, made even worse with huge buffets. Serving ourselves from the same trough turns out to be an efficient and effective way to quickly spread germs and bacteria. 

Every corner cut to save office space and make operations cheaper has damned our privacy, our ability to concentrate, and now our heath.

Mark Zuckerberg designed Facebook’s headquarters to be the world’s largest open-office floor plan, saying “one giant room with thousands of people close together is the perfect space.” Social reformer Jane Addams, speaking about sweatshops in 1910 said “An unscrupulous contractor regards no basement as too dark, no stable loft too foul, no rear shanty too provisional, no tenement room too small for his workroom as these conditions imply low rental.”