Angling for yet another reason not to like open plan offices? Try this for size: They could be making people sick.

A recent study published in the journal Ergonomics found that workers who share open spaces with multiple colleagues are more likely to take short-term sick leaves than those who enjoy the privacy of their own office.

Researcher and architect Christina Bodin Danielsson and three colleagues at Stockholm University studied 1,852 employees working in seven different types of offices in Sweden. The layouts ranged from private offices to rooms housing two to three people to open-plan layouts with more than 24 people.

Workers were asked to report the number of short sick leave spells – defined as a week or less – they’d taken over the past year, as well as the number of long spells, or periods longer than a week. The study found that those most likely to take a few days off from work were employees in open offices with 4 to 9 people per room and those in open offices with more than 24 people per room.

The authors believe that packing more workers into close quarters in open-space offices could increase the spread of infection. Also employees could be exposed to more “environmental stressors,” including noise and less personal control over their surroundings.

Proponents of open office spaces point to benefits like increased collaboration between workers, more friendly relationships and a faster spread of information. But less privacy and more noise can take a toll too; workers may find themselves distracted or display poorer cognitive performance when it comes to tasks that involve a lot of math or memorization, Danielsson says.

Michael Taylor, a workspace researcher for Steelcase Inc. says that as open plan layouts started to go mainstream in the late 2000s, he got requests from corporations about health risks associated with breaking down office and cubicle walls.

The revolutionary furniture company responded by designing furniture that aims to keep the sniffles at bay. A new desk, for example, has silver ion on areas where workers are likely to frequently put their hands, such as the lever to adjust the desk up or down. The silver ion kills certain bacteria. Also, certain office chair parts are made out of material that mimics the physical texture of shark skin, which eliminates 90 to 95% of bacteria.

So until more anti-germ technologies are discovered, may we recommend that everyone simply continue washing their hands and keeping their desks tidy.

Source: Rachel Feintzeig | Study: Open Offices Are Making Us All Sick | February 25, 2014 | The Wall Street Journal

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