Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

Blame Open Plan Offices for Making Cold and Flu Season Worse

Monkey Business

The most popular office design in the United States is a large open plan office. People who have seen such offices half empty or full of sniffling people during the winter flu season won’t be surprised to hear they make people more likely to get sick.  

Compared to people in mostly or partially private spaces, people in open plan offices of all sizes report taking more sick leave, according to a recent study. Open plan offices were connected to increased instances of sick leave lasting seven days or less, what you’d expect from an employee who caught a bad cold or the flu as opposed to something more serious. (The study doesn’t say whether the instances of sick leave correspond with actual diagnosed infections, but it’s probably safe to infer.) Workers in open plan offices with either four to nine people in the same room or more than 24 people were most likely to take sick leave.

Working in “flex offices,” which have open plans alongside private spaces for concentrated work or phone calls, increased the number of sick days for men in particular. It’s unclear why that may be.

This study, which looked at longitudinal data from 1,852 Swedish workers, seems to be the first to break out different office architectures in real detail. It looked at seven types, including individual private offices with windows, three sizes of open plan office, and hybrids.

Open plan offices make it easier to put more people in the same space. And there’s a management benefit in people being able to quickly talk to colleagues and managers. But they aren’t just potentially less hygienic, the authors say, there’s less personal control. When you have your own space, or at least a cubicle, you can isolate yourself from sick people better. That’s not an option when they’re right next to you.

The other possible reason is mental and environmental. There are more of what the authors call “negative environmental stimuli” in open offices, stuff like noise and the lack of privacy. That could lead people in open offices to take more sick days when they’re not ill, or to stay home when they’re feeling even a little under the weather.

People hoping for their own office shouldn’t get their hopes up. The trend isn’t towards giving people individual spaces, but refining the open plan.

“Our research has shown that it it doesn’t matter if you’re sitting in open office work station or an office, people are more distracted by technology and all of the things going on in their work environment,” Sonya Dufner, a workplace strategist at design firm Gensler told Quartz. ”With certain organizations we zone where those distractions, collisions, and meetings take place, so whether you’re in an office or work station, you have that possibility to put your head down and focus. As our desk spaces have gotten smaller and smaller and smaller, you need to be able to provide different areas for people to choose to go.”

In an open office, people more frequently choose to go home.

Reprinted with permission from Quartz. The original story can be found here

(Image via Monkey Business Images/

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.