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Giving the Can to Open-Plan?

Regular followers of Russell HR will be aware that we moved into our new office recently. With the planned expansion of the business, we were not only in need of some more space but an environment which reflected our personalities. Anyone who’s visited us will know how lovely the building is; and I’m not just talking about its grade two listed charm. The layout of the building is perfect for what our line of work involves: we have plenty of storage space so we can work efficiently, there are comfortable headsets with volume control. While we now have additional room for a quiet working time, our model is to share space so we can work well together as a unit. The main office is quiet enough for us to concentrate and get our work done - visitors often comment on how serene it all is- , but we’re still able to shoot ideas across the table, share information about case work and develop employees. We’re basically working together in the same way that we did before – we just have more space to do so. Importantly, we can open windows and get fresh air when we want. For us it’s a win-win situation!

Open offices are popular with employers for many reasons, but it doesn't work for everyone. However, it’s seems that it’s not everything is cracked up to be. A study has found that open-plan offices can make employees more likely to get sick, result in less productivity, and contribute to unhappiness.

According to the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health, germs spread more easily in an open plan environment, which is why employees working in such a setting take 62% more sick days than those who work in their own enclosed space. I can remember working in a hermetically sealed building some years ago. One winter I had cold after cold, which was almost unheard of for me. I did conclude it was the consequence of working in a building where the air is recycled.

Other reports also suggest that an open-plan environment is more stressful, as there are more distractions. Noise and temperature came up as having the biggest effect on productivity, with ringing phones and machines being cited as the most irritating noises.

Most businesses won’t be able to drastically change the layout of their offices as the structure of the building often determines what works and what doesn't. However, there are things you can do to take into account the results of the study.

One suggestion is to ban your employees from eating at their desks. In our previous office we didn't really have a choice, as we had one room and there was physically nowhere else to go. Now that we've got ample space, we have a new rule whereby team members are not allowed to eat at their desks. Not only do we now have new equipment which should be looked after as far as possible, but eating in front of the screen is not a healthy habit.

According to Dr Ron Cutler, a micro-biologist at Queen Mary University London, crumbs that accumulate on desks and keyboards provide a perfect environment for bacteria and fungi to thrive. The bacterium responsible for most cases of vomiting and diarrhoea is staphylococcus, which breeds at a temperature of 20 degrees. That just happens to be the normal temperature of most office environments. If you don’t do so already, supplying a fridge for your workers to store their lunch in is also recommended, as salmonella starts to grow after two or three hours of exposure to temperatures above 4 degrees. Also think about supplying your workers with anti-bacterial wipes to clean down their desks at the end of each day. Whether the equipment has been exposed to crumbs and other food debris or not, it’s surprising just how many germs are on our hands. When we’re touching the keyboard, mouse and telephone consistently, were spreading the bacteria around. According to experts, faecal contamination is commonly found on office equipment and phones. Gross. Get the antiseptic wipes out! And yes - we do a wipe-your-equipment-at-the-end-of-every-working-day rule too, for that very reason.

I also encourage the team to leave their desks at lunchtime and go outside to get some fresh air. Scientists have found that sitting at a desk for hours on end gives people an increased chance of developing conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity. Regardless of how much physical activity you do outside of work, it’s the length of time that’s spent sitting that increases your chance of developing such conditions and so rushing to the gym after work doesn’t necessarily undo the damage. At least if you go out and stretch your legs at lunchtime, the time spent sitting is broken up. Fresh air also works wonders in freshening minds and outlooks. It’s an all-round winner.

I’m also a bit fan of fresh flowers and live plants in the workplace. Yesterday I took a bunch of the old fashioned rose Gertrude Jekyll from my garden into the office Not only is the colour - a deep pink - beautiful, the perfume is wonderfully rich and adds to the pleasant ambiance.

If you have an inkling that there may be other reasons for a decrease in productivity or mood, then talk to the concerned employee. There may be several small changes you can make to help the situation; arranging for them to work in their own space away from the activity of the main office for example.

Whilst there probably isn’t a lot we can do to change the layout of our offices (unless you’re planning a move),there are things we can do to limit the negative side-effects of some environments. If you think the findings of the study explain problems in your organisation, then act on it now before things start getting worse.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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