Is your office making you ill? Why open-plan spaces aren’t good for our health

It’s Monday morning, you’re already late and as you look across the open-plan office you see the last spare desk has a broken chair, a dodgy monitor and bits of someone’s lunch on the keyboard. If this sounds familiar you’ll probably agree that hot-desking offices can be pretty annoying. But actually, it’s worse than that: some evidence suggests that they can be bad for your health.

Researchers from a sociological study at the University of Bedfordshire interviewed and observed 15 employees in a hot-desking office during 12 visits between 2004 and 2007. They reported that the loss of everyday desk ownership raised tensions and made people feel more isolated.

What’s more, researchers observed a ‘hierarchy’ emerging between those who moved desks every day and those who cheated by arriving early or using their higher status to ensure they sat at the same desk.

You spend most of your life with colleagues. Whatever worsens your relationships with them is likely to have a big impact.

Overcrowding is bad for us, too. A study published by the journal Indoor Air reported that in small open-plan offices workers experienced greater levels of poor physical and mental health when they had to share space with more people.

The authors interviewed 207 individuals with similar jobs about their working environment and health. They found that psychosocial stress — for example, perceived threats to an individual’s self-worth — appeared to be most strongly associated with poor health.

Another study by a team from Surrey and Exeter universities looked at hot-desking in the finance sector and found it disrupted a sense of solidarity: workers stopped identifying with their team and began to place a higher value on email rather than face-to-face communication with their colleagues.

In light of these findings the trade union Unison is against hot-desking. For permanent employees it should be ‘avoided where possible’, the union says. If that’s not possible, employees should be given anti-bacterial wipes and spray to clean up any dirty keyboards.

This reflects a worry that hot-desking workers are being exposed to a greater risk of colds and gastrointestinal diseases. (Unfortunately, we don’t know enough about hot desking and infectious disease to be certain of this.)

Another of Unison’s concerns is that hot-desks may increase the risk of physical injury like lower back pain or pain in the arms, hands or fingers caused by chairs, desks and computers not being set up properly.

It is unlikely, though, that organisations will abandon hot-desking on the basis of the current evidence. In the meantime you’ll have to adjust your chair, decontaminate your desk and, if all else fails, just sneak in early.

  • Mark

    When we moved to a new building, the manager who had been around for about a year, said that the new hot desking system should break up the cliques he had noticed. He also said that it would make managers more accessible, Two results occurred where cliques still formed and certain, if not most managers booked the desks away from the rest of the team. The desk booking process and human nature made sure that this carried on. Even if one of the managers forgot to pre-book a desk (two weeks in advance could be done), nobody else would book it because they knew he had “claimed it.”
    Another effect was that because nobody “owned” the desk position, if a PC went faulty, instead of reporting it, they just went and sat at another free desk, and there were generally others available. Over time, more and more desk positions went faulty with nobody wishing to bother getting them fixed.
    All personal stuff, right down to pens and other stationary were stored in boxes in local cabinets at the end of the day, so no desk was personalised. It was a sanitised, soulless place.

  • Given that roughly half of people are introverts, roughly half of the people who have to work in such an office would be hating life most of the time. Not only that, who benefits from depriving people of privacy and hence individuality? Managers don’t, because they don’t get quality work from people they think of as cogs. Treat people as people and respect their need for individual space and you will get their best work. It’s all a matter of respect.