Is coronavirus spread in open-plan offices?

How offices can be a breeding ground for the spread of COVID-19

Your open office floor plan can be a breeding ground for spreading germs as worries heighten with the ongoing outbreak of the deadly coronavirus.

Some employees who have to come to the office to do their jobs are going to great lengths to sanitize their space, which is oftentimes an arm's length away from another colleague.

Some employees working in open office floor plans are at a greater risk of contracting a disease like the coronavirus, health officials say. (iStock). 

Health officials say that despite efforts to disinfect your office space, there’s still a risk of exposure to diseases, particularly in communal spaces like the office kitchen, or by touching surfaces like the coffee machine, refrigerator door or phones in conference rooms.

“If you don’t have walls or barriers in front of you, a virus could spread very easily,” said Onisis Stefas, chief pharmacy officer for Northwell Health, adding, “As you start to touch more communal things -- you grab the fridge handle, you get your coffee, wash your hands again. There’s really not much else you can do. Be more observant. Make sure you’re not touching your eyes or your nose.”

As of Wednesday, there were 113,851 confirmed cases of the coronavirus -- which is spread through droplets in the air when someone sneezes or coughs or by person-to-person contact -- worldwide impacting 103 countries. As a result, a number of companies have allowed employees to work from home. Facebook, which has an open office floor plan, announced it temporarily closed its Seattle office after one employee contracted the coronavirus. Other companies that are requring staff to still come in have provided disinfectant wipes and are suspending travel.


Still, it may not be enough to contain diseases. At least 70 percent of American workplaces use open configurations in offices, however, according to a study published in 2011 including a national survey from Denmark, employees in open-concept offices took 62 percent more sick days than compared to those working in closed-off spaces.

And a  2014 study from researchers from Stockholm University of more than 1,800 Swedish office workers further proved that point, concluding that open-plan offices result in more sick leave. The findings suggest that open offices can be more stress-inducing and increase the risk of infection.

Aside from exposing employees to a greater risk of catching a cold, for years critics have opposed the open setup saying it's distracting and can negatively impact productivity.