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Safety in Offices Is a Matter of Management, Not Space

The recent film 1917 gave us a harrowingly realistic picture of what life, combat, and death in the trenches of World War I would have been like. Mud, the constant fear of artillery bombardment, and accepting the mortality of yourself and your compatriots was all just part of life for the soldiers in every country’s army in WWI. 

1917’s depiction of the war was very realistic in most ways, but there was one oversight: trenches during the war were typically built with a zig-zag pattern, in order to limit the damage from explosives. If a grenade or a shell were to go off in a straight trench, its lethal pieces of shrapnel could travel up and down the trench for great distances. In a zig-zag trench, there would have been a lot less distance that such shrapnel pieces could travel before harmlessly hitting an earthen wall. 

Sectioning off smaller areas of a whole is a useful strategy to mitigate the impact of harmful things in a wide range of areas, not just WWI trenches. In a prison, individual corridors and wings will have security gates between different sections. In schools and universities, fire doors are located throughout hallways and entrances. In ships, individual compartments can be blocked off with watertight dividers to prevent catastrophic flooding. 

Modern office buildings face a challenge in this arena. The biggest modern design trend, the open-plan office, has some very unique characteristics with regard to occupant health and safety. We explored some of these areas in our recent research report, Open Office 2.0: The New Best Workplace. In the report, we identified some interesting conclusions for how open offices contribute to things like sickness amongst employees and activity levels. On the one hand, we noted a Swedish study that found that the odds employees will take short-term sick leave are almost twice as high in open offices as in private enclosed offices. On the other hand, we also noted some research from the U.S. that found open office workers are less stressed and more physically active than workers in any other office types. This figure escalates to almost a third more when compared to enclosed offices. Less stress and more physical activity lower workers’ chances of contracting diseases.

Recent news headlines have put the open office back in the spotlight. The new coronavirus, COVID-19, has forced everyone from the employees of the biggest buildings in NYC to people already working remotely to reevaluate the health impacts of the places they work. Not surprisingly, open-plan offices are basically a tropical resort for COVID-19. In an interview with PR firm Bospar, Dr. E Hanh Le, Healthline’s senior director of medical affairs, said that, “Open office spaces are among the worst for COVID-19, particularly if they are sealed office spaces without open ventilation and the air is just recirculated within the building.”

Coronavirus is not the only risk for open-plan offices. There are physical security implications, as well. Theft is a greater problem in open offices, since much more is out on display than in enclosed offices or cubicles. Additionally, it is less easy to implement security measures in open offices, where the appearance of locked cabinets can be antithetical to the entire purpose of the layout. For offices that use hot desking, for instance, lockable storage can be tough to implement. Gensler’s Sonya Dufner, principal and director of workplace strategy, told Fast Company that locked storage at desks can have an adverse impact by tying people back to their workstations. “We don’t want people to start camping out at specific places,” she said. This is exactly what happened at Jay Chiat’s ad agency when it went over to an open-office plan. Despite the official policy of hot-desking, workers would come in early to stash belongings by the space they wanted to work in before running back home to catch some more sleep. Even more sobering than theft, in the worst-case scenario of an active shooter situation, employees of open offices will have less places to hide. 

There is a data security element to this, as well. In open offices, sensitive information being typed into a computer can potentially be observed by everyone within a close enough proximity. Similarly, paperwork of a confidential nature has much less “privacy space” than in cubicles or enclosed offices, as well.

While these are serious challenges, they’re as much a lesson as a problem. When something like coronavirus comes through and essentially shuts down offices all over the world, businesses will be thankful for the cost savings afforded by more open, mixed-plan layouts. Similarly, transitioning to a culture that is light on assigned seating and high on flexibility, leveraging things like office communication apps and quick, effective stand-up meetings a la scrum, will probably result in an easier transition to the forced remote plan that so many companies are going to now. Ignoring for a moment the current coronavirus-generated disruption to workplaces, offices that have different types of spaces for different uses will inherently keep their employees more active than offices favoring just one design, whether that is enclosed or open-plan. 

For companies looking to steel themselves against theft, data loss, and sickness, it can be easy to assume that there are “silver bullet” space types that solve every problem at once. Realistically, though, unless you can afford to give everyone in your building a private, enclosed office, there will still be plenty of risk whether you have cubicles or an open plan. Divider walls may contain coughs, but virus-contaminated air can still flow throughout the space. For employees seeking to remain healthy, the reality is that most won’t be happy to come into work even with the security of a cubicle. Theft might be harder to execute with cubicles, but regardless of office type, theft prevention relies more on access control. If your space already has thieves or viruses wandering its trenches, the question of open-plan or cubicle seems like a bit of an afterthought.

Associate Publisher, Propmodo Research

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Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.

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