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How to Minimize the Negative Effects of Open Offices

By Anthony Piucci

Open office floor plans are increasing in popularity because they allow for greater employee collaboration, are cost-effective, and give offices a modern look. But keeping these environments clean presents a unique set of challenges. Without walls and partitions between employees, germs can travel more freely among employees — a problem made worse by the increased density of workspaces.

To reduce employee illnesses, proper ventilation maintenance and worker hygiene are particularly important. With proper consideration for the density of workers and the easy transmittal of germs, you can reap the benefits of an open office floor plan while minimizing the negative effects.

Accounting for Increased Workspace Density

With more workspaces to clean in open offices, square footage may not accurately capture how much cleaning is required. Having more employees on a floor or in a particular area also increases restroom traffic, so paper towels, tissue, and hand soap will need to be restocked more frequently.

Your housekeeping program should address the number of workspaces that need to be cleaned — which may increase costs, when compared to the traditional price-per-square-foot model. It may be tempting to try and cut costs by reducing cleaning frequency. But that could result in employees getting sick more often.

Ensuring that efficiency is built into your cleaning program is the best way to address this challenge. To improve efficiency, cleaning staff should be trained to take a methodical approach to every action. Reducing the number of motions each cleaner takes saves time, as does using proper equipment. For example, extension wands can be used to clean baseboards without having to stoop down or bend over.

Improving Worker Hygiene

Hygiene is a key component of any good cleaning program. The need for accessible, effective hygiene products is magnified in open offices. Place hand sanitizer in locations where employees share equipment — like lobby areas, break rooms, and conference rooms — but don’t have access to soap and water. Remind employees of the importance of proper hand hygiene with a well-rounded occupant communications plan.

In open offices, collaborative spaces take many forms. Individual employees and small teams need privacy to take conference calls, brainstorm, or discuss sensitive matters. To meet that demand, many companies are creating informal collaboration spaces. Video conference rooms, project space, and brainstorming rooms are some of the new “specialty collaborative” spaces that are emerging, according to the Knoll Creating Collaborative Spaces that Work report. These kinds of spaces include shared equipment as well. Make sure your cleaning program accounts for these unconventional spaces with the right hand hygiene products.

You’ll also want to focus on keeping touch points clean to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses. Using a combination of disinfectants and microfiber cloths will effectively kill bacteria and physically remove viruses. When people think of touch points, they most commonly think of door handles, elevator buttons, and countertops. But we put our hands in many places — for example, the backs of chairs, white boards, and coffee machines also need to be disinfected.

Indoor Air Quality is More Important than Ever

The link between employee health and indoor air quality (IAQ) has long been proven. One of the best ways to improve IAQ is to minimize the number of airborne particulates that enter your building in the first place. Entryway mats, when properly installed, can drastically reduce the contaminants that building occupants bring in on their shoes. Using green chemicals, which has become a standard practice, also can help make your building’s air cleaner.

The equipment used to clean your building can also make a difference in indoor air quality. Vacuums and extractors certified by the Carpet and Rug Institute Seal of Approval program undergo rigorous testing, with air quality being a major consideration. To receive the Seal of Approval, vacuum cleaners are required to meet dust containment standards — they must not release more than 100 micrograms of dust particles per cubic meter of air. Carpet extractors are required to remove most of the moisture left from the cleaning process, reducing the chance for mold and mildew to grow.

HVAC maintenance is also a key factor in improving indoor air quality. In open offices, preventive HVAC maintenance has to be a habit. Consider these factors when going over your HVAC maintenance plan:

• Is your HVAC equipment being inspected regularly? In addition to checking for equipment functionality, special attention should be paid to reservoirs and ductwork, which can host microbial contaminants.
• Are air filters positioned correctly? If not, airborne particles can make their way through the ventilation system and reduce efficiency and indoor air quality.
• How well does your ventilation function? According to the CDC, poor ventilation maintenance is one of the most common causes of poor indoor environmental quality.

A strong preventive HVAC maintenance program should also include record-keeping — and not just for work orders and repairs. To promote accountability and transparency, inspections and preventive maintenance should be tracked as well.

The open office plan puts your facility maintenance program under a microscope. However, partnering with a facility services provider that has expertise in each of the above areas can allow you to enjoy the benefits — cost-effectiveness, improved worker collaboration, and even sustainability. The key is to make considerations for the pitfalls of employee sickness up front. As the old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Invest in making your office healthy for your employees, and you’ll see positive results in the long run.

Anthony Piucci is senior vice president, ABM Business and Industry Facility Services Solutions