open plan offices germsOpen plan offices: they’re great for casual conversations and impromptu brainstorms. But worker health? Not so much.

In fact, a new study of over 2,000 people working in 7 different office designs found that employees working in open plan offices took far more time off work than those with a cubicle to call their own — all the more so if they were female. The precise cause for this is murky. The most likely culprit is the lack of walls, which allow for a greater exchange of germs — particularly during seasons in which illness rates are high (we’re looking at you, winter).

However, open plan offices can also increase stress levels thanks to a lack of privacy (you never know when the boss will appear over your shoulder) and difficulty concentrating amidst all of the hubub. High levels of stress mean high levels of cortisol, which can increase your risk of heart disease, lower your bone density, make you gain weight and cause a host of other problems.

An Ergonomics Perspective on Open Plan Offices

The worst kind of open plan offices are those in which employees don’t have permanent workstations, rotating instead from place to place. This may feel more democratic, but it means each worker will have to adjust their space to fit their body’s unique needs every day. This can be somewhat mitigated with adjustable furniture — all the more so if you add portable ergonomic peripherals like a split keyboard into the mix — but it also takes discipline to make these constant readjustments.

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All of that said, some personality types thrive in open plan offices. Extroverts, for example, won’t experience nearly the same levels of stress as an introvert in this kind of environment, and may even draw energy from it. For more on the health effects of open plan offices, we recommend reading a summary of the study above in this article, Offices With Open Floor Plans Tied to More Sick Days.

Which do you prefer, open plan offices or dedicated space? Let us know in the blog comments below.