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Is coronavirus spread in open-plan offices?

Jeanette Settembre

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.

Rebecca Falborn, an executive producer at audio post-production company Sound and Vision Media in New York City, where there have been 173 reported cases of the coronavirus as of Wednesday, can relate. She needs to have access to her office’s mixing consoles and recording booths to do her job.

“We don’t really have a choice until it becomes mandated that we do not come in,” Falborn told FOX Business.

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Flyers are posted in bathrooms, communal printers and on desks where employees work in an open-office floor plan, urging staff to “please be sure to wash your hands thoroughly,” assuring “we want to keep this environment as clean as possible.” And the daily buffet spread of bagels, yogurt and muffins for clients and staff to help themselves to has been replaced with single packaged snacks and immunity-boosting green juices.

“Anyone who is sick is not allowed in the office until they are cleared by a medical professional,” Falborn noted, adding that the company has suspended its sick day policy, temporarily allowing staff more flexibility to take the time they need when ill.

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.

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Still, it may not be enough to contain diseases. At least 70 percent of the Amerian workplace uses 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.

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