You know how it goes: one employee brings an illness into work and suddenly it spreads to five or six other people in a day or two. It seems like when in a confined space like an office, germs travel faster. That makes you wonder how hygienic a hot desking arrangement is, especially this time of year when germ season runs rampant once again. Is hot desking at all hygienic?
Hot desking and hygiene do not mix, with a study from Initial Washroom uncovering that employees sharing a desk had more workplace filth that contributed to a higher risk of passing along flu and cold viruses.
Those findings are pretty damning, but there’s a lot more to talk about regarding hot desking and hygiene. We’ll even have some tips in this article for maintaining a cleaner hot desking office so you and your staff can stay healthy this year and any other.
Is Hot Desking Hygienic? What the Data Says
We’ve written a series of articles on hot desking lately. In case you missed them, here’s a short recap. When you have a hot desking arrangement at your job, your employees share the same office space. One employee may work the desk at a time in shifts, but several employees can also share shift duties at the same time.
In short, no one has their own office or cubicle or even their own desk. They all work in the same space.
If you think that sounds like a recipe for disaster in terms of staying healthy, you’d be correct.
There’s even a study to back this up. It comes from a company called Initial Washroom. The company tracked 100 workers over four months. First, the employees used a standard office setup and then moved to hot desking.
Each day, the researchers would swab office equipment and the desk itself looking for concentrations of bacteria. This continued especially when the employees were hot desking.
After four months, the researchers wrapped up the study. They found that, compared to regular offices where everyone doesn’t share, the hot desk workspace had higher traces of bacterial contamination at a rate of 18 percent more. The traditional office setup was reported to have a smaller rate of bacteria concentration that was 32 percent less.
The biggest germ-carrying area in a hot desking setup? It appears to be the computer mouse. Initial Washroom notes that the mice had a bacterial concentration at a distressing rate of 41 percent.
Why Is Hot Desking Less Hygienic Than Individual Office Spaces?
As we said before, with hot desking, everyone shares. There are no dividers, no cubicles, none of that. It’s a big, open space and you either work it alone in shifts or share at the same time with someone else.
When you’re at least separated by office walls or a cubicle, you have a higher chance of warding off germs that can cause illness. You can hide from the sick person. With hot desking, those barriers disappear. The closer you’re in proximity to others, the higher the chances of you spreading your germs to your colleagues or them spreading their germs to you.
Have you ever stayed home because you’re sick and ended up getting the whole family ill as well? It’s a proximity thing. It’s also why illnesses spread at workplaces, because you’re close to the person or people with the germs. Now imagine being ultra-close like in a hot desking setup. There’s no escape. You’re using the sick person’s desk, as is the person after you, and the person after them.
Also, you’re sharing all the same equipment. The sick person who had their mouth close to the phone? You’re using that same phone. When they coughed or sneezed into their hand and then typed on the computer keyboard or mouse? That’s the same mouse and keyboard you have to use for your shift.
You could work all alone for a few hours at a hot desk and still end up sick due to the myriad of germs left at the workstation from the person or people there before. Then the process keeps repeating. Soon, a whole day’s shift has to call out of work sick.
This hurts a company at the end of the day. After all, if your company can’t stay open because you have no staff, then you’re not making money. Also, if your company offers paid sick time, then you’re essentially paying your employees to stay home.
UK-based antimicrobial company Byotrol made an infographic that found that, when employees call out of work, the economy in the UK can lose upwards of 100 billion pounds annually. That’s about $130 billion USD. Pretty significant stuff!
How to Make a Hot Desking Arrangement Healthier and More Hygienic for All
Most employees don’t get to choose whether their company will have a more traditional office setup or a hot desking arrangement. If you’re stuck with the latter, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be sick all year long. You can take certain precautions to keep yourself healthy.
Above all, it’s important to remind your fellow coworkers to do the same. Don’t harp on them, but maybe ask your boss if you can print out a sign outlining these hygiene rules and best practices.
Always Wash Your Hands
This one should be a given, but it’s always worth reiterating. Obviously, when you go to the bathroom, you want to wash your hands. You might also do so when so when you get to work, before you eat, and after eating as well. As you wash your hands, use warm water and soap, lathering your hands until they get sudsy. Then rinse and dry off your hands completely.
Don’t Force Sick Employees to Come into Work
While we said before that sick employees can cost a company and even a country’s economy money, it’s still not a great idea to make them work if they’re under the weather. Sick employees will pass along germs and get others sick who could have avoided it.
If you don’t already have built-in sick days for your employees, then you will want to add those in. You may also pay for employees to take a certain amount of sick time. These practices will encourage your staff to actually use their time instead of trudge into work.
Use Hand Sanitizer
You can’t always get to the bathroom to wash your hands while working. Hand sanitizer will lessen the spread of germs from touching things, of which it’s possible to become sick with most infections (up to 80 percent of them). You could always install a communal hand sanitizer dispenser, but even then, the dispenser can get dirty. Still, not every employee may remember to bring their own personal hand sanitizer, so the dispenser is better to have than not.
Discourage Desk Eating
Employees might feel like they have to eat at their desk if they’re the only employee at the office or if it’s just them and another person. In doing so, they leave behind tiny pieces of food debris such as crumbs. These act as the breeding ground for bacteria, which is now all over the desk.
Have a policy in place to ban employees from eating at their desk. This goes for everything from breakfast, lunch, or even dinner to snacks. If you don’t have a kitchen or a cafeteria in your hot-desking office, you’re going to want to get one set up ASAP. Otherwise, employees will have nowhere to eat and will continue to munch where it’s most convenient.
Keep the Workstation or Desk Clean
You should also mandate that employees clean up after themselves. As each shift comes to a close, the employee working the desk should use antiseptic wipes or spray to clean the desk. It’s important they get the entire surface of the workstation or desk.
More importantly, they must clean the computer keyboard, the mouse, the computer itself, and the phone. Don’t just wipe over the phone, but pick up the receiver and clean that as well. Otherwise, the many, many germs there will linger.
Which illness spreads the most commonly at work? At your workplace, employees can spread germs that cause any of these common illnesses:
Is it legal to penalize an employee for being sick? One reason you might not call out sick from your job is fear of penalization. Is that a rational fear to have? Not always. In many states across the US, there exist paid sick leave laws. If you work in Massachusetts, California, or Connecticut, you get paid sick leave there.
If you’re in parts of Oregon, Washington state, New York, or Washington, DC, it’s possible a sick leave law may be in place for you as well. Under these laws, you cannot be fired for taking time off for recovering from illness.
Now, these laws only cover you for so long. If you continuously miss work even after your sick days run out, then your boss could have a case for firing you.
Should I call in sick with a cough? Many HR experts recommend you avoid going to work if you have food poisoning or other stomach issues, coughing, sneezing, strep throat, or a fever. You’re likely in a highly contagious state where you’re at an elevated risk of passing your illness along to others. Not only that, but the above illnesses make it very difficult to concentrate on work. Your productivity suffers and you get others sick. There’s no point of you being at work!