Reducing Coronavirus Contamination and Spread in An Open Office

Reducing Coronavirus Contamination and Spread in An Open Office

In Acoustics, Branding, Corporate Office Design, Culture, Design Planning, Graphic Design, How To Guide, Interior Design, Lighting, Workspace Design by Christina TooleLeave a Comment

Christina Toole Sr Interior Designer

By Christina Toole,
Sr. Interior Designer
Work with Christina>

If you work in an open office, you might be worried lately about spread of the Coronavirus. Taking steps to mitigate the transfer of viruses within an office environment can only led to better health for us all. Healthy employees miss less work, have a higher level of productivity and are less likely to spread illness to others.

As a workspace designer, I’ve been speaking out on the importance of creating a healthy and happy workplace for many years now. I’ve seen many clients improve their bottom line and recruiting efforts by creating healthy and happy workspaces.

We begin with tips that anyone can implement to help keep building occupants healthy, even those not planning a new build or remodel. Those most interested to learn how illnesses spread can be reduced through strategic building and interior design can jump ahead to Section 4: Improve the Health of Your Office Through Design.

1. Hire and Manage the Right Cleaning Service

Reducing Coronavirus Contamination and Spread in An Open OfficeOnline Interior Design

Your housekeeping service is the front line in keeping germs at bay. Reducing the number of infectious agents by cleaning and disinfecting surfaces properly reduces the risk of transmission. This is not a service where you want to hire the lowest bidder. Cleanliness, or lack thereof, has a real effect on the bottom line resulting in missed work, decreased productivity and lost customers.

If you haven’t already, ask your cleaning service to demonstrate their disinfection protocol. Make sure each surface, from phones and keyboards to door handles and light switches (and everything in between) is carefully and completely cleaned AND disinfected. The very process of walking through your space with your cleaning professional will allow both of you to identify areas that need extra attention. Ask and follow up to make sure every member of their cleaning team has received careful training in virus transmission prevention.

You should also ask your cleaners which products they use. The CDC does not recommend simple solutions such as vinegar and water. To sufficiently kill most viruses, you’ll need CDC and EPA approved cleaning products. That’s not to say that your cleaning products must be toxic. If you operate a LEED certified building or simply prefer less harsh cleaning solutions, there are options available for purchase that do kill many viruses. Visit the CDC website for an EPA approved list of products.

During this season where extra caution is required, you might also ask your cleaning service to clean more often and to conduct deeper, more thorough regular cleanings. The cost will be made up through happier and healthier employees – and will prevent missed work and reduce downtime.

2. Maintain a High Level of Indoor Air Quality

You can also help keep your office healthy by improving the indoor air quality. Buildings that have low air quality can irritate the lungs, inflame allergic symptoms and reduce the overall health of your building occupants – making it harder for them to fight off illnesses.

Take note of any leaks to the building exterior or plumbing and have them repaired immediately along with any moisture damage to prevent mold growth.

Replace air filters often and have building ducts cleaned and sanitized as needed to help keep dust at bay and improve air quality. If your office uses ceiling or tabletop fans to circulate air, make sure they are cleaned often. Adding HEPA filter units throughout your workspace can also help reduce allergens, just make certain they are regularly cleaned and maintained.

If you have a “storage area”, ie., a random pile of items accumulating as many offices do, you should know those items are also gathering dust and reducing indoor air quality. Keeping your office space clean and organized can help reduce these issues.

This is one of the great benefits of an office remodel. Even if my clients are only painting their walls or replacing their flooring – the very exercise of moving items to make way for contractors engages them in decluttering and cleaning the entire office. Unnecessary clutter is removed, dusty artificial trees are tossed, and the entire space is suddenly cleaner and brighter – and much healthier.

Cleanliness should also extend to the personal workspace. Encourage your team to clean off their desk surfaces and desk items regularly. Team members should be encouraged to limit their desk décor only to the number of items they can commit to clean regularly.

Evaluate the products used by the service workers in your building. Strong adhesives, pest extermination solutions, and other products can contain volatile compounds that reduce indoor air quality. Ask your vendors to use less toxic products and/or ensure building occupants are not present until the building has been aired out.

Improving indoor air quality by reducing dust, allergens, and toxic chemicals as part of your ongoing building maintenance protocol can help keep your team healthy and their immune systems strong – better enabling them to fight off viruses.

3. Promote Good Health Practices

Keeping your team healthy and their immune systems strong renders them better able to fight off viruses. Make it a policy to promote good health practices regularly. If you haven’t already, assign a person or develop a committee to create clever and timely campaigns to promote good health practices to your team members and building occupants.

Promotions can take the form of internal communication emails, apps, social media, team meetings, and other campaigns. Our Design Tribe Graphic Design team has help clients create branded signage and campaigns for their team initiatives. Professionally branded graphics that fit your team and culture are more professional (and effective) forms of communication. If you opt not to hire a graphics professional, consider a graphics app like Canva. Whatever your method or combination of methods, use them consistently for the best results.

A timely campaign would be one that promotes germ spread prevention. In addition to providing hand sanitizer (ideally in a touchless dispenser) along with antibacterial soaps and wipes throughout the office, businesses should remind their team members to:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching their eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home when they are sick.
  • Cover their cough or sneeze with an elbow or tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing their nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • If soap and water are not readily available, to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe. This is particularly important for shared items such as desks, phones, keyboards, copiers, etc. which should be cleaned after each use.

Simply the act of providing team members with a concrete plan with actionable steps they can take to help decrease the transmission of viruses - will help decrease their anxiety and reduce stress.

To help keep their employees healthy and their immune systems strong, employers can also consider offering gym membership discounts, free massages to reduce stress, and healthy, immunity-boosting food choices for events and functions. Replacing one of the office vending machines with healthy alternatives and/or making fruit and other healthy options available for free in the breakroom is also effective.

Other health campaign ideas might include:

  • A contest to walk/run/hike the most miles in any given month using an app to track progress.
  • Bring in or livestream health and fitness experts to share techniques to reduce stress, improve sleep habits as well as diet and nutrition.

Experiment and find the right opportunities for your own team and culture to continually promote wellness. Any cost invested in team health initiatives will see returns in the form of illness prevention and reduced downtime.

4. Improve the Health of Your Office Through Design

Those planning for a new office build or remodel can take even further steps to improve the health of their office. The building itself can then be designed to improve overall employee health and wellness and reduce the transmission of viruses.

Air Quality

As mentioned with the maintenance tips above, improving indoor air quality is a major factor in keeping employees healthy. Buildings that have low air quality can inflame allergic symptoms and reduce the overall health of building occupants, making it harder for them to fight off infections.

Building engineers can improve indoor air quality, for example, by locating outside air intakes to minimize capture of exhaust fumes and other pollutants and can also help ensure the integrity of the building envelope to prevent water intrusion and mold growth. Ensuring optimal humidity levels improves occupant comfort while inhibiting mold growth and providing adequate ventilation for the space also improves indoor air quality.

Reducing Coronavirus Contamination and Spread in An Open Office Biophilic Design

Biophilic Design

Speaking of ventilation, adding operable windows enables occupants to increase the amount of fresh air in the building. Adding to the size and quantity of windows is critical as well, as larger windows not only help to maximize small spaces, they provide a deeper sense of connection to the outdoors – a key component of biophilic design.

Biophilic interior design brings the outdoors inside and connects the interior workspace to daylight and nature to promote a calming environment. The upside of these investments is reduced stress and improved mood - resulting in healthier, more productive employees with stronger immune systems.

Exposure to natural light is also critical for good health, as it helps to regulate circadian rhythms – the daily human cycle of waking and sleeping hours. For those that are forced to work in spaces without access to daylight, circadian rhythms are upset which results in higher stress levels, decreased productivity, lowered immunity, and fatigue.

The trend of window offices at the perimeter is moving toward establishing enclosed offices around the core of the building. This enables the addition of workstations with lower panels at exterior windows to give everyone natural light and a view to improve health and productivity.

A sense of nature can also be enhanced via natural finishes, lighting, and artwork. Artificial plants should be avoided if possible. Not only do they collect dust which reduces indoor air quality, the true benefits of biophilic design can only be achieved by live plants and trees that actually improve air quality while also reducing stress levels.


By borrowing some tricks from the healthcare design industry, workspaces can be created that can be more effectively cleaned and sterilized - without losing design aesthetic.

For example, antimicrobial coatings can be applied to finishes of hard surfaces. Some materials are even inherently antimicrobial, meaning they can weaken or kill viruses in their natural form.

  • Copper, for example is not only beautiful it is naturally antimicrobial. Consider copper for door handles to help prevent the spread of infection.
  • Glass, ceramic, and steel surfaces can be coated in photoactive pigments that kill microbes when they are exposed to artificial or natural UV rays.
  • Antimicrobial fabrics are also available for window coverings and upholstery.
  • There are even indigo LED lighting options to help kill bacteria. While pricey, bacteria microbe’s can be destroyed by the light emitted by indigo LED bulbs. UV door handles are also on their way to market availability.

Consider cleanability in all areas of your new office design. For example, ideal flooring surfaces such as tile or LVT can be disinfected and won’t collect dust like carpeting can. Where used, carpeting should be vacuumed and professionally cleaned often. Avoid overly complex details and millwork that don’t allow for ease of cleaning.

One of the major ways germs and viruses are transmitted is through touch. Reducing the need to touch items through solutions such as touchless door openers, faucets, and soap and paper dispensers will help eliminate some of the major germ and virus contact points.


Keycard access systems, where every building occupant is handling their key card and touching it to one common surface, can be a major source of germ transmission. Consider installing a touchless or smartphone operated system.

Stress reduction is proven to help boost immunity. By listening to building occupants and their concerns, other opportunities to improve their health may be uncovered. For example, one of the of the major complaints of an open office is noise and distraction. White noise systems, which are becoming increasingly more affordable and easy to install, can reduce the distraction and stress from noise in an open office.

Working in a well-lit environment (that is ideally at least partially daylit) at appropriate levels to the task at hand also reduces stress. Cost saving systems can be installed that raise or decrease artificial lighting levels as daylighting levels rise and fall.

Despite all precautions, ultimately sick people make other people sick. Consider installing an upgraded telecommunications systems and processes to better enable remote work when needed to help spread the risk of infection.

Open Office Communal Desk Corporate Workspace Design Tribe Interior Design

Space Plan

As detailed in my article, Is Your Office Ready for an Open Plan Layout, one of the cons for an open office plan is the potential spread of germs, however this can be mitigated to some degree.

For example, by offering a flexible work environment with a variety of spaces to work such as semi-private offices. These offices take up less square footage than a traditional office, while allowing for privacy which reduces stress and potential germ transmission.

The layout and density of your floorplan is also important. While there may be a temptation to fit as many people as possible into a space, if one of them gets sick they will likely spread it to others. Allow for at least 6 feet between team members and/or make use of dividers for additional separation.

Even proper ergonomics can help prevent injury and reduce stress which can affect immunity levels. Sit-stand desks that allow for increased blood flow and movement, fatigue mats that reduce stress on legs, and adjustable monitor supports that allow for proper height placement can all contribute to increased overall health and wellness.

There are many areas that we don’t typically consider for germ transmission. However, protecting our building occupants is often a simple matter of stopping to consider uncommon areas that need extra attention. Chair backs for example are one often overlooked area that are touched throughout the day. Selecting chairs that are cleanable in the handgrip location can help reduce germ transmission, along with instructing cleaning crews to disinfect these areas. Taking the extra step during cold and flu season to encourage building occupants to clean common use chairs after each use will help even further.

Creating spaces that will encourage team members to take care of themselves through rest and exercise will also increase their overall health and immunity. Nap rooms allow building occupants to rest if needed to reduce stress and boost their immunity. Dedicated fitness rooms, showers and locker rooms allow employees to work out before, during, or after work to improve their health and fitness levels.

Many of the design suggestions to maintain occupant health, are some of the same suggestions we’ve been making for years to ensure employees are happy and productive in their workspace. An employer that is concerned with their employee’s happiness in the workplace is well on their way to creating a healthier workplace.

If you’d like to learn more about improving the health of your office through design, please reach out to us.

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Design Tribe Sr. Interior Designer, Christina Toole, is a LEED™ Green Associate, NCIDQ Certificate holder, and earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Interior Design in 2004. Since then she has served on global hospitality project teams for Wynn Resorts, MGM/City Center, and Mandarin Oriental, and designed mid to high-end residential remodels, vacation and model homes, as well as award-winning branded workspaces.

Areas of Specialty:
Workspace Design
Airbnb Vacation Design

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