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Infection control key as Rambøll reopen open-plan office

Infection control key as Rambøll reopen open-plan office

| Tekst og foto: Bjørn Lønnum Andreassen

Rambøll employees enjoy working in open-plan offices, but also see the need to follow Norway’s infection control rules. Researchers are warning people to be even more cautious.

Reopened schools are dividing classes into smaller groups of pupils, sat at a greater distance from each other. But what do adults do in open-plan offices after weeks of working from home because of Corona?

Robert Hoven is the head safety representative for Rambøll Norway and for the Trondheim office.

“Our management has been in close contact with trade unions to find the best possible solutions from day one. We have been discussing whether we have enough distance between each other. After the government has now advised one metre, things are OK because we have designated spaces in open-plan offices. We believe hot-desking would be more dangerous,” Hoven tells the Nordic Labour Journal.

The engineering firm employs some 1,600 people in Norway, and nearly all work in open-plan offices.

“Open-plan offices are a framework condition in Rambøll. Just a few people can use cubicles in certain instances. I think working like this is perfectly fine. Especially as the company has introduced the very highest standards of infection control. I am not worried,” says Hoven.

Well-being survey

Seven weeks after the Corona alarm was first sounded, Hoven, who is responsible for health and safety, says the aim is to have no more than half of the 280 staff back at work in the Trondheim offices. This way they can keep their distance, he explains.

“We have carried out a well-being survey. It shows that employees over 50 who do not have children work more efficiently from home. Those under 30 who live alone have not enjoyed working from home as much, however. We also have had people calling in saying ‘you have to let me come back to work or I’ll go crazy, I need to talk to someone apart from the cat’,” says Hoven with a smile.

“Good response”

Bjørn Terje Pettersen is the Trondheim Office Manager. He underlines that their own information regarding the Corona situation shows their employees are completely happy with the information they receive and with the contact between employees.

Rambøll employees enjoy working in open-plan offices, but also see the need to follow Norway’s infection control rules. Researchers are warning people to be even more cautious.

There is a careful plan for where everyone will be sitting in the open-plan office, explain Lasse Zahl-Johansen and Robert Hoven.  

“We have chosen to have digital lunch and coffee at 2 pm for anyone who has the time. We have carried out a careful reopening of offices, and everything has been guided by official government advice. We have a system for booking spaces in the open-plan office, making sure there is two metres distance from the start.”

Lasse Zahl-Johansen is the head of the department we visit in the open-plan office building. He explains that employees’ office space needs are revised daily.

“Some people can carry on working from home. But those with families and not enough peace to do their work, or those who struggle due to a lack of social interaction, can come to work. We have a sketch of the open-plan office for plotting in who will be sitting where. Staff mark their workspace with a post-it note so that cleaners can disinfect it ready for the next day,” he says.

Those who come in, feel nearly too safe and must make sure they remember the Corona rules.

“People enjoy hearing other colleagues’ voices, so we need to have room for these things."

More illness in open-plan solutions 

Doctor Stein Knardahl is Head of Department of Work Psychology and Physiology at the National Institute of Occupational Health (STAMI). He underlines that research shows sickness leave is more prevalent in companies with open-plan offices. The consequence after the Corona pause will be that more companies will be considering measures. 

“Viruses, disruptions and demotivation have increased sickness leave in companies with open-plan offices. We don’t really know how much the Covid-19 virus spreads through the air, whether the airborne droplets travel one or two metres. If you talk softly, you get smaller droplets, but with loud talk, droplets grow in size and can stay airborne for longer. But in an open-plan office it is not certain how much of the virus can be in the air if an infected person uses the room. We know very little about how much is needed for someone to become infected,” explains Knardahl.

He underlines that people who sit still are better protected against infection than people who move around in the same room. 

“Keeping to one desk should absolutely be something that is considered in an open-plan office. Working from home should also still be considered. Chinese research shows that people have been infected by Covid-19 through the air condition system in a restaurant, but knowledge here is sparse. We are considering ways of measuring the virus in the air,” he says.

Restrict activity

“The most important thing when trying to prevent infections is to assess the probability of meeting a carrier. Activity increases this probability. Distance is important. We believe a carrier’s droplets fall to the ground relatively quickly. That is why we have the distancing rule. Two metre high dividing walls can be a possible measure,” says Knardahl. 

And of course we should still clean surfaces and wash our hands, he adds, and points out that face masks are compulsory in some places.

“Including in New York, where they say it is a moral duty to protect others.”

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Aware of Corona:

Robert Hoven, Lasse Zahl-Johansen and Bjørn Terje Pettersen are preparing to reopen the open-plan office at Rambøll, an engineering firm offering consulting within construction, infrastructure, city development and energy. The company was founded in Denmark in 1945 and employs 15,500 people across 35 countries, running 300 offices.

Open-plan offices increase risk of sick leave

Workers who share an office run a greater risk of medically certified sick leave, according to a study from Stami published in December 2019 before the Corona epidemic. Some 14,500 employees from 97 companies took part in a survey about their workplace arrangements. 

It showed that those who share an office or work in open-plan spaces run an 18% and 12% higher risk respectively of going off sick, compared to those who have their own office.

One reason could be that sharing an office or working in larger groups in open-plan offices makes it easier to contract a virus like the common cold or influenza. 

Although open-plan office solutions can be cost-effective and space-saving, the study shows that shared office designs can also lead to long-term costs which could, at worst, be higher than the savings made on space.

Some 14,500 employees across 97 companies took part in a survey on their workplace arrangements. 

Read more about the report:



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