header services logo masthead
The Exclusive Magazine for the Building Service Contracting Industry Since 1981

Open Floor Plans and the Contract Cleaner

Written by  Terry Sambowski

Open Office Lrg

If you have been in the Contract Cleaning business for more than 10 years, you have probably witnessed a big shift in the way your clients’ office space is laid out. The design of the new offices for Facebook in Menlo Park, California, is one of the leading examples of the changes many have witnessed.

In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook, asked famed architect Frank Gehry to design a Facebook campus for the company. According to Gehry, his goal was to develop the perfect engineering space. So what he designed was one giant room—it’s more than a quarter of a mile long—that fits nearly four thousand Facebook workers all close enough so that they can collaborate. It is now the largest open-floor office in the world.

While the space is broken up by conference and breakrooms and does have a few private offices and “quiet” rooms, for the most part it’s a giant—albeit attractive—warehouse, according to Gehry. It’s emphasis is on functionality rather than extravagance. And though costs were not an issue, Zuckerberg was happy that it proved far less expensive than building a similar space using traditional office design, where the open spaces were mainly used for clerical staff.

Just so we all understand what we are talking about, an open-floor office, also known as open-concept or open-plan office, refers to offices in which walls have come down. In place of walls, partitions of varying heights are installed between workspaces or, in many cases, workers work at long tables with no separation from other workers at all. Additionally, assigned seating is often a thing of the past. Workers may work individually or in groups, sitting wherever they want.

And open-floor offices are not just being built for high-tech companies in Silicon Valley. According to Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, as of 2013, fully 70 percent of American employees now work in open-plan offices for all types of businesses. Employers like open-plan offices because they allow for flexible workspaces, reduce design and construction costs, and can enhance staff collaboration and teamwork. The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program may endorse the concept as well. Eliminating walls reduces the construction materials needed to build office space. Further, it allows for larger work areas to take advantage of natural light, reducing energy needs.

But as we are finding out, while employers may like this new design, workers often have an entirely different opinion. Further, these designs have impacted cleaning contractors as well. Contractors may need to go back to the drawing board, when it comes to cleaning and bidding on large, open-plan offices.

Workers’ Complaints

As more and more facilities have adopted these open-floor offices, a number of organizations have performed studies to see what workers think of them. One study, conducted by the University of California in 2008, involved nearly 43,000 office employees working in both private and open-concept offices. It found that while workers in private offices were very satisfied with their work areas (the old design), those in the new open-space offices were not. Their key dissatisfaction included the following:

• Lack of privacy
• Noise
• Higher levels of distraction
• Increased stress
• Concerns about cleanliness and maintenance

This was similar to a more recent study conducted by Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which questioned 259 office workers about working in open-plan offices. In this study, the most common grievance was once again noise from conversations, both on telephones and between nearby co-workers. The two other key complaints were temperature—it can be much more difficult to control the heating and air-conditioning of a very large space with hundreds if not thousands of workers—and lighting.

Studies have also found that worker productivity declines in these open-floor-plan offices, likely because of the noise and other issues just discussed. Although many employers are hoping that these problems will pass in time, one issue they are most concerned about—and one that involves the professional cleaning industry—is worker health. In what is believed to be one of the first studies examining the health of workers in these open work environments, the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment, and Health found that open-plan offices reported 62-percent more employee sick days on average, as opposed to a traditional private-office workspace. Two reasons were suggested for this. One was simply the fact that viruses and bacteria can spread much more easily to more people in open-plan offices. The other was that because workers do not like these spaces, it creates increased stress, and this stress weakens the immune system, making employees more susceptible to illness.

"As one designer called it, the workspaces are no longer offices but “neighborhoods” where the staff works as well as plays."

Impact for Cleaning Contractors

If more people are reporting sick in open-plan offices, then facility administrators in these locations are likely going to turn to their custodial staff to clean and sanitize desks, common areas, and high-touch areas much more thoroughly and much more frequently than might be necessary in a traditional, private office workspace. This can significantly increase the workload for BSCs, and as we will discuss later, it might be one of the key issues contractors need to consider when bidding on these locations.

Something else that can impact cleaning times—and charges—is that there is a lack of office ownership in open-plan offices. Some workers in private offices are very fastidious about their workspaces, keeping them clean and orderly. They treat them as if they own the space, and this reduces custodial work time. However, in open-plan offices there is little ownership. Many workers choose to work wherever their group is located that day or the nearest open chair. When there is no ownership, there is less care about the desk space, which typically translates into more time and labor for cleaning workers.

And there is one more factor to consider. In some open-plan offices, administrators allow workers to use the space for activities other than just work. For example, in some companies employees are allowed to take yoga lessons in the office space. Moreover, large group meetings involving not just a handful people, but hundreds may occur in the open office areas. Some open-space offices have even played host to entire theater productions. As one designer called it, the workspaces are no longer offices but “neighborhoods” where the staff works as well as plays. This wide range of uses means a wide range of cleaning needs and cleaning supplies.

If open-plan offices require more time and more supplies for detail cleaning and sanitizing, this can mean that basing bids just on the size (square footage) of a facility no longer provides an accurate estimate as to time and charges. While square footage still must be considered, other criteria now come into play, such as:

• How many people work in the open space on an average day?
• Will workspaces need to be cleaned and sanitized, and if so, how frequently? (In private offices, typically just dusting is required)
• Will overall detail cleaning be increased?
• Are nontraditional work activities allowed in the location?

All of these factors can impact how much time and attention as well as the amount of supplies necessary to clean and maintain an office space, which translates into higher cleaning costs. However, there is one way facility managers can reduce their cleaning needs, make the BSC’s job easier, and help reduce costs, and that is through encouraging building users to take more ownership of the office space. Managers should enact—and enforce—a policy that each employee must leave his or her workspace in as good or better condition than they found it. If the open-plan office is here to stay, such a policy is not only necessary to reduce cleaning workloads, time, and costs, but also to reduce illness as well.

Trends in Class “A” Office Space in the United States

• In 2010, the average workspace per worker was 225 square feet. By 2017, it is expected to drop to 155 square feet and then drop to 100 square feet in the next 10 years, as a result of more open-space floor plans.

• In some facilities transferring to an open-space floor plan, for every two square feet of personal (one-person) office space eliminated, one square foot of open floor plan is added. This increases the building’s density and is one reason open-floor plan offices are often referred to as “high-density” facilities.

• Cafeterias in many facilities are underutilized for most of the day, but new open-space designs will likely turn cafeterias into multipurpose areas for a variety of work-related tasks.

• Three out of four companies now use some form of open-floor plan arrangement allowing for collaboration. These include more conference rooms of varying sizes, “huddle rooms,” videoconference spaces, “war rooms,” and cafeteria conversions.

• Bidding on cleaning high-density office space may require using different methods, as existing bidding standards based on square footage or workloading may no longer result in accurate bids.

• When bidding on high-density office space, always include the following disclaimer: “Price quotes are based on the current number of people on the floor and not just square footage.” This way, if more workers are added to the floor, monthly service charges can be adjusted accordingly.

• In open-space floor plans, odor issues can become more serious, affecting many more people.

• Expect more restroom use overall, along with increased use of paper towels, tissue, and soap in high-density locations.

• Research now indicates that clean and healthy workspaces result in higher employee engagement, increased worker productivity, increased innovation, reduced turnover, and lower healthcare expenditures.

• The term “breakroom” may disappear. As open floor plans become more popular, they will be replaced by multipurpose rooms that were mentioned earlier.

Terry Sambrowski is with the National Service Alliance (NSA), a leading group purchasing organization for larger building service contractors and related businesses in the United States.

CoreNet Global, “Office Space Per Worker Will Drop,” 2012
The New York Times, “Why You Hate Where You Work,” 2014
Gallup, “The State of the American Workplace Report,” 2013
Workdesign.com, “Measuring Economics of Engaged Workplaces,” 2014


Leave a comment

Make sure you enter all the required information, indicated by an asterisk (*). HTML code is not allowed.