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WARNING: This Post is Not Clean (and Your Desk is Dirty)

I’d like to share some information related to one of the most unique research questions I’ve fielded across the last six years of working with CCC members.  Specifically, one of our Canadian members was building a proposal to institute a “clean desk” policy that would require contact center staff to eat lunch anywhere other than their desks.  Considering that 75% of office workers eat lunch at their desks two or three times a week, and nearly 50% do so every day, this member had her work cut out for her. 

This prompted a brief search on secondary literature, and, wow, we were surprised by the data we found.  Since we are in the peak of flu season (according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control), I thought it would be appropriate to re-surface insights we found:

Health/Safety Risks—there are a number of very disturbing statistics that may give you pause the next time you lunch at your desk or even reach for the phone:

  • 75% of office workers eat lunch at their desks two or three times a week, and nearly 50% do so every day.  One in three workers eats breakfast at their desks as well.
  • Only 24% of workers always clean their desks before eating at them, and 20% of workers never clean their desks.
  • The typical desk has 100 times as much bacteria as the typical kitchen table.
  • The typical desk has 400 times as much bacteria as the typical office toilet seat (20,961 germs per square inch on a desk vs. 49 germs per square inch on a toilet seat).  Think about it…most office restrooms are cleaned at least daily.  When did you last wipe down your desk?  I’ll bet it wasn’t this morning.
  • The telephone (more than 25,000 germs per square inch), keyboard, and computer mouse tend to have more bacteria than the desk, yet 60% of survey respondents do not clean these items more than once a month.
  • Germs found in studies included both viruses (causes of colds and flu) and bacteria (causes of strep throat and pneumonia, among other illnesses).

Benefits of Not Eating at Your Desk—if the risks weren’t compelling enough, here are a few motivating thoughts to get you eating somewhere else:

  • Increased social time with colleagues leads to greater office camaraderie.
  • Increased opportunities to interact with management-level employees in a casual setting, such as a company cafeteria.
  • If you go outside to get lunch, increased exposure to sunlight (even 10 minutes) helps elevate levels of Vitamin D, which may promote strong bones and reduce your risk of certain cancers (according to the literature I read…disclaimer: I’m not a doctor).

General Statistics—and, finally, some “fun” facts to share:

  • Other key locations of office germs include copy machine buttons and water fountain toggles.
  • Women’s desks have 3x the number of germs, on average, than men’s desks.
  • Workers (in the United States) miss an average of 1.5 days of work each year due to the flu, costing businesses up to $20 billion in lost productivity in 2006.
  • In addition to the high prevalence of workers who regularly eat lunch at their desks, one in three eats breakfast at their desks as well.

What should we do with this knowledge?

Well, here are a few suggestions I’ve come across:

  • Use a placemat when eating at your desk.  Of course, the catch is that you need to take that placemat home, and clean it, daily.
  • Turn away from your desk when you sneeze (and use a tissue, and wash your hands afterwards).
  • Declutter.  Apparently, piles of papers/folders are breeding grounds of bacteria.
  • Acquire hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes to have at your desk.  Heck, why not buy some for the whole office?  Based on my brief internet search, 4 oz. bottles of hand sanitizer for an office of 500 FTEs would probably be less that $2 per person.  Don’t quote me on it, but I’ll bet there’d be a nice ROI if you could translate hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipe use into decreased absences.

So now that you are all appropriately grossed out…what do you think?  Will this knowledge change your routine?  Will it change how you manage your staff?  I’m thinking about holding our next team lunch in the ladies room instead of on the conference table.

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