Your Office Air and Lighting Is Influencing Productivity and Health

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Dec 4, 2019

As our lives become ever more entwined with the dwellings that we inhabit, taking time to reflect, analyze and improve our indoor surroundings is paramount for facilities professionals and HR managers alike. By enhancing the physical office space and engaging teams through community building, it’s possible to improve concentration and productivity, thereby improving business outcomes.

Industrialized societies spend up to 90% of their time indoors. Gone are the days of dirt under the fingernails for many, a mouse and keyboard replacing the sickle and scythe. This trend looks only set to continue with an increasing shift towards knowledge and technology based economies.

When considering that a third of each work day is usually spent in an office, the impact of having a workspace which may negatively affect our physical and emotional health is surely of significant importance. However, the trend in the late modern era has been to create spaces which optimize physical space – how many people can we squeeze onto one floor – rather than focus on more subtle, yet no less important issues.

Whilst it’s easy to continue building and utilizing office spaces as we have in the past, a growing pile of scientific literature is pointing towards the benefits of refining and enhancing certain aspects of the workspace.

The majority of office floor space in the US was built after 1980. During that period, a common trend in commercial development was to create air-locked, artificially lit, enclosed spaces. That is, entire floors in large buildings which have little-to-no access to fresh air or windows. Spaces that rely entirely on climate control, fluorescent lights and ventilation.

The reason for this was, and continues to be, that it is energy efficient and thus economically preferable to do so. However, as a recent BBC investigation into air quality says, “[Buildings] are not static objects, but shifting systems within which we live the majority of our lives.”

Driven by simple cause-to-effect rational rather than smart design, many offices today fail to stimulate productivity and can lead to what’s been dubbed by the industry as Sick Building Syndrome.

Indoor air quality

Sick Building Syndrome is caused in part by poor air quality and can lead to symptoms including headaches, fatigue, trouble concentrating, and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Imagine serving your employees – the ones who fundamentally determine the success of your company – food that may cause just one of those symptoms. It’s unthinkable.

When it comes to the physical spaces we work in, it’s no different.

Improving air quality in office spaces has been proven to lead to improved decision-making performance from office workers, as well as reduce absenteeism and brings a range of health benefits.

The benefits of investing in improved air quality in the office far outweigh the costs. Recently, these benefits were calculated in a controlled study by US-based researchers, who then analyzed them in monetary terms. The results are astounding.

Focusing solely on improving a building’s ventilation system, for around $40 per worker, it’s possible to enhance air quality substantially. This in turn provides at least an 8% rise in productivity, the equivalent of $6500 per year, according to the study.

Natural techniques are also being heralded as solutions which simply and yet positively affect the office. From adding indoor plants or green-walls which remove volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the air and produce oxygen and to using non-toxic, sustainable materials for furniture, there are many simple ways to transform an existing space.

Lighting the workplace

Office lighting is another variable which can greatly impact the way that office workers operate within a space. Different degrees and combinations of artificial or natural lighting can affect workers concentration, alertness and mood.

Just as with poor air quality in office buildings, many poor lighting choices stem from economic constraints during construction and uninformed decision-making. However, unlike air quality, improving lighting in the workspace has been on the radar for managers and social scientists since the 1930s. In the last several years, architects, designers and facilities professionals have grown increasingly aware of the impact lighting can have.

A discussion by Design Nation of how lighting affects performance in the workplace states, “A lack of natural lighting can negatively impact mood, lead to fatigue and poor productivity.” The architectural website says, “Ensuring an adequate amount of light improves mood and energy levels, while poor lighting contributes to depression and other deficiencies in the body.”

Researchers at the University of Toronto found that under bright lights “emotions are felt more intensely.” Turning down or changing the lights “may help you make more rational decisions or even settle negotiations more easily,” they suggest. Additional research from the City University London and Phillips concludes that: “Companies should consider the need to invest in workplace lighting as a means to develop work environments that support well-being and performance, and reduce the likelihood of employee stress, absenteeism, and industrial accidents.”

Whilst these are only a few of the most recent examples, they point to a fundamental shift in the approach towards office spaces. This in turn can lead to more vibrant and creative spaces where workers feel comfortable and can also exemplify a progressive company culture and thoughtful management.

Creating an office community

While enhancing physical office spaces is important to today’s workforce, creating a vibrant company culture continues to be paramount. Every employee wants to be part of something that they can both contribute to building, and in turn, be fulfilled by.

We spend a large part of our day in the office and a sense of togetherness helps us thrive. Building camaraderie between co-workers comes down to having a shared goal that’s lived, rather than imposed. A purpose beyond the task at hand which is cultivated and not constructed.

This kind of environment brings obvious organizational benefits including; ease of communication, diversity of thought and the ability for managers to engage their team. However, beyond these, a strong sense of community and company culture can breed resiliency and lead to long term sustainability of the company.

Whether it’s building a culture that actively engages employees also develops the capacity for teams to bounce back from an unexpected curveball.

According to research by Paula Davis-Laack in 2014 on understanding and preventing burnouts in the workplace, strong social connections and relationships with others lead to employee resilience.

As the modern day workplace is increasingly stressful, adding elements of play – be it through spontaneous lunches with colleagues, well-managed events or an online community platform – managers can actively reduce the risk of burnouts.

In turn, resilient employees go on to help their colleagues achieve success in the workplace. This camaraderie was a crucial factor that put a man on the moon, and should be highly valued amongst any workplace. Dynamic and resilient space with a strong sense of community helps teams handle, and even thrive in stressful and unexpected challenges.

Creating positive spaces

With developments in research ongoing and technological advances in air quality, lighting and community engagement, office optimization is a field that is only set to grow.

Investing in optimizing office spaces can create a significant difference in employee engagement. By using tools to collect data on how employee use and how healthy the office’s vital systems are, and how they affect employees, HR and facilities managers can optimize productivity by understanding how the space is actually being used.

It may not seem like such an innovative concept, but creating spaces where people feel like the best version of themselves also improves an office’s productivity. These three ways can lead to increased employee engagement, increased productivity and improved business outcomes. But it also leads to happier and healthier employees; your biggest asset as a company.

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