What is it about your office that could be undermining staff performance?

Did you know that your staff’s ability to focus, solve problems and make decisions could be being compromised by your office itself?

That’s according to a recent study out of the US, which found that:

People who work in well-ventilated offices with below-average levels of indoor pollutants and carbon dioxide have significantly higher cognitive functioning scores – in crucial areas such as responding to a crisis or developing strategy – than those who work in offices with typical levels.

Conducted jointly by the universities Harvard, SUNY and Syracuse, the study examined people’s performance in ‘green’ versus ‘non-green’ buildings.

It discovered that even modest improvements to the air quality in the average office could noticeably boost the performance of workers.

So in a time when workplace health and safety are more closely considered than ever before, how can it be that the average office could be so detrimental to a worker’s productivity and health?

The rise of the sick building

In the late 1970s, increasing environmental awareness and the increasing cost of energy resulted in a push for buildings to become more energy efficient. And that’s had an underreported but potentially problematic effect: they’ve also become more airtight.

That drop in ventilation has resulted in building-related illnesses and ‘sick building syndrome’, where people report symptoms like respiratory and skin irritations, as well as mental fatigue and headaches.

Since the syndrome first came to light, there’s been a secondary movement towards sustainable buildings that are designed not only with energy efficiency in mind, but also to improve the quality of the air inside.

New study opens the door to better air quality

The study examined the individual effects of ventilation, chemicals and carbon dioxide on workers’ cognitive function, which covers mechanisms like reasoning, memory, attention and language.

To avoid potential bias, the study was conducted double-blind, meaning both the participants and researchers were unaware of which environment they were working in.

Researchers examined participants from fields as diverse as architecture, engineering, marketing and people management. For six days, participants performed their normal work in a controlled office environment while being exposed to a number of different environmental conditions, which include:

  • conventional office conditions: relatively high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a modern-day pollutant emitted from everyday office materials like furnishings and paint;
  • ‘green’ conditions with low levels of VOCs;
  • ‘green’ conditions, but with enhanced ventilation; and
  • conditions with artificially elevated levels of carbon dioxide, independent of ventilation.

And the test results are astonishing. Cognitive performance scores for those working in green conditions with enhanced ventilation were, on average, double those of participants working in conventional or ‘typical’ office environments.

In particular, the areas in which participants performed significantly better in green environments include crisis response, strategy development and information usage.

The study also found that typical office carbon dioxide levels negatively impact a number of cognitive functions, like the ability to focus on a task and the capacity to gather information.

Energy efficiency is a key focus for most offices, as the globe starts to see the dangerous impacts of our over-use of fossil-fuels. But if your emphasis on a sustainable office is compromising your organisation’s impact, perhaps it’s still worth considering opening a window now and then.

What do you make of these findings? Would you make your office greener in a bid to boost staff productivity? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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