If productivity has dropped since returning to the physical office perhaps you should consider these three environmental factors.
Working from home gave employees a lot of freedom to set up their own workspace. They could pick the music, the air conditioning temperature and their desk decor. But as employees file back into the physical workspace, employees could lose that level of customisation and that could potentially impact their productivity.
While employers can’t always keep everyone happy (air conditioning temperature is a particularly contentious issue in most workplace), there are some things they can keep in mind to maintain employee productivity in the workplace.
Research suggests there are three areas for reconsideration – air quality, lighting and sound levels.
Poor air quality makes for poor work
Australian offices often opt for air-conditioning due to the heat, and some high-rise buildings don’t even have the option to crack a window. While you might think arguments over the air-con temperature are the worst of your concerns, research shows it can actually get much worse.
In 2012, researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the US found that areas with high carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations dramatically reduced participants’ ability to make strategic decisions.
Participants were tested in an office-like chamber against nine scales of decision making – basic activity, applied activity, focused activity, task orientation, initiative, information search, information usage, breadth of approach and basic strategy. They were exposed to CO2 levels at 600, 1,000 and 2,500 parts per million (ppm). At 2,500 ppm seven of the scales showed consistent decreases as the CO2 levels increased. Information search and focused activity were not statistically impacted.
In an interview for Vox, one researcher from the Berkeley lab found that 2,500 ppm CO2 levels had a similar cognitive impact as a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08, the legal limit to drive in Australia is 0.05.
A similar study conducted by researchers at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics noted that subjects became more tired and less attentive when breathing higher CO2 levels which, they believe, likely contributed to poor mental performance.
Both papers found 600 ppm was the ceiling limit for CO2 levels before cognitive function was impacted. For comparison, outdoor CO2 levels are said to be at 400 ppm. The Berkeley paper noted CO2 levels were generally below 1,000 ppm in office spaces (which is still worryingly high) however, levels can reach nearly 2,000 within 30 to 90 minutes in a crowded meeting room.
Tip: As workers begin returning to the office, the need for better air circulation is likely to become more important. The SafeWork Australia website encourages workplaces to try cracking open a window or keeping the doors open to increase the natural air flow. If this isn’t possible, try to limit the amount of recirculated air and increase the amount of outside air your air conditioning unit takes in.
Lighting up the room
Good lighting can also have a significant impact on how employees work.
We rely on lighting to regulate our circadian rhythms. Natural light helps our brain know what time of day it is. With artificial lighting, we’re effectively tricking our brains.
Research conducted by the University of Ulm in Germany found students exposed to blue-white light, as opposed to your run-of-the-mill fluorescent lighting, had improved concentration and cognitive processing.
Another study published in the Scandinavian Journal or Work, Environment and Health noted that blue-white light improved alertness, mood, performance, irritability and concentration. Exposure to blue-white light during the day can also improve melatonin levels leading to better sleep, the research found.
However, blue-white light isn’t for everyone. While those involved in the Scandinavian study liked the new lighting, the students in Germany overwhelmingly preferred the “standard lighting”– the regular fluorescent lights installed at the school – claiming the blue-light was too bright.
Tip: To apply this research to your workplace, you could consider introducing blue-white light in areas where employees need to focus while retaining warm lighting in communal or more relaxed areas.
The sound of silence
An interesting development to come out of the work from home shift was the surprising invention of “office sounds” playlists. These attempted to mimic the usual noises of an office including colleagues chatting, printers buzzing and espresso machines humming.
Research suggests most people work better in silence. However, interestingly,our personalities can actually influence how much background noise affects us.
The researchers asked students to complete a cognitive test under three different conditions: silence, classroom noise and British garage music. In silence, introverts and extroverts performed at mostly the same level, but when subjected to noise, the extroverts tended to be less affected.
The researchers also noted that participants had a different reaction to background noise compared to music. Background noise was seen as “unpredictable and uncontrollable” and people felt it interfered with important tasks. However, music plays a meaningful social and emotional role in our lives, so we tend to be less distracted by it – some even find comfort in having it play in the background.
Studies that look into music in the workplace have routinely drawn mixed conclusions about the impacts on productivity. In the Applied Cognitive Psychology paper researchers recommend HR and line managers allow employees to choose their own music or work in silence as preferences vary too much from person to person; a blanket policy is unlikely to suit all employees.
Tip: HR should also take note of where employees fall on the extroversion spectrum so introverts can be moved to quieter areas to perform better.
Creating a productive work environment doesn’t always involve huge changes. These minor tweaks to your workplace could really improve your employees productivity and create a better working environment for all.
If you’re looking for more research to improve your workplace, AHRI Research has plenty of content to dive into.