by Robert Hemmerdinger — This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of FMJ
Today, corporate boardrooms are vying to answer that question, and research is uncovering compelling correlations between office spaces and an organization’s output. One such study by Microsoft found employees feel more productive in a digitally minded environment1. Research proves smart offices promote productivity, innovation and allow employees to feel more empowered and connected to their companies. These factors are essential to reducing turnover, attracting top-tier talent and ultimately, driving sales.
This growing awareness of how the physical environment influences employee productivity is placing an even greater responsibility on facility managers. While this may sound daunting, reassessing common office functions – lighting, air quality and temperature control – can go a long way toward improving the tenant experience and supporting the bottom line.
Lighting’s new meaning
Lighting is among the most important features in a work environment because it fundamentally affects sight and perception. The National Lighting Bureau notes that lighting can influence mood and behavior, meaning it directly correlates with the ability and desire to get work done.
A plethora of research links poor lighting to a range of negative health effects, from eye strain to fatigue and depression. Given these complications, it is not surprising that 68 percent of employees complain2 about the lighting in their office. On the flip side, the right lighting can bring a positive impact to employees by boosting creativity, motivation and productivity.
What kind of lighting is “right” depends on a myriad of factors, including how an environment is utilized, the shape of the space and how much natural lighting is present. These variables influence the design choices of building owners and architects, along with the type of lighting they employ. For example, scientific studies suggest that cool light3 – lighting between 4,000 Kelvin (K) to 7,000K – boosts productivity, whereas warm lighting – around 2,000K – brings drowsiness.
The advent of LED lighting has made it easier for companies to enhance their offerings. A study published in the International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics4 concluded that employees had faster reaction times when under LED lighting as opposed to compact fluorescents – resulting in a more than 8 percent improvement in performance. Employee morale was further boosted, as cited by an Indoor and Built Environment5 study, through the pairing of LED lighting with natural sunlight using daylighting techniques.
Daylighting, or intentionally harnessing sunlight and pairing it with LED systems that dim or brighten based on natural ambient light levels, is a key component of human-centric lighting. This idea asserts that sunlight’s natural adjustments in intensity and color temperature throughout the day correspond to human physiological processes, such as sleep and metabolism, otherwise known as circadian rhythms. These automatic lighting changes – which artificial light lacks – lower stress and depression levels, translating to happier and more productive employees.
However, the industry has learned that a one-size-fits-all approach to lighting is not the answer. Everyone responds to color temperature differently. Control and customization are critical to improving productivity in the long run, so each employee can work under their own ideal circumstances. Fortunately, LEDs offer more control options than any light source before them, creating many opportunities for building managers and occupants to refine lighting infrastructure in a way that maximizes mental and physical wellbeing.
Importance of indoor air quality (IAQ)
Americans spend about 90 percent of their time indoors, in spaces where air pollution is often two to five times greater than the outside, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency6. While people can control indoor air quality at home through regular ventilation system maintenance and opening windows, employees generally have far less say in a work setting.
Over the past few decades, many office spaces have evolved to become increasingly stiff and sealed off. These changes reduce energy costs, but they also keep in unwanted particles. Without an adequate ventilation system, pollutants generated from furniture, kitchens, nightly cleanings and pesticide applications will remain in the space.
Poor air quality has resulted in many reported health problems among office workers, including Legionnaire’s disease, asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis and humidifier fever. Poor IAQ causes mental deficits as well. A small but growing body of research7 has drawn a connection between heat and carbon dioxide – which commonly build up in conference rooms – and a decline in cognitive function. Specifically, inhalation of the gas at higher-than-average levels dilates blood vessels in the brain, reduces neuronal activity and decreases communication between brain regions.
Fortunately, many ways are available to address IAQ, including proper garbage disposals and maintaining air vents. Ensuring regular maintenance of the heating, ventilating and air conditioning system has been made easier as a result of advances in building automation and management technologies.
The battle of the thermostat
Office temperatures are often a point of contention among employees, with thermostat wars erupting in the summer and winter months. According to a CareerBuilder survey, 46 percent complain their office is too hot or cold8.
Researchers have attempted to understand the biological origins of this debate. However, a study published earlier this year in PLoS ONE shows that this may be more difficult said than done9. A team at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business assessed how male and female students performed on math, verbal and cognitive tasks at temperatures ranging from 61 to 91 degrees Fahrenheit.
It found that women perform better at temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees, but men’s optimal temperatures were below 70 degrees. Furthermore, women were found to be “more negatively impacted by colder temperatures than men were by warmer ones.10” The research marks a critical step forward in understanding why thermostat wars occur but leaves facility managers without a clear answer on how to stop them.
Evidently, a uniform approach to temperature control is not suitable for the modern workforce. Building owners and facility managers must break away from the empirical thermal comfort model popularized in the 1960s – when the workforce was dominated by men – and embrace a more customized and inclusive approach to heating and cooling.
Occupancy and asset sensors help buildings
Many offices are testing tools like voice commands and mobile apps to overcome disputes by giving occupants greater control. FMs face the tall order of fulfilling this demand by providing occupants with ample control capabilities that can be adjusted to extremely granular levels. This could mean lowering the temperature and dimming the lights in the conference room ahead of a big meeting, adjusting the temperature on one side of the office because multiple employees report feeling cold or alerting employees to an open meeting space.
Monitoring and analyzing occupancy patterns are critical to these capabilities but require a sizeable investment in sensor-based solutions to undertake such specific actions. Otherwise, FMs cannot effectively hone in on and execute precise temperature, lighting or ventilation changes. Other forms of sensor technology, such as indoor location asset tracking of both people and equipment, is demonstrating clear value for the bottom line. For instance, operations for tracking open parking spaces or available EV chargers or renting equipment can reduce conflicts and ensure an efficient use of resources. These technologies help companies to stay ahead of employee demands with real-time data.
Furthermore, understanding where employees are at a given time can have a considerable impact on employee happiness and productivity. Simple actions such as using automation to open blinds in the morning to let the sun in and dropping them in the afternoon to avoid glare can improve volume and quality of output.
Sustainability gains traction
In today’s unusually strong labor market, businesses must bring more to the bargaining table. According to a survey released by the U.S. Green Building Council last year11, the competitive edge could be a company’s office space. The organization found employees who work in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certified buildings are happier, healthier and more productive than employees in conventional buildings.
Overall, 90 percent of respondents in LEED-certified green buildings said they were satisfied on the job. Nearly 80 percent claimed they would choose a job in a LEED-certified building over a non-LEED building. Employees attributed this high level of satisfaction to many of the core design tenets associated with LEED structures, including ample access to outdoor views, exposure to natural sunlight and improved indoor air quality. Fortunately, these features also are financially favorable12 for building owners and facility managers. LEED-certified buildings consume 25 percent less energy and 11 percent less water, according to the USGBC.
As building automation technologies advance and more sensors enter the office, building control functions can grow to be more precise, dynamic and intelligent. These enhancements, paired with the proper office design, will make it easier to achieve and maintain LEED status, even as requirements and demands evolve.
However, this influx of sensors can have an unintended consequence. Affectionally dubbed “wall acne,” this web of equipment can overtake walls and ceilings, creating a disorderly appearance and detracting from the sleek designs of today’s modern businesses. Solutions like sensor hubs, which enable brands to consolidate smart occupancy functionalities into a single device and store them out of sight, are rising in popularity by offering ways for facilities to bridge the gap between aesthetics and automation.
Future is bright for smart offices
Occupant demands are poised for major change as technological advances like IoT and 5G move mainstream. FMs will be faced with tough decisions on when and how to integrate these functionalities. There is no all-encompassing solution, but already a wealth of options exist today that can create unprecedented control and customization opportunities. These enhancements can transform an office environment to improve morale, productivity, retention and the bottom line. In today’s complex business landscape, these little advantages in comfort will set brands and buildings apart.
About the author
Robert Hemmerdinger is the Chief Sales and Marketing Officer for Delta Controls, Inc. and a member of the executive management team. His role includes global responsibility for sales growth and driving brand awareness. Hemmerdinger started his career in 1997 as a technical support engineer with Andover Controls, which was acquired by Schneider Electric in 2004. With a background in engineering, he served in a variety of positions including in product management, strategic sales and business development for the U.S., EMEA and Asia Pacific markets. Robert holds a BSc (Hons) in IT Engineering from De Montfort University in the United Kingdom and resides in Boston, Massachusetts USA.