Employers, how would you like to increase staff productivity by up to 60%? The answer could be as simple as changing a light bulb or opening a window. Caroline Hand investigates.

The American Society of Interior Designers found that physical workplace design is one of the top three factors that affects an employee’s performance and job satisfaction, and a whole raft of surveys have indicated that people perform far better when their work environment is well lit, airy, comfortable and attractive.

The following table illustrates some of the claims made in studies of the office environment:

Increase in productivity (%):

achieved by:

61%

good ventilation

17.5%

ergonomic chairs

9-50%

multiple computer screens

5-15%

introducing air conditioning

2%

optimised daylight exposure

Of course, it must be borne in mind that office workers’ productivity is not as easily measured as that of workers in traditional manufacturing industries. Many of the surveys rely on the subjective judgment of individuals as to how they feel, and how well they think they are performing.

Interestingly, although the statistics above only show a 2% improvement through exposure to natural light, the general consensus seems to be that lighting is the primary environmental factor determining productivity.

The view from my window

Gone are the days when office blinds were kept down all day while people worked under the harsh glare of fluorescent lamps. Workers perform far better if they can take advantage of natural light. This is especially true in winter when vitamin D levels tend to fall, weakening the immune system. The recognition of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) — where people become depressed during the dark winter days — as a medical condition has led to the general realisation that all humans function better when exposed to natural daylight.

Employers have duties under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 and the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 to make sure lighting provided is adequate and provides protection against glare, reflection and any other visual interference. It is important to achieve the right quality of light: dim lighting can induce drowsiness while harsh lighting causes eye strain. Fluorescent lights make it more difficult for the eyes to focus.

In office buildings with few windows, facilities managers can install lighting which simulates daylight, or even provide SAD lamps. One study suggests that blue-enriched light can reduce fatigue and increase both happiness and work performance. Overhead lamps are best avoided as they can increase the likelihood of migraine and eye strain. It may also be possible to reorganise the office layout so that more people have access to natural light.

Everyone works better after a good night’s sleep and, according to a study published in the (US) Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, office workers who receive more light exposure during their working day enjoy longer sleep duration, better sleep quality, more physical activity and better quality of life compared to office workers with less light exposure in the workplace. The employees who worked in offices with more windows slept on average 46 minutes longer each night. Of course, workers need to be wide awake to achieve maximum productivity, and in a separate study the use of smart glass (which can switch from shaded to translucent and transparent) reduced drowsiness by 56%.

The view from the window is also important. Looking out of the window may seem like a waste of time, but it allows the eyes to adjust and re-focus, which reduces fatigue, headaches and the effects of eye strain in the long term. Even in the most built-up of surroundings it is possible to create a pleasant view by planting roof gardens or designing attractive courtyards.

Optimum office temperature

For those whose main interest is the “bottom line”, there are good business incentives for keeping temperatures at a comfortable level: studies have indicated that productivity decreases by 2% for each degree over 25°C.

Managers frequently ask whether there is a legal maximum or minimum workplace temperature, and surprisingly the answer is “no”. The relevant legislation is found in the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, which merely require employers to provide a “reasonable” temperature in the workplace. The Approved Code of Practice (ACOP) for these Regulations suggests a minimum temperature in workrooms of 16°C, or 13°C where staff are engaged in heavy physical work. This is quite a lot colder than the 21–23°C which is generally viewed as the optimum indoor temperature range.

When it comes to high temperatures, there is not even an officially recommended maximum, as this would cause problems for industries where high temperatures are unavoidable, such as glass foundries and steel works. However, the TUC has long been pressing for a legal maximum of 30°C, or 27°C for those doing strenuous work. The World Health Organization recommends 24°C as the maximum temperature for working in comfort.

General health and safety risk assessments should take temperature into account, looking particularly at the effects on vulnerable workers such as pregnant women, older workers and those with disabilities. And temperature is just part of the picture when it comes to thermal comfort: humidity, air movement and the kind of clothing worn, all together determine whether an individual will feel comfortable. As well as reviewing the current heating, cooling and air conditioning systems, managers can introduce simple changes such as allowing people to wear casual clothes on the hottest days.

Fresh, clean air

According to the statistics cited above, air conditioning can make a big difference to office productivity. It can help to achieve a comfortable temperature and also contribute to the circulation of fresh air. Several studies conducted by Lorsch and Abdou (1994) showed that when an air-conditioning system was introduced, productivity tended to increase by 5-15% because workers felt more comfortable and could therefore concentrate better on their work.

Another study by teams from Harvard and Syracuse Universities discovered that when employees worked in well-ventilated offices, their productivity increased by 61% and they performed nearly 27% better on cognitive tasks. The more oxygen reaches the brain, the more effectively it will work!

A 2016 survey by the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) found that almost 70% of those office workers surveyed “believed poor air quality in their place of work is having a negative effect on their day-to-day productivity and wellbeing” and a third are “concerned that poor indoor air quality could be having a negative effect on their health”.

Compliance with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002 will ensure that people are protected from exposure to those hazardous chemicals used or produced in the workplace. But what about the low-level exposures to contaminants such as cleaning and DIY products, mould and dust, or just polluted city air drawn in from outside? Complaints of “sick building syndrome” are notoriously difficult to substantiate and it can be difficult to separate the effects of poor indoor air quality from symptoms associated with workplace stress and fatigue.

As with “reasonable” temperature, the need for ventilation is specified in the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations, which require effective and suitable provision to be made to “ensure that every enclosed workplace is ventilated by a sufficient quantity of fresh or purified air”.

Additionally, the Building Regulations (Part F) specify adequate fresh air rates and set performance criteria for several air pollutants including volatile organic compounds — solvents, etc — and carbon monoxide.

Music and silence

Office workers consistently report “the ability to concentrate without noise and other distractions” to be one of the most important aspects of the work environment. Noise is a subjective issue and individuals will have different thresholds of tolerance. Some studies have shown that when sound is turned off, errors in work are reduced and productivity increases; conversely, others suggest an increase in productivity when music is being played. A survey by MusicWorks reported that 65% of owners of small and medium-sized businesses say that music in their workplace makes employees more productive and 40% believe that it can increase sales or results for the business. Clearly a lot depends on the nature of the work being done.

Open plan offices may be great for networking and socialising, but the distraction caused by ambient noise from colleagues’ conversations, phones or office equipment can make it difficult to focus on a demanding task. Various solutions have been found, from noise-reducing headphones to private cubicles and even “white noise” which masks the distracting sounds. Noise-absorbing floor or wall coverings and screens are another practical solution. If telephone noise is a problem, ring tones could be replaced by buzzers or lights.

Technical solutions

Looking more broadly at office technology, a study by Sharp found that each person wastes 167 hours a year on slow and outdated tech, which is 4 weeks every year. Some 64% of the respondents also claimed they would be more productive if the office had newer technology. A separate study by VIBE indicated that multiple computer screens increase productivity and work efficiency by 9 to 50%, especially with tasks such as cutting and pasting. Employee satisfaction is thought to increase in workplaces where the latest tech is on offer: yet another study, this time conducted by Intel, found that once the company employees were upgraded to wireless notebooks they put in more than two extra hours of work a week. All good advertisements for the tech suppliers who conducted these studies.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Common sense dictates that people will work more effectively if they are provided with comfortable, ergonomically designed furniture, and indeed studies have found that employees’ productivity can be increased by 17.5% simply by providing them with the right chair and training.

Well-designed furniture will reduce the incidence of back pain and work-related upper limb disorders. The spatial layout of offices has also been shown to affect productivity: workers report less stress if the desks are well spaced and the office does not appear cluttered and disorganised. Better spacing can be combined with the provision of shared desks for networking, and private areas for work which requires focus. Most employers now recognise that workers need a break from their desks, and will provide a comfortable area to relax, socialise and eat. One in five office workers believe that having a space to relax at work increases their productivity.

While it is difficult to quantify the effect of an attractive work environment, some businesses use colour and decor to create an atmosphere conducive to productivity. According to the design gurus, green is the colour of creativity, blue the colour of calm and red the colour of energy. Some businesses favour clean whites but beware — the lack of visual stimulation could allow workers’ minds to wander! There is also evidence to show that people are more creative when surrounded by original artwork. Zappos, the American shoe retailer, allows staff to customise their own cubicles with personal items and decoration. Another survey found that delivering a bespoke, modern fit-out could potentially offer the greatest productivity gains; 60% of respondents in a non-traditional fit-out said that it improved their productivity.

Particularly in urban areas, the inclusion of plants, trees and natural features such as rocks makes the office environment less stressful and more appealing. Even the humblest pot plant will breathe out oxygen, reduce contaminants and bring a bit of “nature” into the office.

Workers’ playtime

Businesses like Google, Facebook and YouTube thrive on creativity and go out of their way to offer a fun-filled, playful environment. Would you like to spend some of your day at the office playing with Lego, skateboarding in a suspended bowl, sliding down giant tubes or performing with a rock band? All these attractions are on offer from big-name employers who are seeking to attract and retain high-calibre staff. More seriously, exercise does reduce stress and contributes to health and therefore overall productivity, explaining why many large companies offer gyms, pools or other opportunities to keep fit at work.

With offices like these, workers may well not want to return home — perhaps this is somewhere in the thinking of the Silicon Valley employers! But to end on a note of caution, 60% of respondents to a survey by Virgin Business Media in 2012 thought that the office would be obsolete by 2021, as technology frees people to work wherever they choose. While this now seems unlikely, businesses will need to offer a competing modern, attractive and productive workplace environment where staff are eager to work.

Last reviewed 1 October 2019