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How Office Environments Influence Productivity and Well-being
The pandemic has propelled the country into the next era of work that demands a closer look at creating offices that enable workers to not only thrive, but to also be productive. As more people shift from Zoom calls to in-person, organizations are rethinking the office as a vehicle to invest in its people, their health and ultimately the long-term success of their organization.
Research proves that the physical environment where people spend time has a significant impact on their productivity and general well-being. Places that promote physical and mental health can boost productivity and can lead to decreased absenteeism and turnover rates.
Similar to the growing conditions of seeds, indoor environments matter for people to flourish. If organizations want their employees to perform at their highest, facility managers have to create environments that enable them to thrive — with the proper amounts of light, comfort, and air quality. Facility managers should also monitor these environmental parameters for employees’ needs at different times, and in different parts of the year. People can’t be expected to perform to their highest ability when the environment is not designed with their well-being in mind.
A holistic approach
Experts in building sciences and health sciences came together in the past decade and mapped out 10 health impact areas informed by evidence-based research and best industry practices. These impact areas — air, water, nourishment, movement, light, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind and community — make up the 10 WELL concepts in the WELL Building Standard (WELL), a library of evidence-based building and organizational strategies that, when implemented, can help improve individual and organizational health and well-being.
WELL-Certified buildings can improve productivity because they utilize a holistic approach, implementing science-backed strategies in building design, operations and organizational policy that work together to advance occupant well-being. By prioritizing air and water quality, optimal light and sound environments, healthy food options, physical movement, and promoting mental health, WELL Certified buildings create a work environment that makes people the primary focus. For employers and building owners, investing in WELL Certification can pay off in significant ways, such as increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, and a more resilient and engaged workforce.
A peer-reviewed study published in 2022 in “Building and Environment” found that occupants in WELL Certified spaces reported improved workplace satisfaction, increased levels of productivity, and gains in their health and well-being. The study assessed the impact of WELL Certification on the people inside a space when compared to their experiences before the space achieved certification. The study showed WELL Certification improved occupant productivity scores by 10 median points, increased occupant satisfaction by nearly 30 percent, as well as occupant perceived well-being scores by 26 percent and reported mental health scores by 10 percent.
What occupants breathe matters
The first of the 10 WELL concepts focuses on indoor air quality (IAQ). As seen from the recent White House initiatives to local government actions to private sector efforts, the importance of IAQ has been a key focus in the Covid-19 pandemic. Whether it is reducing negative impacts of the spread of disease or increasing the positive benefits of employee productivity, a better, clearer and more actionable path is needed to assure buildings are healthy for occupants and provide improved IAQ.
When looking at what IAQ does physically to the body, it becomes evident as to why IAQ and productivity are so intricately related and why so much attention is being placed on this aspect of healthy building. IAQ is determined by indicators such as the concentration of pollutants, air flow, temperature, and humidity levels in a built environment.
The WELL Building Standard calls for building owners and facility managers to address these IAQ factors and demonstrate compliance through rigorous onsite testing. Without proper interventions, inhalation exposure to indoor air pollutants can lead to a variety of negative short- and long-term health and well-being outcomes. Common health conditions related to poor indoor air quality include headaches, dry throat, eye irritation or runny nose while more severe health issues can include asthma attacks, respiratory infections, including Legionnaires disease, carbon monoxide poisoning and cancer.
Poor IAQ can also have a direct impact on employee productivity, which also can contribute to economic losses for businesses.
A study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that workers in well-ventilated offices with low levels of carbon dioxide and indoor air pollutants had significantly higher cognitive functioning scores as compared to workers in poorly ventilated offices: improved IAQ increased cognitive function from 61 percent to 101 percent, depending on the level of air quality improvement.
To put this into perspective, the research found that carbon dioxide levels at 1400 parts per million (ppm) had significant impacts on cognition. Carbon dioxide levels are often used as a proxy for overall air flow issues. In other words, if there are high concentrations of CO2, even at 1000 ppm, that may indicate increased risk of other air pollutants coupled with a lower level of air changes per hour and outdoor air exchanges; all affecting individual productivity and performance.
For organizations looking to address IAQ, a good place to start is providing adequate ventilation and filtration by increasing the flow of outside air, implementing air quality monitoring systems to identify and address issues in real-time, and installing high-efficiency air filters. Additionally, organizations can take steps to reduce sources of indoor air pollution, such as using preferred cleaning products, limiting off-gassing materials and increasing ventilation and operational practices.
WELL Building Standard’s Air concept offers a host of features outlining how to implement the above strategies and solutions. When done well, buildings serve as tools in recruiting and retaining top talent by simply optimizing IAQ.
Light has a huge bearing on people’s health. Having good quality light and different kinds of light throughout the day can help improve focus, regulate mood, and prepare individuals for a good night's sleep, all of which contribute to good health and productivity. Lighting strategies, harnessing both natural light and artificial light, are more common today in workplaces to maximize light exposure to boost productivity and creativity.
The WELL Light concept aims to provide a lighting environment that enhances people’s health and performance. Integrating natural light and electric light bring visual acuity and comfort, leading to healthier and more productive environments. Spaces that are too dim or too bright can negatively affect the work space, potentially lowering one’s productivity and overall mood.
Light strategies in the WELL Building Standard address multiple other factors that also contribute to enhanced human health and performance including circadian lighting design, glare control, visual balance and giving occupant the lighting control. Too often buildings focus on light in the space, but not light for the person. As such, shades are drawn, or light is reflected in the back of a person’s head. For the benefits of adequate circadian lighting, there needs to be ‘light in the eye’ or at the eye level. Therefore, WELL performance testing includes measuring how light reflects in the space.
‘Listen’ to the space
The acoustical comfort, or, the sound parameters of a built environment, can have a substantial effect on our experience in a space, impacting our physical and mental health.
Depending on the tasks being performed, spaces can be too loud or even too quiet. Designing a space with proper acoustics can make it easier to listen and converse or better focus on the task at hand. Quality acoustics can calm the nervous system, reduce stress and is even associated with a reduction in heart disease.
Even exposure to sources of noise, such as traffic and transportation, can negatively affect people's health and reduce mental performance.
An acoustical plan that prioritizes people often starts with sound mapping to identify sources of noise that can negatively impact interior spaces. Sound mapping informs a project team to design the floor plan for various types of programming: spaces for concentration, collaboration, socialization and learning. By understanding the occupant needs of spaces, a project team can help support acoustical comfort using strategies such as sound barriers or sound-reducing surfaces based on WELL’s prescribed maximum noise levels or leverage the use of dedicated artificial sound to uniformly increase speech privacy and control reverberation time based on a space’s functionality.
Indoor environments have the power to help people thrive and be productive. In this next era of work, people demand offices and workplaces that prioritize their health. With tools like WELL, facility managers have the roadmap to design and operate social and physical environments to support better health, safety and well-being. Now is the time to make these investments in health leadership, investments that pay back with healthier, more productive and engaged workers.
Whitney Austin Gray, Ph.D., is the Senior Vice President, Research, for the International WELL Building Institute. Gray leads research that supports best practices in building design and operations, community development and organizational policies that can contribute to improved public health for everyone, everywhere. She led the development of the first case studies focused on the efficacy of the WELL Building Standard.