The Facility Factor
Can Buildings Boost Productivity?
It seems so likely to be true that it smacks of common sense: Buildings affect productivity. On one level — the building’s impact on the organization as a whole — there’s good evidence it is true. A building’s location, for instance, is a critical factor to the productivity of an organization.
What about the building’s impact on the individual occupant? Does the layout affect productivity? Or the ventilation rate? What about windows and the lighting system?
Many facility professionals and others believe that there is an impact on the individual. For them, using buildings to improve productivity in this increasingly knowledge-worker economy has become the next big challenge. A whole new industry of researchers, product manufacturers and even some building owners is working on ways to manipulate the built environment to do this. Their incentive is the bottom line. An increase in productivity of 1 or 2 percent would dwarf much larger percentage increases in energy savings because the cost of human resources is so much greater than the cost of energy.
The intuitive belief in a facility’s impact on worker productivity is strong enough to drive design and technological efforts that are reshaping buildings today. The actual evidence that buildings are a positive factor in productivity, however, is scant and inconclusive. This raises the question:
Are building owners wasting time and money on, at best, marginal improvements or are they out in front of the next new stage in building design?
The answer to this productivity mystery may be found in a sea of new research. While early signs suggest intuition is correct, the definitive answer may be years away.
What We Think We Know
It is universally accepted that bad buildings inhibit productivity. Everything from a building’s poor location to bad lighting can stymie the productivity of organizations and individuals. Bad air quality is going to make people sick and, even if they don’t leave the office, it may affect their productivity.
“When one says the building impacts productivity positively, one is saying that the building doesn’t get in the way of the productive potential of the organization,” says Jon Ryburg, president of Facility Performance Group Inc. “Buildings, however, do have the power to actually lower the expected productivity of its employees and technologies.”
Ryburg, who has tracked productivity traits of more than 50 companies during the past 20 years, has isolated characteristics that can have the greatest potential to affect, usually negatively, productivity. Location tops the list, followed by capacity, or the amount and balance of useful space in a building, and then flexibility of the space, Ryburg says.
Most facility professionals accept the idea that the usefulness and flexibility of space are critical to helping the organization reach its productivity potential. This understanding came to the fore because of a 1980s paradigm shift in how floor plans were expected to look. The new paradigm featured more open space and less private space. It also recognized a need to cut churn costs and increase communication and collaboration among workers. Most information-based companies eventually accepted the new design, more or less, tweaking aspects of it to fit their own organizations, Ryburg says.
These new designs recognized what the drivers of productivity were thought to be: highly motivated and well-trained staff using the appropriate technology, Ryburg says. The building’s role is to facilitate how people and their technology function in the workplace.
About the same time, another idea was born: The workplace could provide services for workers and be an uplifting place to work. Buildings could help motivate a well-trained workforce by providing communication and convenience. The high-tech industry was critical in establishing this idea, turning the notion of a fun workplace from an oxymoron into reality. The office of the future was going to be wide open and stimulating — no more cloistered offices and no more sea of identical cubicles. Dilbert was out.
Larry Ebert, vice president of real estate for Capital One, believes it today. Capital One has done its own studies, and the evidence is clear. By giving employees sophisticated, high-class amenities such as a first-class fitness center, a cafeteria with quality food, a cutting-edge video conference center and wireless network that allows employees to work outdoors, Capital One has increased the productivity of its workers. Amenities are important drivers of this, he says.
“I am absolutely convinced,” Ebert says. “If the workplace is a fun, exciting place, people will perform at a higher level.”
Jim Heany, executive vice president and chief acquisitions officer for O’Neal Properties, doesn’t need evidence that a better workplace means more productive workers. “The evidence will come,” he says. “A lot of what we’re talking about is just common sense. If you put a person in a square window-less box, they aren’t going to be very happy, and they aren’t going to be productive.”
Ideas about how buildings can make employees more productive, however, have changed. For 10 years, facility professionals accepted the idea that open space is good and private offices are bad. The rationale was that the greater the communication and collaboration, the more productive workers would be.
Clearly, a better organized workplace will mean more productive workers. This is as true for hospitals as for offices. Placement of supply rooms or copy centers is important. However, there is very little solid evidence that the shift to the new, open-office paradigm actually increased individual worker creativity, persistence, memory or communication — all key aspects of productivity. At best, a properly designed workplace may have stayed out of the way of a workforce and provided the tools workers need, Ryburg says.
Today, the building industry is beginning to give back some private space to individuals. Vivian Loftness, head of the architecture school at Carnegie Mellon University, says building owners, architects and designers adopted the new paradigm based on little more than a hunch.
Loftness says the reasoning behind the open-space concept — to facilitate communication — has been misunderstood. Recent studies suggest that most open space has actually been underdesigned for collaboration, she says. The reason team space or collaborative space was designed was to encourage creativity. Merely opening up the floorplate and providing unfettered opportunities to communicate, however, actually placed too much focus on interaction.
“This was a mistake,” Loftness says. “It assumes there are few head-down tasks. Also, it assumes work can occur in transient space where information is put up (on a whiteboard) then taken down.” The creative process is more involved than that, she says. It needs, she says, permanent and acoustically private space.
“We’ve gone overboard thinking people have to communicate all the time,” says Judith Heerwagen, an environmental psychologist. Circulation and openness are critical to communication, “but the truth is most communication is 30 seconds or less. It’s a buzz of frequent but short exchanges — mostly between two people.” Sixty percent of the work of teams is done by the individuals in that team, she says.
“Interestingly,” Loftness says, “much of the industry accepted the idea that open space design was good for productivity with almost no research proving this.”
Bringing Light to Darkness
Driven in part by new ideas in green design that emerged in the late 1990s, the trend that a building has a positive impact on productivity is being once again accepted on faith. The newest paradigm is that fresh air, daylight, nature and window views, among other design aspects, lend themselves to productivity increases.
Armed with anecdotal evidence, some weak research results and proprietary studies, building owners and facility executives seem quite confident of this. They point to attraction and retention rates that are up and absenteeism that is down, and say productivity has been improved. On one level this is true. The question of an individual’s productivity, however, is still open to debate.
Proponents of green buildings’ productivity-boosting attributes may be the most guilty of putting the conclusion ahead of studies.
“In all the literature on sustainable design there are references to productivity and better health,” says Arthur Pearce, a senior consultant with Ideaworks and senior research fellow at Cornell University. “I’d have to say the vast majority of the sources for that information is disappointing. We know there is a connection. What we don’t know is the order of magnitude.”
What is setting this new thinking about the built environment apart, however, is the earnestness of industry researchers to find answers to the questions about productivity. While the claims may outreach what is known, at least many in the industry recognize this.
“We know a lot about the negative impact,” Heerwagen says, “What we know a lot less about, but nonetheless believe to be true, are the positive impacts that buildings have.”
Part of the problem is the subject. To researchers productivity is an ambiguous umbrella term affected by everything from an occupant’s personal life to the built environment. It is defined by dozens of measurements, from the number of days absent to the creativity of the individual.
To determine how a building affects productivity, researchers must consider all the variables. There’s the acoustics, layout, lighting, temperature and air quality, just to name a few. Identifying the variables is just the beginning. “Even if we knew what it was that needed to be measured, each focus would have its own set of metrics,” says Carol Jones, manager of the Light Right Consortium and a head researcher at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The wheel would have to be reinvented time after time.
Take, for instance, an investigation into air quality and productivity. Studies identifying linkages have to gather good data on health and illness symptoms, show how the environment influences these outcomes and then look at how variability in symptoms is associated with variability in work performance. That’s complicated research, Heerwagen says.
The industry is beginning to approach this complex task in two ways. One is through broad-based surveys designed to collect data on how workers perceive their workplace and its impact on their productivity across as many buildings as can be surveyed. Both the U.S. General Services AdministrationCenter for the Built Environment (CBE) at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are surveying the public and private sector response to workplaces.
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Kevin Kampschroer, director of research with Public Buildings Service, the facility arm of GSA, is studying as many as 40 buildings over many years, looking at the relationship between productivity and space, and the cost factors that affect this relationship. This subjective data will then eventually be paired with the known physical characteristics of the buildings.
The results are just coming in, and it’s too early to draw conclusions. Kampschroer, however, is beginning to see occupant control of the environment as having an impact.
“What does control of the environment mean?” Kampschroer asks. “It’s local control of physical factors: lights, temperature, et cetera. But also it means having a meeting when you want to and having the kinds of tools you need to do your job.”
Leah Zagreus, a research specialist with CBE, says the self-reporting online surveys from CBE, which are in place at about 100 buildings, will provide a place to begin deconstructing the workplace environment.
“We’ll find out what technology or design works best,” Zagreus says. “If it is only complaints, at least we’ll know what doesn’t work.” In either case, if there is a large enough sample, CBE will have a statistically accurate apples-to-apples comparison of building environments and respondents’ perception of the building’s impact on them because the surveys are the same from place to place.
The Nitty Gritty
Another approach is to begin deconstructing just what productivity means. The complexity of this is apparent in the investigation into air quality, including ventilation and filtration rates. Studying its affect on absenteeism is one measure of productivity. William Fisk and Mark Mendell, researchers at LBL, have done a number of studies in this area. Their findings indicate that absenteeism, especially in educational settings, can be reduced with greater amounts of fresh air. That in itself is an improvement in productivity, especially in some work settings. Simply having a person at a desk doesn’t make that person productive in an information-based company, however, and the evidence of a correlation between air quality and other issues, such as attentiveness or the number of calls made in a call center, is less clear.
Lighting is another critical area of study and one of the most researched variables studied in controlled laboratory settings. Jones and her team, — in the first part of a three-phase, multiyear research project — have found that the industry’s use of two-by-four lighting fixtures with parabolic louvers leaves 30 percent of building occupants feeling uncomfortable with the light system. A direct-indirect lighting system improves that result by capturing half of the disaffected, and a more advanced task-ambient lighting system with personal dimming control brought satisfaction levels up to 91 percent.
Like the GSA study, Jones’ work is finding also that occupant control of their lighting system is important and actually improves worker motivation while saving energy.
“We’re getting closer to knowing what’s important about lighting and what quality means,” she says.
But is a happy worker a more productive worker? Common sense says yes. Science says maybe. Heerwagen, with a doctorate in psychology, has been studying human productivity for years. She believes a happy worker is a productive worker, but the proof of causation is still lacking.
“The evidence from the social science research shows that happy people are not necessarily more productive, but they do tend to show higher levels of commitment, engagement in organizational activities, helping others, et cetera,” she says.
There are bits and pieces of research being done that are beginning to show a connection — real physiological reactions to improvements in the workplace environment.
One area of cognitive research that is showing some interesting results is the idea of positive distractions. Heerwagen says the mind may need mini mental breaks to keep it attentive, tuned in and creative — critically important mental building blocks for processing information. Studies have shown that window views of natural settings can provide positive distractions, she says.
Heerwagen says the connection with cognitive functions has to do with a couple of things. “The view provides sensory change from the office surroundings and a connection with nature,” she says. “These seem to play a fundamental role to certain cognitive abilities. Views of nature also tend to be related to stress reduction and positive attitudes. This has been measured.”
One set of studies of school and office buildings and student and worker performance by Heschong Mahone Group has shown that daylight may play a role in improving student performance and showed some mixed results in various tests with office workers. A view of the outdoors did show some positive test results with both students and office workers.
Pleasant window views have also been shown to increase performance in call centers and increase recovery rates for patients in hospitals. Just what it is about daylight and views, however, that seemingly contribute to higher cognitive functions remains unknown. Also un- known is how long such attributes would have an impact.
The idea that nature somehow is critical to worker well-being is spurring a new line of thinking that makes nature a critical design element in buildings. Based on studies by the biologist Edward O. Wilson in an area of study he called biophilia, researchers at the Rocky Mountain Institute are looking into ways occupants react not only to nature outside the windows but also to nature, such as green plants and water features, on the inside. The idea behind biophilia is that humans have an innate connection to nature. Its application to the workplace — the building and its surroundings — means to bring it as close to nature as possible, says Alexis Karolides, director of green development services at RMI. She says Yale University is considering partnering on a study in this area.
A Way to Go
None of this is going to convince those wanting a smoking gun. Lindsay Audin, president of EnergyWiz, says that until there’s a definitive study that shows that either making good air quality better or providing daylight will improve productivity by X percent, he’s not going to buy it. Furthermore, he doubts that any studies will show this. There are too many variables to account for.
Buying into the productivity argument is a gamble based on hypotheses that may or may not pan out, Audin says. In the bargain, the facility executive may lose on the first-cost or energy-cost side.
Jim Bannon, senior vice president of operations at Equity Office, doesn’t doubt buildings play a role in productivity. However, like Ryburg, Bannon thinks a building’s location trumps all other factors. Interior elements are viewed by tenants as a cost not a benefit.
Bannon says a Class A building with an interior design that meets all ergonomic, technological, lighting, and ventilation needs might add a marginal increase in productivity at best, but it’s not something most in the industry are banking on. “Real estate decision-makers like pleasant surroundings and generally believe that they are good for employees” he says. “However, they typically do not attribute hard dollar productivity gains to these.”
Heerwagen says maybe they should. “It’s clear people will work hard in even the most awful of workplaces,” she says. “A paycheck or fear of being fired is a great motivator. But doing so is an effort; it’s stressful. One has to wonder if the people are working to their true potential. It’s a high cost to pay for both sides.”
The industry at the very least knows what it doesn’t know, PNNL’s Jones says. But it does also strongly suspect that the built environment has influence on some of an individual’s cognitive processes.
There are many variables that contribute to productivity, such as corporate culture, training, technology, personal life, workload and management — all of them relevant, she says. “Some of them are influenced by employers and building owners and some are outside their sphere influence. The built environment is one within their sphere of influence.”
How much a building affects productivity and adds to the bottom line of a company is still too hard to say. In fact, quantifying the effect to a precise amount may never be possible. While there are pieces to this puzzle that are showing promising signs, the conclusions are a way off.
“A lot of people want answers in less than a year,” Carnegie Mellon’s Loftness says. “But this kind of research is like NIH (National Institutes of Health) research. We should be doing multiple studies at multiple worksites with thousands of participants. When you look at the relevance of how the physical place affects human performance, you have to wonder why aren’t we?”