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How Does Workplace Ventilation Impact Employee Productivity?


workplace ventilation

Improving employee productivity is a key goal for just about every large corporation and many smaller ones as well. If you are in charge of facilities and looking for ways your workspaces can support that goal, it’s smart to increase your workplace ventilation to improve office air quality.

According to a report from the Center for the Built Environment at UC Berkeley, employee salaries account for more than 90 percent of the total operating cost of commercial office space. That’s why so many companies are looking for employee productivity improvement, not only as a way to accomplish more, but also as a way to spend less.

So for Facilities Managers tasked with controlling operating expenses, it’s essential to look at ways of improving employee productivity. It’s no secret that the environment has a big impact on workers; in fact, employees identify an uncomfortable office temperature as a major distraction. However, it’s important to realize that temperature is not the only component of office air quality that impacts productivity. High humidity levels hinder comfort and focus, and high CO2 levels reduce cognitive function.

Learn more: Summer Humidity is Scarier Than You Think

In fact, if your office buildings are typical, your workplace ventilation is inadequate and your office air quality is poor. Let’s take a look at why that’s happened, the recent findings about air quality and productivity, and what you can do to fix the situation.

Why is workplace ventilation such a serious problem?

The problem of poor air quality in office buildings has its roots in the energy crisis of the 1970’s. In an effort to save energy, buildings were sealed to reduce leakage of heated and cooled air to the outside. Workplace ventilation rates were also reduced to cut HVAC loads. Unfortunately, those actions created a new problem: a buildup of indoor air pollutants and a rise in “sick building” symptoms for occupants.

Learn more: Could Your HVAC System Be Making You Sick?

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, poor workplace ventilation is an even bigger problem, because sealed buildings trap airborne virus particles inside. One of the COVID mitigation strategies experts are recommending is adding more outside ventilation to dilute virus particles. (For details, get our guide to HVAC Strategies for COVID.)

Even without an outbreak of COVID or Sick Building Syndrome, poor ventilation can impact work output. When people don’t feel well at work, you already know the result: absenteeism, reduced energy and concentration levels, and reduced employee productivity.

The research on workplace ventilation and employee productivity

Many studies have found links between poor ventilation, indoor air quality and health. However, research recently published in Harvard Business Review went a step further to demonstrate a clear relationship between improved ventilation and enhanced cognitive function (and even decision-making) from knowledge workers.

The researchers (including principal investigator Joseph Allen, Harvard professor and director of Harvard’s Healthy Buildings program) conducted a study with workers in a controlled environment, where they varied the air quality conditions (from typical conditions that barely met minimum standards to “optimized” conditions with doubled ventilation levels) and measured the changes in behavior and output.

Specifically, they varied the VOC and carbon dioxide levels in the air to see how the changes affected workers’ cognitive function, which they say is an indicator of employee productivity. Not surprisingly, they found that decision-making, strategizing and planning all improved when workers were breathing better air.

The researchers expanded their study to measure employee performance in “green certified” buildings that provided both good energy efficiency and good ventilation, as well as buildings with more typical environments. They found that the workers in the “green” buildings again performed better on cognitive tests.

Improving workplace ventilation: is it too costly?

The cost of making workplace improvements can be high. Companies are spending millions to renovate spaces to add light and shared workplace experiences that improve engagement. Yet improving air quality with increased ventilation can be done at a relatively low cost. In fact, the researchers mentioned above found that the cost of doubling ventilation to reach optimum air quality levels would be under $40 per person per year, and could even be below $10 per person with the use of high efficiency HVAC systems.

Compare that cost to the estimated $6500 per person per year that research shows companies stand to gain in productivity improvement simply by doubling workplace ventilation.

Turn to the experts to improve your workplace air quality

Doubling your ventilation is the average change that researchers found is needed to see the reported productivity gains. But you’ll need monitoring, system inspections and advice from the pros to determine exactly what’s needed to get those benefits in your workplace.

If you’re not sure whether your current HVAC provider has the expertise to help, feel free to reach out to us at Arista to discuss your situation and come up with a plan to improve your workplace ventilation.

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