Perfect settings

The impact of environmental factors on job performance and worker productivity

Turn up the heat.

by Elisabeth Jeffries — That was the conclusion of a team of scientists studying the Contribution made by environmental factors to employee productivity. When scientists observing workers at an insurance company in Florida raised the temperature in the office building, they found that typing errors fell by 44 per cent and output rose by 150 per cent.

The team, from Cornell University in the US, also discovered that at a temperature of 25°C, workers typed at their keyboards 100 per cent of the time, with a 10 per cent error rate. However, at 20°C, the employee typing rate fell to 54 per cent, with a 25 per cent error rate.

Results from this experiment and others over the past few decades suggest that internal environmental quality (IEQ) is key to good worker performance. It would seem that the answer to productivity is to keep the temperature, lighting and other factors at the optimal level.

A good atmosphere

A temperature of 21-24°C is now typically recommended for a productive working environment. IEQ also takes staff members’ working areas into account: 10 square metres of desk space for individual office workers and eight square metres for individual call centre operators is also often viewed as being sufficient. From a lighting perspective, 400 lux is considered a decent standard for office lighting. Ventilation is another factor thought to affect office performance.

These parameters are often decided on the basis of worker IEQ satisfaction surveys. However, new research from the International Centre for Indoor Environment and Energy at the Technical University of Denmark suggests that we should be wary of drawing conclusions from this data. Employee perceptions of comfort are not necessarily connected to performance.

21-24°C (70-75°F)

Temperature range in which it is suggested employees are most productive

8-10 square metres (86-108 square ft.)

Square metres of desk space considered to be ‘a good working environment’

The new research indicates that many studies been misled by worker self-assessments of good working environments. Dr Pawel Wargocki, who ran the Danish study, remarks that he was surprised to find that “occupants of the building valued lots of space the most”. But he also suggests researchers on ergonomic conditions should not be taken in by the employees’ preoccupations with the amount of space they have to themselves.

The study used wide-ranging data collected in the US by the Center for the Built Environment (CBE) — part of the University of California — over a 10-year period across 600 buildings, not just offices, but also hospitals and schools. It covered 52,980 responses from occupants in 351 office buildings.

“We wanted to find out whether there were maybe some dominant factors that influenced overall satisfaction and to predict overall satisfaction with IEQ based on different individual parameters,” says Wargocki.

Many previous studies had looked at IEQ parameters together. But a focus on individual parameters might allow office or facilities managers to tweak the dominant factors. The researchers found some interesting discrepancies.

When workers were asked about their satisfaction with their workspace in the context of various IEQ parameters, space came far ahead of anything else. Second and third in importance were noise level and individual privacy.

“Satisfaction with the amount of space was most important regardless of occupants’ gender and age, type of office [single office, shared office or cubicles] and distance from a window,” observes Dr Wargocki.

Occupants in private offices were more satisfied with their workspace than those in shared offices or cubicles, while those close to a window were more satisfied than those closer to the centre of the room. Meanwhile, lowest satisfaction levels were observed on sound privacy and temperature metrics.

However, employees showed different priorities when they were asked about job performance as a function of satisfaction with IEQ and building features. They were asked this because the research scientists believed workspace satisfaction affects self-estimated job performance.

But, in this case, the issues considered most important by employees were temperature, noise level and air quality. Space was about half way down the list. The study concludes that the biggest increase in self-estimated job performance is achieved by increasing satisfaction with temperature, noise level and air quality.

Commenting on the research, Wargocki says: “If you want to increase satisfaction with the IEQ, give people bigger volumes of space. But if you want to make work more efficient, make sure you control the classic parameters of IEQ, such as temperature and air quality.”

Status symbols

In other words, a preoccupation with space does not tend to affect efficiency at work, but instead has an impact on employee self-esteem and is a status symbol. Wargocki compares it to other status symbols, such as tablet computers. “In a school classroom, if you give children no ventilation and poor air quality, but give them a tablet computer, they will be very, very happy with the computer. The fact that they have a tablet will probably, to a certain extent, help them absorb lessons for a while. But the learning process will be inhibited by the IEQ parameters.”

This satisfaction, he indicates, will not in itself be sufficient to significantly improve work efficiency. The impact of greater amounts of space is similar to that of tablets. “Our results probably indicate that the focus should be to find out where there are distracting factors and use that to improve satisfaction. Other models have shown that employees associate the size of room with productivity but in fact other factors are more important,” asserts Dr Wargocki.

In other words, status symbols do not necessarily make a major impact on productivity and work performance. Managers at water utilities company Severn Trent Water found some employee behaviour confirmed the Danish study’s findings. The company went through a major transformation when it decided to consolidate eight offices in Birmingham into one new sustainable building in Coventry.

“You often hear the old adage that there’s not enough space,” comments Ian Humphray, the workplace manager supervising some of the changes to the buildings, people, layout and environmental systems.

Open-plan thinking

The work spaces have changed from an old-fashioned, cellular style, to an open-plan office layout with break-out meeting rooms and meeting spaces.

“We wanted buildings that reflect open landscapes and collaborative teamwork. On an open floor, people can talk to each other and face-to-face collaboration is easier,” points out Humphray.

Humphray and his team used worker satisfaction surveys to assess how well the change was going. “Temperature and noise are commonly an issue. Also, people were asked to change their working environments — some who had been in quiet zones now sat in open, collaborative spaces, for example. It was different from what they were used to.”

Overall, however, he believes that worker satisfaction results are fairly reliable, but not necessarily the key to good performance, nor the key to good IEQ planning.

“If they are happy, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are productive,” he explains. Nonetheless, a base of good IEQ is essential. “It is an enabler to being productive but doesn’t mean people actually are. No-one has come up with a measure of productivity from office workers; all you can do is put enablers in place. Then it’s about how well you manage,” he says.

Findings suggest surveys may not be a comprehensive tool. But Dr Marie Puybaraud, director of Global Workplace Innovation, a specialist unit at buildings technology and management company Johnson Controls, agrees that they are a reasonable starting point. However, she also indicates they may have limits.

“Surveys on satisfaction levels relating to noise, lighting, quality of space and so on are the most common way to measure satisfaction. They give an indication of the quality of the environment, but this doesn’t necessarily indicate efficiency or effectiveness. People often make the mistake of using a satisfaction survey as a measure of performance. But it is actually a measure of performance of the space,” she points out.

The Leesman Index is among the high-profile analytical tools available to facilities, human resource and other managers to assess workplace effectiveness. It is designed for all those involved in the brief development, design, delivery and management of commercial workplace environments. It provides a systematic, standardised approach to the collection, analysis and benchmarking of workplace satisfaction data across a range of organisational settings.

However, it assesses a range of different parameters, many of which go beyond satisfaction with the workplace environment. It measures four main areas: first, it considers what activities are important to employees in their work; second, it measures the physical features and the facilities services they consider to be an important component of an effective workplace; and finally, it assesses the impact that the workplace design is having on the employee’s personal sense of pride, enjoyment, community and productivity.

Tangible intangibles

The index is one example of the increasingly sophisticated efforts to help link the tangibles of the IEQ with the often intangible issues affecting performance.

“Experts have managed to show a higher-quality working environment is improving the productivity of the working space. But we all need more detailed research to extract employee productivity in relation to heating, lighting and so on,” says Dr Puybaraud.

Among the many findings in recent years, a trend has emerged towards personal control — it’s a very important factor in worker satisfaction, if not necessarily productivity. “For years, there was a tendency to create a ‘chicken-farm’ effect in the office. People were considered more or less similar. But now the trend is that people are in fact different with different preferences and wishes, says Dr Wargocki. “Therefore, it is not surprising to find out that most people like, for example, to control their own lighting themselves.”

All this is of course not necessarily good news for policy-makers engaged in environmental compliance. For instance, while particular types of energy efficient systems may be helpful in controlling emissions, there is little evidence they automatically have a positive effect on employee satisfaction or performance.