Measurable productivity benefits of enhanced indoor air quality

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Every few years, a groundbreaking study propels our understanding of the impact indoor environments have on employee wellness and productivity. Old-timers will recall one of the first and most famous studies – a lighting retrofit at the Reno, Nevada U.S. Post Office letter-sorting department in 1986, which was merely intended to save energy. An unexpected surprise was that not only did it reduce energy use but the improved quality of lighting also increased the speed of sorting by 10 percent, decreased errors, and achieved a measurable half-million dollars in productivity gains per year.

Since then, our understanding of wellness in the workplace has greatly expanded. Recently, another trailblazing finding has been causing a stir in the wellness industry. It’s a study by the Harvard School of Public Health, which shows a remarkable correlation between carbon dioxide (CO2) levels and productivity.

The experiment consisted of participants playing a computer simulation game in three different office environments in turn: one ‘bad’ environment that had 1,400 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 (such as is often found in offices and schools); another with a moderate level of 945 ppm of CO2 (a typical industry standard); and a third, which had an exceptionally good level of CO2 at 550 ppm. The game was designed to measure nine cognitive functions, including information processing, decision-making and recall.

The results showed that game scores were on average 50 percent better when players were in ‘exceptionally good’ air as compared to when the same players were in the ‘bad’ air with high CO2 levels, and players were 15 percent better in the ‘moderate’ air as compared to the ‘bad’ air.

Enhanced ventilation – around 30 cubic feet per minute per person or more – is not often done, and yet the productivity benefits may well justify the increased energy demand. As the Harvard study shows, the cognitive improvement from increasing ventilation rates and reducing contaminants in the air represents productivity gains that would be equivalent to several thousand dollars in salary per person per year. By comparison, the energy cost of increasing ventilation is just a few tens of dollars per employee. Thus, the productivity benefits of higher ventilation outweigh the cost of energy by several orders of magnitude. Using highly efficient ventilation and smart controls, the additional cost of enhanced ventilation would be just a few dollars per person.

You can find out more about the measurable benefits of enhanced indoor air quality, how to achieve them, and what the implications are on employee productivity in JLL’s new book “SMART, Green + Productive Workplace: A desk companion for corporate real estate professionals” that will be released this fall.

Simone Skopek is an Operations Manager in Energy Sustainability Services at JLL. Simone has been pioneering programs at the firm that address sustainability and productivity in the workplace, as well as building resiliency and emergency management. She was one of the original creators of the Green Globes certification program and BOMA Best. Past careers include Critical Infrastructure Analyst with the government of Canada’s Public Safety department. She was also a high school physics, chemistry and biology teacher, and sailed around the world for seven years in a 30-foot sailboat.


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