Finding the Link Between Employee Performance and Building Health

Consider this. You’re the CEO of a small software startup getting ready to launch your first big app. A significant amount of money and time has been invested into the project. The old saying, “You only have one chance to make a first impression” is keeping you up at night. But have you thought about your Indoor Air Quality(IAQ) relative to the project and employee performance? Of course not. But maybe you should.

Employee Performance Linked to Building Health

Optimized IAQ Improves Cognitive Function & Employee Performance

That hypothetical CEO depends on employee performance being at the highest levels. Mistakes are not an option. When those programmers are debugging the new application, they must be focused. Can building conditions such as ventilation rates, temperature, humidity and odors affect workers’ cognitive abilities? You bet it can! And a recent series of studies has found the correlation.

Joseph Allen, along with colleagues from Harvard University, Syracuse University and SUNY Upstate Medical conducted a two-phase study to see if better IAQ can influence employee performance. They studied a worker’s ability to process information, make strategic decisions and respond to crises under different indoor environmental conditions.

“We spend 90 percent of our time indoors, yet we spend almost all of our time thinking about outdoor air pollution,” said Joseph Allen, director of the three-year-old Healthy Buildings program at Harvard University’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, which has studied the benefits of keeping employees in top form. “What we’re doing here is quantifying what people intuitively know. When you’re stuck in a conference room that’s too hot, there’s no ventilation, you don’t perform as well.”

Phase one of the double-blind study tested 24 “knowledge workers” (managers, designers, and architects) over a two-week period at the Syracuse Center of Excellence. These workers were required to basically be themselves, performing their normal 9-5 work routine in this highly-controlled environment. Unbeknownst to them, the researchers shifted the IAQ conditions from a minimal accepted standard baseline to an optimized environment. At the end of each day, as the conditions were gradually improved, the subject’s decision making performance was tested using a standardized cognitive function test. The results were encouraging.

The research team found that optimized IAQ led to significantly better performance among all participants. Higher test scores were recorded across nine cognitive functions when ventilation rates were increased (and finally doubled), VOCs (chemical cleaners, dry erase makers, building materials, etc.) were decreased and carbon dioxide was reduced. The most remarkable gains were made how workers plan, stay focused and strategized.

The second phase of the study moved from the lab into the real world. 100 knowledge workers were tested for cognitive function in 10 IAQ tested buildings throughout the U.S. Six of the buildings were “green certified”. The study found that workers in the green buildings scored higher on the range of tests. Along with the improved IAQ factors of ventilation, VOCs, and CO2, workers in environments with comfortable temperature and humidity levels also performed better.

“What should leaders and building managers take away from these findings?” says Mr. Allen, “The short answer is that better air quality in your office can facilitate better cognitive performance among your employees.”

What Can Be Done to Improve IAQ and Performance?

Even though most executives/managers focus on energy costs, and rightly so, 90% of a business’ operating costs tied to its workers. In fact, one study reported that building managers tend to overestimate energy costs by multiple factors!

Managers should then look at IAQ indicators to see where improvements can made. Building scientists that specialize in IAQ testing can be called upon to conduct a survey of a facility and report the findings. Data from such a study can be used to correct any deficiencies found, as well as, optimize areas that could potentially cause issues. With the prevalence of deferred maintenance programs cost is always an issue. However, the cost of improving IAQ is far lower than most think.

The joint Harvard study modeled costs with four different types of HVAC systems in different climate zones with different energy sources in the U.S. The estimates show that doubling ventilation rates would be less than $40 per person, per year. When energy-efficient systems are used, the cost would be less than $10 per person per year. The study also used the benchmarked cognitive function testing results and paired the percentile increase in scores to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to estimate the BENEFITS to employee performance from doubling ventilation rates are $6,500 per person per year! This doesn’t include other health benefits from hygienically cleaning HVAC systems to avert Sick Building Syndrome and the human health issues it can cause, such as allergies, asthma and absenteeism.

Moving forward it would be a good practice for managers to incorporate IAQ health impacts into their cost-benefit calculations when planning. When employee performance/productivity benefits are clearly shown the C-suite can then see the correlation between spending to enhance facilities and reducing human resource costs.

Hopefully, our hypothetical CEO and his software company are open minded to making improvements based on research like this. Maybe they will even develop the next IAQ testing app.

For more information on how Pure Air Control Services can improve your employee performance and save energy please contact Alan Wozniak at 1-800-422-7873 extension 802 or email awozniak@pureaircontrols.com

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