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Workplace environment and productivity link grows, so should HR's role

HR is urged to play a role in facilities management as research underscores the link between workplace conditions such as air quality and employee productivity.

Poor air quality, poor lighting, uncomfortable temperatures and high noise levels are making a lot of workers unhappy, according to a new study. The quality of the workplace environment has a direct bearing on productivity, and that's why HR needs to pay attention to these technology investments. 

HR advisory firm Future Workplace surveyed about 1,600 office workers in North America. In most of the workplace environmental categories, the majority of respondents expressed dissatisfaction. About one-third of those surveyed reported losing 60 minutes or more a day due to discomfort.

HR managers need to play a larger role in investing in technology that can improve workplace environments, said Jeanne Meister, a founding partner of the New York-based firm. At many companies, real estate and facilities managers have responsibility for office environments.

"HR should have a much more of an influential role in the actual office environment," Meister said. "This has an impact on what HR is trying to do -- and this is to increase, enhance the employee experience."

Environment improves productivity

The link between the quality of workplace environments and productivity is well established.

Improved indoor environmental quality, which includes air, lighting, temperatures, relative humidity and ventilation, "has been associated with improved productivity in multiple past studies," said Marina Eller Vance, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and environmental engineering at the University of Colorado in Boulder and a researcher on these issues.

"Indoor air quality and environmental [conditions] can affect an employee's physical and mental wellbeing, which are intimately linked to work productivity," Vance said. 

It's important to note the difference between perceived air quality and actual air quality, according to Vance. "Many people, for example, find that the use of air fresheners and other scents bring them joy and improve perceived air quality, when, in fact, the volatile organic compounds they emit are seen by scientists as air pollutants," she said.

Meister said organizations put too much emphasis on fringe health benefits such as office gyms and access to healthy foods. They need to focus more on the environmental basics that can improve employee experience, she said.

Air quality matters most

In Future Workplace's survey, air quality mattered most in the workplace environment. But only one in four employees reported that office air quality "is optimal for them to do their best work." About one-third of respondents said they experience itchy, watery eyes and throat irritation at work.

The study was done independently by Future Workplace, and sponsored by View Inc., a Milpitas, Calif.-based maker of windows that use sensors to automatically adjust the tint based on outside conditions. As such, the windows don't require blinds or shades.

For Wayne Sumner, founder and chairman of Jackson Sumner & Associates, creating what he believes to be an environmentally healthy place was a top goal when his firm built new offices in Boone, NC. The company provides insurance products.

"Our office houses the most important asset of our company -- our employees," Sumner said.  

When they built a new 18,000-square-foot office in 2016, Sumner used environmentally friendly products. This included paint with low or no volatile organic compounds, which are chemicals that can cause adverse health impacts.

Sumner also used high Color Rendering Index (CRI) lights "that mimic sunlight about as close as you can get."

Spreading positive energy

Sumner believes a high CRI bulb "emits positive energy to our staff and reduces headaches and fatigue normally caused by many of the bulbs used in other offices."

There's no bottled water in Sumner's office because of the chemicals used to make them. Instead, his organization uses a large filtering system for water and copper piping -- not plastic -- in the building.

If you care about your staff, they will care about your customers.
Wayne SumnerFounder and chairman, Jackson Sumner & Associates

The firm installed View Dynamic Glass as well as low cubicles, so all the employees have exposure to natural light. "Other than the restrooms, there is not a single place in our office that you cannot see natural light," Sumner said.

The facility includes a 26-foot high waterfall "that fills the air with negative ions," Sumner said. That helps negate "all the positive ions we get from all the EMFs [electric and magnetic fields] we are all exposed to," he said.

Sumner believes the investment sends an important message to employees.

"What it shows is how much we care about our staff," he said. "I have found out a long time ago if you care about your staff, they will care about your customers."

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