If you're looking for an excuse for poor productivity, tell your boss it's the office's fault. A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research claims that air pollution has a big effect on farm worker productivity. Most of us don't work on farms, but environmental factors are having an impact on your productivity anyway—and we're not just talking about the distracting, noisy people in the next row of cubicles.
It's not your imagination: Stale air really does make it hard to work. In one study by the Center for the Built Environment, researchers found "some evidence" that poor ventilation decreased productivity in a call center; another series of 15 international case studies revealed that natural ventilation can increase productivity between 0.5% and 11%.
Researchers have shown (PDF) that worker productivity changes based on the temperature. In one Cornell study, an increase in office temperature from 68 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit slowed typing errors by 44% and increased typing output by 150%. This is understandable for anyone who has ever had to slog through computer-based work in the freezing cold: it's not easy to work when your hands feel like they're going to fall off (or even when it's just pleasantly cool, apparently).
In one RPI study, workers in windowed offices were shown to spend 15% more time staying on task than colleagues in windowless offices. Bonus: increased daylight also cuts down on lighting energy costs.
These studies may be interesting, but how do they play out in the real world? NASA's recently constructed Sustainability Base, a $20.6 million building in Mountain View, Calif., gives us a pretty good idea. The steel-framed, exoskeleton-equipped building has high ceilings to bring in daylight, natural cross-ventilation, a system that automatically adjusts the building temperature based on environmental factors, and intelligent building controls that sense when something isn't working.
Yes, you should be jealous of the NASA geeks. Buildings like this are still rare. But they are, at least, something to aspire to—and proof that energy efficiency sometimes also yields productivity.