3 Office Fixes That Will Increase Employee Productivity

If you're looking for an excuse for your poor work performance, tell your boss it's the office's fault. Here are the three worst environmental productivity killers—and how to cure them.

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.

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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  • Executive Coach

    The Johnson Wax building in Racine, Wisconsin designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1936 has all the design elements that you are talking about. He was way ahead of his time in thinking about what an enlightened office building needed and what people needed to flourish in an office context. His soaring ceilings, natural light and designs that manage temperature before air conditioning was commonplace are all features of this stunning building. It is hard to understand why we can't learn from people like Frank Lloyd Wright and have to keep rediscovering what has been known for 75 years!

    Dr. Lynn K. Jones, Certified Personal and Executive Coach


  • Jeff L

    77 degrees is *miserable*. I would quit if I had to work in that sort of environment.

  • Ed Michael Reggie

    In a similar vein, sound masking technologies - playing pink noise in the spectrum of human voice to make voices in the office more difficult to overhear - are helpful within our open office to reduce distractions and improve privacy.

  • barb smith

    Agreed ! However, I worked in one office where they used white noise (is that the same as pink noise?), and they left it too loud so we felt like we were in a wind tunnel. Long story short, they had to adjust it - but in the end, it worked great.

  • Ian Turner

    I'll add one more to the list: Humidity. Studies show that humidity can have a huge impact on employee absenteeism, giving a humidity control system an excellent return on investment. Optimal humidity for humans is 40-60%. See here for more details:http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pm...

    Also, with respect to light, there is significant evidence that fluorescent light causes headaches and depression, lowering productivity. If you can't get natural light, and building codes don't allow incandescent lamps, at least offer your employees a halogen desk lamp.

  • HarloweThrombey

    It should be noted that if an office does not have windows.... fluorescent lights and fixtures are NOT an appropriate substitute. So many offices, call centers, cafes and stores flood their business with fluorescent light, creating glare and headaches and stupidity. It's true... the intelligence of the average worker in a workplace is inverse to the brightness level of their fluorescent lighting.

    Anyone who uses a computer... does not need much artificial light. Enough comes out of the screen.

    Sunlight is the only healthy light. Otherwise, it's best to go without.

  • Mogwai

    Ceiling height also plays a role: high ceilings encourage conceptual, abstract thought; low ceilings are good for detail. Acoording to architectural studies.

  • barb smith

    That makes a lot of sense ... I've also read about the height of the cubicle walls having a similar type of impact, perhaps illiciting more collaboration and perhaps better brainstorming with lower walls.