Your Office's Fluorescent Lights Really Are Draining Your Will To Work

It's not all in your head—toiling away in a cold, beige office under artificial light really does sap your soul. New research shows that you need light and warmth to do your best work—so open the blinds, already.

"Your environment has a huge impact on how productive you are," Brendan Baker tells Buffer writer Leo Widrich. "That means the temperature in your room, the color of your walls, and the noise happening around you."

Call it environmental productivity: the science of how your space supports (or handicaps) the work you do. It's the kind of insight that design firms like Steelcase—which has an office anthropologist and has rethought virtual meetings— traffic in, with the goal of helping workers to thrive, rather than simply survive.

To that end, Widrich found key factors: light and warmth.

Natural light keeps you alert

We've all felt the brightly lit darkness of a minimally windowed, fluorescent-flooded workspace, and new research by Mirjam Muench shows just why artificial light looks (and feels) so damn hideous.

According to his study, people who had a diet of daylight were "significantly more alert" at the beginning of the evening while the sunshine-stricken were "significantly sleepier" at the end of the evening. The Swiss neuroscientist concludes that even short-term afternoon lighting conditions have an impact on evening task performance, which sheds some light on the 4 p.m. slump—we're not getting enough sun.

Warmth keeps you going

Widrich finds a shocking statistic in a Cornell study: "When temperatures were low (68 degrees or 20 degrees Celsius), employees made 44% more mistakes than at optimal room temperature (77 degrees or 25 degrees Celsius)." The researchers describe "clear associations" between office work performance and indoor environment conditions, which as Fast Company observed, further evidences the productivity power of the thermostat.

What the chilliness does, Widrich notes, is keep you distracted: Feeling cold means you'll be summoning energy to keep warm, rather than spending it on something more useful.

So how do you make the most of light and temperature?

  • Rise with the roosters: If you sleep in past sunrise, you're missing out on health- (and productivity-) promoting sunshine.
  • Bring a heater: No matter what the thermostat is set at, heating won't be distributed. So station one at your desk.
  • Step up your light game: Lensed/indirect lighting has long been linked with productivity, so upgrade your bulb and get to (better lit) work.

And while you're add it, try adding some plants or an avant garde rocking chair.

The science of how temperature and lighting impacts our productivity

Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. You can follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Evan Leeson]

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11 Comments

  • Timothy Work

    NO SHIT. I've noticed getting headaches around them since I was a little kid. I fucking hate those soul suckers

  • Rob Watson

    In a well-designed space, such as those that are certified to LEED, fluorescent lighting will always be a supplement to well-designed--generally indirect--daylighting strategies that provide useful light instead of glare and views to the outdoors, both of which have been shown to improve productivity.

    I'm a cold office person, but hate over air conditioned spaces with a passion. I will doff my jacket before I lower the temperature. With regard to personal heaters, they are an energy-sucking fire hazard that should be banned from office spaces.  However, there is an all-too-real conflict between occupant preferences for indoor temperatures that in the short-run will need to be overcome by dressing intelligently (yes, you know your office will be as too cold/too hot as it was yesterday, so dress accordingly).

    Eventually, modern control and hybrid active/passive space conditioning systems will be the norm and our artificial Franken-offices will be a dimly remembered bad dream.

  • Ed Novak, CFM SFP

    I have several problems with this article.
    1. they claim "new research" - supports their claims, but they don't site it.
    2. why are they picking on fluorescent lights? The problem is that offices are over-lit, not under-lit and very few lighting control systems allow control to the fixture level that employees need. I represent technology that does that and it makes an amazing difference.
    3. the reason why people don't open the blinds is because it is too bright outside and it effects employees' ability to look at their computer screens. Our stupid architects in the country are still in lover with the out-dated glass curtain wall (it's cheap and easy) rather than studying the building siting and design a building with proper exterior covers (awnings) that would block most of the direct light and allow enough daylight to remove the blinds.
    4. Lastly, the author recommends that employees bring a heater to work. Not in my building - personal heaters are a hazard energy sucking device that should remain at home. If I find them in my facilities, they disappear.

  • NoisyAdam

    I must be an exception to the rule, because I like working in a cool office and find hot offices stuffy and unproductive. I don't worry about lighting because all the screens I use are backlit and as long as they are good quality screens I have no trouble.

  • Cindie Klein

    About Light:
    As a marketing director in a division of a Fortune 500 company, I had the janitor remove the flourescents above my desk and brought in my own small halogen lamp. This created that  'studio' feeling and made it much more enticing to work.

    The lighting in an enterprise (or home) plays a key role in the ambience
    of the place....but this is not about luxury. Atmosphere is a great
    energizer and productivity enhancer.

    I often tell clients:When you walk into a store that just "makes you feel good"- check the lighting: It's probably halogen lit.
    Supermarkets you feel like you want to run out are usually dominated by flourescents. 

    Rumor has it that the reason flourescents drain you are the very reasons companies choose it: They flicker on and off in tiny bursts many times per minute--thus they save money. This can exhausts the eyes. Myth? Don't know...but they do have that effect.

    There are types of light--other than sunlight, if you've been banished to the cubicle--that will enhance your worklife because of the quality of light they provide and the impact on your eyes, mind and mood. Halogens are excellent mood-enhancers (yes, more expensive and yes, worth it). This is why you see them at upscale restaurants and everywhere at elite jewelry shops- shining tiny little lights on each stone--the lighting elicits and enhances the natural light of the stone...check Tiffany's: There are probably lots of halogens, and few flouresencts.

    A friend mentioned full spectrum light bulbs as a great alternative, though I've never tried them, (they may be cost effective) because of the light they deliver to your eye. 

    I'm glad to see this article--and that what I sensed long ago is finally becoming accepted information.

  • loved reading your comment. Similar experiences myself where I've either turned off or down the light. Have you heard about SerraLux? they have products that redirect daylight indoors including mitigating the glare and keeping the view. full disclosure: client of mine. info at http://www.serraluxinc.com

  • Jess Magdefrau

    I had to change out my fluorescent lights in place of a nice lamp. Way more productive and get compliments on how "cozy" it looks in my office. Definitely a life changer!

  • Spencer Morgenthau

    Some good thoughts, but also some concepts I'd challenge. For example, you state in your comfort recommendations to "Bring a heater: No matter what the thermostat is set at, heating won't be distributed. So station one at your desk."

    A properly designed and functioning HVAC system should keep building occupants comfortable. Space heaters are comparatively inefficient and also will impact local thermostats and therefore will undermine the heating and cooling strategies employed by building automation technologies.

    I'm not saying we should work in discomfort. Rather I'm arguing for solving the problem instead of treating the symptom. If your building can not maintain comfort, it is likely that you could benefit from a retro-commissioning or system upgrade or redesign. These strategies not only improve comfort and productivity for all employees, but will often pay for themselves. Same story for lighting and building automation upgrades.

    It's a win-win-win: improving productivity, enhancing comfort and health, and reducing our operating costs and carbon footprint. Smart Buildings are Smart Business!

  • K-eM

    I'm sorry, but no matter how well an HVAC system is run there are places that are hotter and places that are cooler. People who sit right next to a south window are going to be hotter than the person 1 or 2 cubicles further away from the window and direct light. Someone sitting near an exterior door and right by the cold air return are going to be colder than someone sitting even one cubicle further away. There's no way to regulate those kind of temperature fluctuations with HVAC managment.

    My personal experience with fluorescents confirms the sleepy feeling and lower productivity. I would also argue that it probably affects people's moods as well. I know that when I have sunshine all day I'm a much more pleasent person (as well as more productive) to be around than when I've been under fluorescents all day.

  • Reader1985

    I don't think it's about ill functioning HVAC units. It's the result of all the over weight, middle aged managers keep the building, and all of its occupants, freezing cold because they're sweating at anything higher than 68 degrees. The entire point of my space heater is to undermine the cooling strategies employed in the office.