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Breath of life

Keith Chanter, CEO of EMCOR UK, discusses the impact of poor office environments, particularly high CO2 levels, on worker performance

Installing an office slide and ping-pong table, replacing chairs with beanbags and upgrading the coffee machine are some of the more widely reported methods that UK businesses are using to encourage their teams to be happier and more productive at work. Of course, all have value, in their own unique ways, but businesses should also look at more practical ways of boosting productivity.

It is time for a fresh approach. We all instinctively know that poor office conditions lead to dissatisfied, unproductive and unwell building occupants. Until recently, the correlation between the quality of indoor environmental conditions and worker productivity had only been studied in the laboratory, not in real-life working conditions. This meant that the true effect of the likes of noise, humidity, light and carbon dioxide on British workers had never been fully explored.

According to the latest Office for National Statistics report, measured between July and September 2018, productivity only increased by 0.2 per cent in the UK compared to the year before. Solving the productivity puzzle has been a strategic goal of both public and private sector organisations for years, yet only now are environmental factors coming under the spotlight. Facilities managers have an opportunity to lead this discussion and highlight just how important the interior environment is to the overall functionality of organisations.

Two years ago, a consortium of partners, including an EMCOR UK team and backed by the government, embarked on the first-ever practical study into UK indoor office environments. Led by academics at Oxford Brookes University and LCMB Building Performance, the study was supported by Innovate UK – the government agency tasked with boosting innovation in the UK economy. The study forms part of the Whole Life Performance Plus (WLP+) project, which brings together a consortium of experts in building performance, property development and facilities management.

Workplaces taking part in the study – including NATS (formerly National Air Traffic Services) and Kings College London – were tested over two years, with internet of things (IoT) enabled sensors installed to monitor fluctuating CO2 levels. During this time employees were sent numerical, proofreading and Stroop tests via email up to three times a day as part of the study. A methodology was then applied to calculate the impact of CO2 and temperature on perceived productivity in those workplaces.

With lower CO2 levels, employees’ test scores improved by up to 12 per cent. In one of the buildings tested, people worked 38 per cent faster with reduced CO2 concentrations, completing tests in a mean time of 8.2 minutes compared to 13.3 minutes with higher CO2 concentrations. Such conclusive findings highlights the need for employers to take the monitoring and measurement of environmental conditions seriously.

In most modern offices, the opening of windows is highly controlled, meaning that the quality of the indoor atmosphere is heavily reliant on air conditioning. This means, for example, when offices are built or refurbished they are often ‘sealed’ and air conditioned as standard. Even if buildings meet ventilation standards, this doesn’t mean that high CO2 levels are being effectively detected and reduced. Higher CO2 often leads to offices feeling stuffy, which can mistakenly be put down to high temperatures. This in turn leads to more cooling via aircon systems, consuming extra energy and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

But while cooling may mean the office feels fresher, it doesn’t lower the CO2 level. For example, meeting rooms, which are often sealed and occupied for prolonged periods, can be allowed to reach up to 3000ppm CO2 – affecting concentration and productivity. Yet CO2 levels are not recorded with enough granularity by traditional building management systems to evaluate the effect on occupants. For FMs responsible for indoor conditions, this gives new meaning to ‘breathing life into buildings’; optimising CO2 levels should be integral to creating healthy and productive workplace environments.

About Sarah OBeirne

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