It’s all too easy to take where we work for granted, but did you know the light levels, temperature, humidity and even the air quality inside offices can have a huge effect on our lives at work – and how productive we’ve been at the end of the day?

Take office lighting. Long gone are the days when fluorescent strip lights were the norm in workplaces, but even in a world of LED lights, research shows that not just any light will do, and that, for optimal performance, the tone of light should be adjusted throughout the day.

This is called circadian, or human-centric, lighting, which describes the way natural daylight changes from first thing in the morning to sunset and into the night, with lighting automatically adapting to the time of day to ensure tone and brightness changes throughout the day.

Although we like to think our technological world has allowed us to break away from nature, humans are diurnal, meaning we come awake when it gets light and get sleepy when darkness falls. This is because structures inside our brain called pineal glands secrete a hormone called melatonin, which is also known as the sleep hormone and which increases at night and reduces in the daylight. This is what controls our crucial body functions, such as digestive system, body temperature and alertness, ensuring they follow the same circadian rhythm in order to create a healthy cycle of rest and activity.

The pineal gland is responsive both to information it receives concerning the intensity of daylight and also the nature of the light it receives. When there is bright short-wave blue light in the morning and in the middle of the day it reduces melatonin levels but then steadily increases them as the light gets softer and warmer into the afternoon and evening before finally getting dark.

Studies show that we are at our healthiest when experiencing circadian lighting, which is why being under harsh unrelenting neon strip lighting all day long plays havoc with workers’ circadian rhythms, especially those who work into the evening. This can cause sleep problems, in the same way as sleep can be affected when we look at an electronic device emitting blue light just before bed, along with other issues such as diabetes, obesity, depression, cardiovascular disease and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Many companies have already replaced strip lighting and traditional luminescent lights with LED lights, which also use less energy, but they should maximise any daylight their workspace receives from outside in order to give humans’ circadian rhythms just what they need naturally.

They can free up the light by keeping windows free from obstructions and using window coverings such as blinds which can be pulled back fully during the day. Areas of the building that are close to windows and well-served by daylight should be prioritised as places for staff to gather or hold break-out meetings. A light colour scheme on the walls, meanwhile, will maximise the ambient lighting and spread it around the building.

In areas where daylight is less plentiful, then lighting technology comes into play. While companies could use simple dimmers to lessen or increase light levels across the office, at minimum they should be looking into daylight harvesting, so that lights closest to the source of natural daylight are dimmer than those further away. This ensures workplace lighting is as natural as possible, but also reduces energy consumption.

For those willing to invest, there are intelligent lighting control systems called human-centric lighting, which adjusts the intensity and tone of the lighting lighting throughout the day. It can also be used to create different light at different places in the workplace – bright white for production locations and softer tones for a more relaxed feel in break-out zones, for example.

But this is only the start of the story, because comfort levels at work depend on other factors too, including humidity.
Most people are aware that temperature is important at work, and studies show that most people are comfortable in an environment where the temperature is set at around 23 degrees C. However, studies also show that the relative humidity level is 30% to 60% – where 100% is the water vapour content of a forming cloud and 0% is totally desiccated air. Either side of this, people will feel uncomfortable and productivity will drop.

Above 60% humidity, mould will grow around windows, potentially releasing harmful spores into the air and, in conjunction with warm temperatures, it can make people sweat and feel tired and lethargic. It is also harmful to electronic equipment. Below 35% and people will start to complain about itchy eyes, sore throats and dry noses, while low humidity levels are also associated with static electricity.

Happily, both aspects can be countered with good ventilation and de-humidifiers and even a few pot plants in the case of a too-dry office. Technology, meanwhile, can be used to constantly monitor the workplace environment by using sensors, which send signals indicating when to adjust the ventilation, air conditioning and heating systems – or simply opening a door or window – to ensure that the same temperature and humidity is maintained throughout the day.

Finally, another environmental factor which often goes unrecognised is air quality and pollutants. A study from the Harvard School of Public Healthy showed poor air quality can affect the cognitive functioning of employees, including slower response times and the ability to focus, thanks to the effect of fine particulates and carbon dioxide levels in the air. The research showed that the cognitive functioning of three people working in an average-sized but badly ventilated meeting room was impaired after just 45 minutes because of the increase in carbon dioxide levels.

Particulates, meanwhile, are costly, to people’s health and to their employers. Not only can airborne contaminants come from building materials, furniture and cleaning products, poor air quality is also linked to pollution in cities, meaning that badly ventilated workplaces can trap in particulates, which are then breathed in by workers during the day.

The damage this causes – particulates are linked to asthma, stroke and even diabetes – has been linked to an increase in sick days, equating to around six million work days lost in the UK each year. The problem can be alleviated by improving ventilation, fitting air filtration devices and also by fitting sensors which can monitor air quality levels that – if linked to the internet – can send notifications to facilities managers when levels start to become a concern, prompting them to take action.

The sensors can even be linked to the devices via the internet so that adjustments can be made automatically, while equipment such as movement sensors can be used to monitor occupancy levels so that the air flow through the building can be controlled in accordance with the numbers of people present in the building.

Whether through taking some simple steps or investing in technology, there are plenty of ways companies can ensure that their staff’s health and wellbeing is addressed at all times.

Tom Erskine
Business development manager at Scenariio | Website | + posts

Tom is Business Development Director at Scenariio, which is based in Derby and specialises in providing smart technology to transform the performance of buildings. He has along history of working in marketing, business development and inward investment and has a passion for regeneration, real estate and innovation.