Is there a link between green workplaces and higher productivity? Science says “yes.”
According to several recent studies, workspaces that meet “green” standards contribute to the better cognitive functioning needed to think clearly and work efficiently.
So how exactly does this work – and just what makes a workplace green? And short of constructing an entirely new office building or shop, how can organizations “green” their spaces with an eye to improving productivity?
Here’s a quick overview of what to know about green workplaces and how they help boost productivity.
According to scientific research and carefully controlled experiments, improved air quality helps you think more clearly. And since many of us spend much of our time working indoors, the quality of our environment plays an important role in our ability to complete our work.
A 2016 joint study between Harvard University and SUNY Upstate Medical University found a 26.4% increase in cognitive test scores of participants working in “high-performing, green certified” buildings. They also had 30% fewer “sick-building” symptoms than participants in non-green certified buildings.
“We spend about 90% of our time indoors, and buildings have a unique ability to positively or negatively influence human health,” says Julia Raish, Division Lead at Paladino and Company, a sustainability consulting firm. “Maintaining a healthy environment and increasing human performance is central to increasing quality of life. And more importantly, it’s central to business performance.”
Achieving “green certification” means a building has met specified requirements as stated by the organization granting the certificate. These requirements address some or all of the following: the indoor environmental quality (IEQ) including ventilation, CO2 levels, presence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), thermal comfort, internal air quality (IAQ), and lighting.
Commonly seen green building standards include:
In order to become “green certified,” visit the organization’s website to learn about the requirements. Raish points out that some of these organizations now also evaluate the human impact as well as the environmental performance of green workplaces.
“GRESB has long looked at environmental performance, and with its recent partnership with Fitwel, there’s an added dimension of wellness,” she says. “And LEED, which has always focused on the building performance, is beginning to address the human factors within those buildings through a working relationship with WELL.”
According to Raish, the science and practice around green building has become a “much richer combination of sustainable design, human wellness, and climate resilience.”
Recently, groundbreaking research has found a direct correlation between indoor environmental quality and cognitive function, which impacts the productivity levels of workers.
A landmark 2015 study carried out by researchers from Harvard University and published in the Environmental Health Perspectives Journal looked at the impact of air quality on cognitive ability. For 6 days, 24 professionals from a variety of backgrounds worked together in an office where air quality could be monitored and adjusted.
The results? When working under conditions that met the LEED standard for air quality (green), workers scored 61% higher on cognitive functioning than those participants working under conventional office air quality standards. And when the air ventilation conditions were set to twice the LEED requirements (green +), the workers scored 101% higher.
It gets better. The “information usage” – or ability to gather and apply information to a specified goal – also improved significantly in the green and green+ groups, increasing a whopping 172% and 299% respectively. Additionally, the ability to strategize – including the ability to plan, prioritize and sequence action were 183% and 288% higher among participants in the green and green+ conditions than they were in the office with typical air quality.
As Raish points out, this study focused solely on improved air quality, yet green workplaces include other aspects as well. “When we consider the cognitive improvements that result from additional improvements such as sunlight, social interaction, biophilic design, and increased movement, the business case becomes even stronger,” she says.
To consider the impact of the total “green” experience on your wellbeing, pay attention to how you feel when you walk through a parking lot. Then compare it to how you feel when you walk through a park. “If you are like most people, you feel better in the park,” Raish says. “ What you may not realize is that your memory is better if you walk through the park as well.”
Another recent study proves this point. The research, carried out by Stanford University, compared the impact of nature on memory, which plays an important role in productivity. In this study, participants took a 50-minute walk in either an urban or natural setting around the Stanford, California area. It found decreased anxiety and improved memory for the nature walkers compared to the urban walkers.
Creating a green workspace doesn’t necessarily require moving your headquarters out to a forest, or embarking on an expensive and intensive renovation. Instead, Raish advises focusing on opportunities to “create interactions between people and nature in order to achieve the happiness effect that spending time in the natural world provides.”
For example, introduce a water feature, such as a portable fountain or waterfall in your reception area. Add indoor plants and greenery, or even an aquarium with tropical fish. Raish also suggests using nature in your decor. “Bring in natural forms like botanical motifs, arches, domes, and biomimicry,” she says.
Pay particular attention to the lighting in your work areas. “Natural light is invigorating, and supports the body’s natural rhythms,” says Raish. Light pools, filtered lights, and simply opening your office window blinds can help increase sunlight exposure to boost cognitive functioning. Adjustable LED lighting that changes through the day can help mimic natural daylight progression, which impacts our bodies’ natural circadian rhythms.
When choosing what to include in your “green” workplace, don’t forget to make choices that align with your business culture.
“In all cases, the features and programs should link directly to the business’s operating goals and values,” says Raish. And take note, greener workplaces offer more than just the opportunity to promote productivity. You could soon find yourself with an office full of happier, healthier, and more engaged workers.
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