The link between air quality and productivity
January 7, 2020
Team productivity is an issue at the forefront of any manager’s mind. Eliminating distractions, drinking plenty of water and taking regular breaks are the obvious solutions that come to mind: but rarely do people consider the quality of the air that they breathe as a contributing factor to their productivity.
Poor air quality can significantly hamper performance and impact even the most motivated teams.
A simple formula for productivity - more oxygen, less CO2
When a large number of people are working within a constrained or poorly ventilated space, they tend to deplete oxygen faster than it can be recovered. At the same time, breathing produces CO2, and this can accumulate to problematic levels, especially during a long working day.
Astronomer Adam Ginsburg brought a CO2 monitor to a packed lecture hall and took readings across the day. The CO2 levels shot up from 800ppm (parts per million) at 9.05am to over 1700ppm by only 10.20am. Ginsburg noticed the room became ‘noticeably stuffy’ at around 1500ppm.
High levels of CO2 can have a negative impact on the wellbeing and effectiveness of your team, causing symptoms such as drowsiness, headaches and nausea.
And even a relatively small increase can drastically alter cognitive ability and decision making. Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory made this summary in their review of the literature on this topic:
“There is substantial evidence that performance on challenging tests of decision-making and challenging flight simulations is worsened by [carbon dioxide] concentrations as low as 1,000 ppm.”
At the lecture hall in Helsinki where Ginsburg was monitoring CO2, the levels plummeted to below 600ppm when attendees simply left for a mid-morning coffee break and the windows were opened. Improving the O2 to CO2 ratio, either by opening windows if fresh air is available or through the ventilation system, is an effective way to give people a boost and protect them from harmful exposure.
Setting up a system to raise alarms when conditions change from your preferred parameters is a good way to avoid issues, allowing you to make changes to return your spaces to optimal working conditions.
Controlling temperature and humidity
Maintaining optimal air quality in your office environment is more important than you may realise: studies show that teams consistently operating in hot temperatures are more likely to suffer from occupational heat stress. Meanwhile, those working for prolonged periods in cold conditions can become more prone to general illness. Some HVAC systems unevenly distribute heat throughout buildings, leaving different areas with different temperatures.
The amount of moisture in the air should also be closely monitored since hot and humid conditions can stimulate the spread of mould and bacteria. Relative humidity control has been linked with Sick Building Syndrome, which can have a serious impact on the health and productivity of your team. In addition, valuable IT equipment can be damaged by humid environments as this can cause the accumulation of dust, electronic faults, and even corrosion. But it’s a tricky balance: low humidity can also dry out the mucus membrane that lines our respiratory tracts, leaving us more vulnerable to catching colds and other infections.
Following trends and establishing patterns
In some companies, poor air quality occurs only during the winter season while in other instances the concentration of oxygen could become critically low in the late afternoon. Spotting any recurring trends within your space is often the key to recognising underlying causes and prescribing the right long term solution. By analysing long-term trends, building and business owners can conclude whether problems can be resolved through modifying operating procedures.