ResearchStudy reveals C02 levels in offices are ‘silently damaging UK productivity’

A new study concludes that a failure to regulate environmental conditions is negatively impacting workers’ cognitive functions.
Content Team6 years ago7 min

The results from the first-ever practical study into UK indoor office environments has revealed that worker performance declines when CO2 levels are high and temperatures are too warm or cold.

The report’s authors hope that a greater understanding of the detrimental impact of CO2, as well as fluctuating temperatures, on employee outputs will lead to concerted action to improve air quality in offices.

Backed by EMCOR UK, the facilities management company, the two year research initiative was led by academics at Oxford Brookes University and LCMB Building Performance, and supported by Innovate UK – the government agency tasked with boosting innovation in the UK economy. It forms part of the Whole Life Performance Plus (WLP+) project, which brings together a consortium of leading experts in building performance, property development and facilities management.

Workplaces taking part in the study – including NATS 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 used to calculate the impact of CO2 and temperature on perceived productivity in those workplaces[1].

The big numbers

With lower CO2 levels, employees’ test scores improved by up to 12%. And in one of the buildings tested, people worked 60% faster with reduced CO2 concentrations, completing tests in a mean time of 8.2 minutes, compared with 13.3 minutes with more CO2 in the atmosphere.

Workers were able to work up to 60% faster in lower CO2 concentrations

Too often due to energy efficiency concerns, the opening of windows in offices is highly controlled, meaning that the quality of the indoor atmosphere is heavily reliant on air conditioning. This means, for example, when new offices are built, they are ‘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, and often lead to offices feeling stuffy – which can mistakenly be put down to high temperatures. In these instances increased energy usage is expended on cooling via air con systems and the unnecessary creation of additional greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. For example, closer monitoring of the CO2 levels during the study revealed that fan speeds could be significantly decreased – by up to 50% – without adversely affecting the CO2 levels in the workspace.

Importantly this misconception also limits the amount of fresh air that is introduced into offices and other work spaces. This is especially pressing, when coupled with research showing that UK office workers only spend a maximum of fifteen minutes outside in addition to their commutes[2].

Solving the ‘productivity puzzle’ is a strategic goal of both public and private sector organisations – with different variables across education and industry under consideration for creating improvements. Despite 10 years of tactics to help close the gap, this is the first time environmental factors have been considered.

On the findings EMCOR UK Chief Executive Keith Chanter said:
“Monitoring CO2 levels and improving the indoor office environment is one solution that has been overlooked for too long. These findings must serve as a wake-up call to business leaders that their workspaces are a source of competitive advantage and CO2 levels need to start being monitored as standard in offices across the country. The use of data analytics and innovative technologies now offer businesses the simple solutions needed to keep track of levels and regulate different environments. Not only is ensuring employees feel happy and healthy at work the right thing to do, it’s a fundamental element of boosting productivity in today’s modern office spaces.”

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[1] The WLP+ Project compiled task performance, self-assessment and business orientated metrics from the study locations and benchmarked them against interventions which adapted the environment to create a benchmark and improvement tool for offices

[2] Ambius Consumer Study

Content Team

Work in Mind is a content platform designed to give a voice to thinkers, businesses, journalists and regulatory bodies in the field of healthy buildings.

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