What really improves employee performance? Better accessibility and technology? Streamlined communication? Great company perks? While those things certainly don’t hurt, environmental features, like lighting and air quality, may play a bigger role than you ever imagined. A number of recent studies confirm that conventional office design could be slowly crushing employee productivity from within—and that “greening” spaces with selective materials and health-conscious decor could be the key to eliminating production lag.

As team leaders and innovative thinkers, we tend to reject elements that are out of our control. But subconscious environmental triggers influence us nonetheless, whether we want to admit it or not. Humans are keenly attuned to differences in light, color, and air quality—and in your office, strategically adapting surroundings to mirror natural environments may be the difference between a team that just does the bare minimum and one that’s hitting it out of the park. In particular, if you want to see improved performance—and return on investment—pay attention to your building’s lighting, decor, and air quality. 

Daylighting Offices for Improved Employee Efficiency 

The same circadian rhythms that govern sleep patterns impact awareness and activity as well. In other words, if your employees aren’t sleeping well, they’re probably not performing well, either, and vice versa. And light exposure plays a massive part in that process. The type of light—and even the color and intensity—affects physical and neurological activity.

In a literature review, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that daylighting offices significantly affected not only employee productivity, but also absenteeism and overall health. Specifically, views of natural greenery were associated with improved concentration—particularly when it came to tasks that participants found to be boring or monotonous. Real-world results seem to back up those finds. For instance, when Lockheed Martin remodeled their offices to include daylighting features, they witnessed a 15 percent bump in employee productivity, according to the same NREL review.

Unfortunately, more natural light can come at a cost. Any time you widen an opening in a building’s outer envelope, you place yourself at risk for heating and cooling losses, which drive up energy spending. Conditioned air slips through small cracks in the window assembly—and even makes its way through the glass itself, if your windows are inefficient. An airtight assembly and high-performance glazing system come with a higher associated cost, but businesses traditionally make up that expense in energy savings. Consider this staggering statistic: In 1990, inefficient windows in commercial buildings cost businesses at least $20 billion. And when you factor in the added value in improved production—not to mention local government and utility rebates that may be available to businesses—new windows seem like a very smart buy, indeed. 

Green Your Lean 

In many collaborative environments, cubicles have been all but replaced by minimalist open-plan office environments. Meant to stimulate productivity, these “lean” offices are as stingy on decorative furnishings as they are on walls. The popularity of the lean office is not surprising, given that interior design trends have swayed heavily toward minimalist aesthetics in the past 10 or so years. The dominant attitude now is that we need less—less clutter, less pomp and flourishes.

And clutter does affect productivity. A busy, cramped, and disorganized office space bombards the visual cortex with excess stimuli, which compete for our attention in the background, making it much harder to focus on the monitor in front of us.

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It would be easy, given these findings, to assume that a Spartan office would eliminate the problem entirely, but as with most neurological data, the issue is never as simple as it seems. A space that’s too sparsely decorated could potentially have the opposite effect, particularly if design efforts have eliminated natural elements like potted plants.

Just as outdoor greenery affects productivity, indoor plant life seems to boost workers emotional, physical, and cognitive health. For instance, Reuters reported on a University of Exeter study in which participants were asked to complete timed tasks in various office environments. Employees who were exposed to plant life while they worked had a 15 percent increase in productivity over those who did not.

The reason for the difference? Plants act as natural filters, drawing potentially harmful chemicals out of the air around them, and replacing them with oxygen. In small quantities, elevated oxygen stimulates mental clarity. Likewise, green spaces have been associated with boosted memory retention, another likely factor. 

As Air Quality Improves, So Does Employee Performance 

Volatile organic compounds (VOC), chemical fumes present in building interiors, have been the subject of a debate between environmentalists and building scientists. These compounds exist in a huge range of home finishings and materials—paint, stains, furniture, you name it. The jury’s still out on VOCs, but improved air quality does seem to heighten cognitive performance. In one Harvard study, for instance, researchers tracked participants across three different neurological functions: their ability to respond to crises, to strategize, and to effectively use information. When workers were placed in rooms with optimized air quality, their performance was markedly improved.

Unfortunately, achieving ideal air quality in modern offices is complicated. For instance, VOCs are in everything—even basil, technically—so to completely eliminate them would be incredibly difficult. However, replacing toxic paint with VOC-free finishes is a good place to start, as is examining building ventilation systems and HVAC filtration. In fact, just replacing HVAC filters once a month can make a distinct difference. Regular unit maintenance also improves system performance, which is a win for energy consumption numbers—and your bottom line.