Do Green Offices = Productive Workers?

Spring 2015

Green offices providing workers with access to clean air, daylight and more can improve employee productivity.

IS YOUR OFFICE bringing you down, with depressing lighting, stuffy air, temperatures that are too hot or too cold, no outdoor views or too much noise? These workplace factors not only make employees unhappy, they also make them less productive, according to a recently released report from the World Green Building Council (WGBC) titled “Health, Well-being and Productivity in Offices: The Next Chapter for Green Building.” Sponsored by JLL, the report offers a simple toolkit that businesses can use to measure the health, well-being and productivity of their buildings and to help inform financial decision making.

Employees have instinctively known for years that the physical features of an office can make them feel inspired, connected and energetic — or sluggish, isolated and less motivated. The WGBC report demonstrates just how much physical office space can directly affect employee productivity and describes five ways green offices can create better workplaces:

1) “I need some [clean] air.” Improving air quality can make a big difference in how office workers feel and function at work. According to the report, numerous studies show that high levels of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are common in building materials, make employees feel tired and less able to think clearly. In particular, a 2011 lab test mimicking an office with high levels of VOCs found that increasing ventilation improved workplace performance by 8 percent. Air temperature makes a difference, too; employee productivity declines by 4 percent when the office is too cold and by 6 percent when it is too hot.

2) The office worker’s new best friend: a pet plant. Biophilia, the concept that humans connect with other living things, is an emerging area of workplace design and good news for employees. A live plant can help lower stress, improve cognitive function and enhance creativity. In fact, a 2014 study conducted by the University of Queensland’s School of Psychology found that offices enriched with plants can boost productivity by 15 percent. Office workers should make sure there is a plant within sight of their desks and occasionally gaze around the office, as views of other people and the outdoors create visual breaks that make workers more productive. 

interior view of office kitchen

Natural light in Kemira North America’s offices not only makes employees happier, it also leads to higher-quality sleep that, in turn, boosts productivity. Photos: JLL Project & Development Services, “Every Building Tells a Story”

3) Let the sunshine in. Office workers should sit near a window or take a walk outside during the workday. This not only makes them happier, it also leads to higher-quality sleep that, in turn, boosts productivity. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that employees exposed to natural light slept 46 minutes longer — and more soundly — than their peers working in windowless offices. Many traditional office layouts only allow senior managers to have access to natural light. Workplace reconfigurations should ensure that everyone can “see the light.”

4) Dial down the decibels. Noise pollution is consistently reported as a major cause of workplace dissatisfaction. One 1998 study found that participants’ ability to memorize prose dropped by 66 percent when exposed to distracting noise. Offices should include a variety of workspaces so employees are empowered to work in both collaborative, discussion spaces and individual, heads-down ones, reducing excess noise and increasing staff productivity. 

5) “Give me some space.” In the quest to cut costs, many companies have adopted open office plans, “hot-desking” and other new workplace design concepts. Done well, these approaches can reduce a building’s carbon footprint while providing quiet, private workspaces, meeting areas and informal social spaces. When they are done poorly, however, employee productivity suffers across the board. Companies that create unique workplace strategies tailored to their corporate culture and business goals will have happier, more productive employees.

The challenge for employers is to quantify the relationship between environmental sustainability and employee productivity through data-driven measurements, and then use that data to create a workplace strategy as well as corporate social responsibility and business goals.

JLL uses its “Green + Productive Workplace” tool to compile scores for both sustainability and productivity measures in offices. It benchmarks these scores against other corporate scores, as well as the Dow Jones Sustainability Index criteria for an organization’s corporate real estate. Using those scores, the tool can pinpoint specific design elements or activities in need of improvement, and establish a baseline to reassess the offices every year. It helps companies maximize their use of space, reduce natural resource consumption, provide efficient workplaces and demonstrate proof of corporate social responsibility — while also improving employee engagement, wellness and productivity.

One client in the technology industry, for example, identified approximately 100 verifiable best practices aimed at conserving water, energy and other natural resources, and at reducing the company’s carbon footprint at each of its 26 corporate offices. To measure the impact of each office’s “greening” efforts on employee productivity, JLL applied the “Green + Productive Workplace” tool to the company’s office space. It found more than $160,000 in annual productivity gains in just one facility by adopting best practices to improve acoustics, ergonomics, flexible workspaces and hoteling.

Benchmarking how green office design elements affect employee productivity helps tenants, building owners and asset managers measure the previously unmeasurable — and to make business decisions that help their employees, their bottom line and the environment.

For more information:

Health, Well-being and Productivity in Offices: The Next Chapter for Green Building,” World Green Building Council

JLL’s Green + Productive Workplace