The paradox of modern office culture: coffee, climate and concentration

By: Vinay Venkatraman

10 Apr 2017

As an office worker, we spend about 2000 hours a year indoors in a dense & demanding environment. Offices pay attention to a lot of things: posture, the comfort of a good chair, coffee to fuel the concentration in the sea of fluorescent lights. With all of this in focus, the working environment gets least attention: how does temperature affect the worker, the acoustics and noise levels, the lighting and most importantly the air quality which has profound impact on us.

We can call this collectively, Indoor climate. Various research shows that indoor climate parameters affect productivity, well being and stress levels which lead to critical health issues and negative productivity. So before we indulge in more caffeinated drinks let’s consider the following parameters:

Air Quality

Humans do not have an acute sense of air quality. We do not sense bad air quality but research has shown that air composition affects air quality indoors. We breathe in oxygen and exhale Carbon Dioxide (CO2). CO2 is a very good indicator of poor air quality where there isn’t a good flow of fresh air. Higher concentrations of CO2 lead to headaches, loss of concentration, and fatigue. Imagine sitting in a meeting room without good airflow for a long and exhaustive meeting. We can imagine the impact of how bad we would feel as it has occurred at least once in our life.

Another indicator of good air quality are particulate levels. Very fine particles, miniscule in size, typically originating from copiers and printers or other machinery can penetrate and settle in the lungs leading to long term illnesses. These require precise instruments to detect but are crucial to long term health.

Finally, we have a group of compounds called, VOCs present as gases. These are a collection of various compounds from furnitures and paints. The smell of fresh paint or newly laid carpets in a building is a good example of lot of VOCs in the air - though not all VOC’s can be detected by smell alone. VOC’s tend to cause skin allergies, damage the liver, kidney and central nervous system. These compounds are also being studied as sources of carcinogens. Luckily VOC tend to disappear in over time in many cases but there are situations with elevated levels for longer periods, thus needing occasional monitoring.

Sensing all sources reliably at reasonable cost is difficult, but CO2 and particulates give us a good understanding of the indoor air quality. By measuring the levels continuously and working to mitigate the sources, the indoor air quality can be improved very quickly.

Optimal Acoustics

Silence, as in a typical library, can do wonders for concentration and productivity. In a sea of clickety keyboards, colleges talking and printers whirring, noise is usually poorly mitigated. Open offices or offices facing the streets are great examples where noise has significant influence. You can usually find noise-cancelling headphones and other gadgets on people’s desks as person strategies - but that should not be the case in well thought through offices.

Noise, can lead to a lot of long term issues varying from cardio-vascular diseases to other psychological effects according to the WHO. In addition, poor acoustics can actually impede communication and clarity of speech. A good indoor climate has good enough acoustics to not only enhance communication but also reduce noise where it shouldn’t be. Creating an ideal working environment requires good implementation of sound barriers and absorbers, separating noisy activities and growing plants to reduce the distractions caused by noise.

Thermal Comfort

Draft of air, the enemy of thermal comfort. One person wants the window to be open, while the other sitting on the other side of the same room feels uncomfortable. Most of us have our own internal thermostat where we work optimally. This differs from person to person but an unified temperature of 21-23C(69-73F) is considered optimum in an office. Common discomfort usually manifests in cold limb extremities or uncomfortably warm feeling which many try to adjust with suitable clothing - not very practical in all instances. With large and small office spaces, achieving uniform heating or cooling is quite difficult - requiring a high density of sensors and control systems. This category is quite easy to quantify but seems difficult to manage for offices due to strong personal preferences and our sensitivity to thermal changes.

Lighting

Lighting is perhaps the biggest influencer of mood and energy levels. Apart from being functional i.e task lighting there is a strong need to create enough tonality and variance to enhance a sense of comfort and engagement. Daylight helps moderate our circadian rhythm and with office workers spending a significant time of their lives indoors, any negative influence in our sleep cycles needs to be significantly reduced. The choice of light and the sources (i.e colour temperature, light intensity, volume of light and diffusion etc) can affect or impede our ability to concentrate and affects our psychological health.

A simple Checklist:

Based on our experiences, feedback from customers and gathered data using our sensors at Ambinode.com, we have created our personal checklist to track the indoor environment at your office:

  1. Air Quality
    • Does your office discuss automatic ventilation policies of rooms, how it works and timing?
    • Does your office have a policy of when and how long to open windows? Does it change with the seasons?
    • Does your ventilation adapt to number of people present?
    • Do you feel uncomfortable or have faced health issues which change as you step in or out of the office?
    • Do you use sensors to quantify the air quality?
  2. Noise
    • Are you conscious of noise levels? Do you hear keyboards clacking?
    • Are there provisions to minimise noise levels continuously or occasionally?
    • Do you personally use a headphone or a headset while working to counteract the noise?
    • Do you have a policy of taking phone-calls and ad-hoc discussions around the cubicles or tables?
  3. Thermal Comfort:
    • Does your office have a policy to discuss the temperature of rooms especially seasonal variations?
    • If you have individual heating/cooling can you regulate it effectively?
    • Are any sources of draft/leaks measured occasionally?
  4. Light
    • Do you have enough balance between artificial and natural lighting?
    • Are task-based lighting and ambient lighting that you switch between? On-desk lamps and overhead lighting for different tasks?
    • Are your monitors at a location where glare or high contrast is avoided

For further information you can also have a look at following exhaustive checklists:

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