Bug bears at work:whether it’s people hogging a conference room for a 1:1 meeting; loud, personal conversations being taken on the main office floor; or smelly snacks being eaten at desks, we all have them. And some office bug bears can have a much larger impact on productivity than you might think. At Where We Work, we have conducted numerous workplace satisfaction surveys across different sectors of business, and we have found the same three complaints cropping up time and time again. Lighting, noise and temperature. You may find yourself nodding in agreement here, dwelling on how your office space doesn’t have much natural light, is too noisy and a bit cold. So, what is the real impact of low satisfaction in these areas, and what can we do to improve our working environments in relation to them?
Let there be light
Lighting in an office can have a powerful impact; headaches, fatigue and eye strain, like watery or burning eyes, can be caused from too much or too little light at work. Most workers will be familiar with the fluorescent-flooded, minimally windowed workspace and recent research found that the provision of ‘good’ lighting, both natural and artificial, can assist in minimising fatigue and increase worker productivity. (1) The study found that people who had natural light shining on their work stations were "significantly more alert" at the beginning of the evening, whereas the sunlight deprived were "significantly sleepier". The study concluded with the point that even short-term afternoon lighting conditions have an impact on task performance at this time of day, which explains the 4pm slump many can experience at work. (2)
In addition to this, residents in the UK are relatively susceptible to SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). This is due to the fact we are situated in the higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere and experience large changes in light levels between summer and winter.(4) This is
a phenomenon we are (sadly) seeing first hand at the moment: the days are getting shorter and darkness looms earlier everyday – and this is only going to become more pronounced when the clocks go back this month. Our winters bring with them periods of dark, gloomy weather which can reduce the amount of light we experience dramatically, and therefore have a profound effect on our bodies.
So how can we provide better light in our offices and mitigate these effects?
Natural lighting is a superior option to any form of electric lighting. Unfortunately, depending on your workspace, natural light is not always going to be a viable option. Take advantage of it when you can and set up your office furniture accordingly. Many office designs consist of meeting rooms around the outside of the building, which blocks the natural light from reaching the main office floor where workers are spending most of their day.
When it comes to overhead lighting, it’s usually best used in conjunction with their light sources. For those working in an office with fluorescent overhead lights, adding ambient lighting may help to reduce any discomfort experienced working under fluorescent lighting.
If your office lacks sufficient natural and overhead light, you may want to consider adding task lighting to employee desks. Tasks lights are small lamps, used to provide extra lighting where staff feel they need it. These can also come in the form of LED task lights made to emulate the look of natural light.
Look out for glare, as it can be extremely hard on the eyes. There are two types of glare: reflected glare, which can come from computer monitors or glossy furnishings, and direct glare, which is caused by direct sunlight or by light fixtures being in the wrong place. In order to reduce glare, move light fixtures so that light reflected by them is reflected away from you. (5)
It’s getting hot in here
For thousands of years, humans have battled with the elements to achieve a comfortable room temperature. People tried all sorts of tricks to keep cool, from hanging wet mats outside their windows to having slaves fan air over a pile of snow through a hole in the ceiling. And in colder climates, we crammed people like sardines into tiny huts filled with smoke from a log fire in an attempt to keep warm. Now fast-forward to 2017 and a glacial breeze or warm flow of air can be yours at the flick of a switch (or the turn of a dial).
And yet, most office workers still aren’t happy. A 2015 study (6) of 129 workers found that 42% of people think their building is too warm, while 56% think it’s too cold. So, what are the impacts of this temperature related unhappiness? There are some serious financial implications – 2% of office hours in the UK are wasted by battles over the thermostat, which costs the economy more than £13bn each year.(2) When workers are comfortable, you get a boost to job satisfaction, productivity and collaboration. Ambient temperature can also do much more than just influence productivity – it actually has the power to change the way that you think. Research has shown that warm environments are better for creative thinking, while cooler workplaces are thought to help keep people more alert when carrying out more repetitive or monotonous tasks.
However, it is important not to let the temperature drop too much. A Cornell study found that when temperatures were as low as 20°C, employees made 44% more mistakes than when the temperature was 25°C. The researchers described "clear associations" between office work performance and temperature, stating that coolness keeps you distracted: feeling cold means you’ll be using energy to keep warm, rather than spending it on something more useful (2) (like paper work).
Even more surprising still, is the research that found that ambient temperature has a direct impact on our ability to collaborate. A small study of 33 people found that those in warmer rooms are more likely to harbour warm feelings about those around them. Even holding a hot cup of coffee encourages workers to judge others as more generous and caring – while iced coffee leads to the cold shoulder. (2)
Given all of this contrasting information, what is the best office temperature? It’s going to be a next to impossible task to get a temperature which keeps everyone happy, but current research is saying that the best office temperature lies somewhere between 22 and 24°C. Take it from Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore, who passionately believed the best temperature to be exactly 22°C. When he was asked the key to the economic success of the tropical country, he gave an unexpected reply: air conditioning. (3)
Office noise can be worse than it sounds. Some workers can cope with high levels of noise and still get on with their work, but for most a noisy environment can be very distracting and stressful. Numerous studies have found that noise impacts the bottom line by reducing the productivity of staff. Productivity takes a hammering at an estimated cost in Europe of £30bn due to excessive noise (7) and one study looking into this area found that workers can be up to 66% less productive when exposed to just one nearby conversation. With 70% of offices now being open plan (7), our offices are imposing more distracting noise on workers more than ever before.
According to The Sound Agency, these background conversations have the potential to distract us entirely. Humans have the bandwidth to cope with roughly 1.6 conversations (8), so if you’re in an open plan office overhearing two or three conversations then you’re going to be distracted. Even if you don’t want to listen, you have to. We don’t have earlids; just one nearby conversation will mean you have just 0.6 left to listen to your own inner voice. And aside from being distracting and hampering our productivity, noise in the office also has the power to affect us physically – by raising our blood pressure, increasing our heart rates and contributing to hearing loss.
But it’s not all doom and gloom – there are solutions to counteract the problem of noise in the office. Here’s some of Where We Work’s top tips:
Try providing small pods for staff to dive into if they need. These can be as simple as four walls with one seat and a desk. This will give staff a space to speak in private and make confidential phone calls without the whole office hearing, or get on with some heads-down, concentrative work without being distracted by the noise of open plan. (9)
Locating noisy teams away from quiet ones and considering staff personalities when making seating plansProviding a ‘quiet area’. In larger offices, this could be a designated floor, or just a corner in smaller offices. This should be a space for solo, quiet work, with a ban on phones and conversations in this area.Simple tricks such as not providing hands-free speakerphones in open plan offices can have a very positive impactConsider desk density when planning the layout of your office – high density environments generate more noise distraction
To sum up: it’s unlikely that you are ever going to mix the perfect office recipe with a temperature that keeps everyone happy, great lighting throughout, and a solution to mitigate office noise (if you do find this ideal mix, publish a book – you’ll make a fortune). But if you follow a few of these tips, you should find the negative impacts are softened.