In the first office I worked in, I sat at a desk that faced the wall; there were no windows. While the second office I worked in had windows, there weren’t very many, and if we looked out them, we only saw planes taking off and arriving at the airport nearby. After that I worked in an office that had windows, but we were discouraged from looking out of them. (We did anyway.) Another office had an atrium—a vast improvement from the others. While some of these offices had plants, others did not. Most of them were very cold from the constant air conditioning. If I were to guess how ‘green’ the office environments were, I’d say probably not very.
What does that mean? I assumed it just meant it was a typical office. However, according to a new study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, SUNY Upstate Medical University and Syracuse University, those who work in typical office environments have lower cognitive functioning scores “in crucial areas such as responding to a crisis or developing strategy” than those “who work in well-ventilated offices with below-average levels of indoor pollutants and carbon dioxide (CO2).”
The research involved a double-blind study in which employees’ experiences in “green” and “non-green” environments were looked at. Neither the participants nor the analysts knew the test conditions so that biased results could be avoided. “The findings suggest that the indoor environments in which many people work daily could be adversely affecting cognitive function—and that, conversely, improved air quality could,” the press release states.
Researchers looked at carbon dioxide, chemicals and ventilation impacts on the cognitive function of employees, due to the fact that energy-efficient buildings are increasingly airtight, allowing for lower indoor environment quality, according to the press release – a possible reason as to why when one person gets sick at work, it’s often a snowball effect.
To test cognitive function, researchers looked at the performance of 24 participants. These participants consisted of various professionals, including managers, designers, architects, engineers, programmers and creative marketing professionals. The group was asked to work in a controlled environment set up by the researchers. They were monitored for six days in November 2014 while they did the work they’d typically do on a day-to-day basis. During that time, “researchers exposed them to various simulated building conditions: conventional conditions with relatively high concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as those emitted from common materials in offices; green conditions with low VOC concentrations; green conditions with enhanced ventilation (dubbed “green+”); and conditions with artificially elevated levels of CO2, independent of ventilation. At the end of each day, they conducted cognitive testing on the participants,” the press release reveals.
The result? Those who worked in the “green+” environments had scores that were double those who worked in the conventional environments. Researchers also discovered that when CO2 levels increased, average cognitive function scores decreased.
“We have been ignoring the 90%. We spend 90% of our time indoors and 90% of the cost of a building are the occupants, yet indoor environmental quality and its impact on health and productivity are often an afterthought,” Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science, director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment, and lead author of the study, said in the release. “These results suggest that even modest improvements to indoor environmental quality may have a profound impact on the decision-making performance of workers.”