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Can Healthy Buildings Really Improve Productivity?

Image of Clint Bradford
Clint Bradford

Americans spend a lot of time indoors. How much time? According to the EPA, the average American spends as much as 90 percent of their time inside. And a large percentage of that is spent at work. The challenge for facilities managers is to ensure time spent at work is as healthy as possible. 

Even before the pandemic, there was increasing awareness about the importance of healthy buildings. In addition to the positive effects on human health, research suggests that healthy buildings can influence behavior—including productivity. For building owners, technologies that create safer, more comfortable work environments are a wise investment in the well-being of employees and the future of your business.

Health Hazards in the Modern Workplace

While modern buildings have made great strides in energy efficiency, their design and materials present unique health challenges, particularly when it comes to air. One of the key ways to reduce energy use is by improving the airtightness of buildings. This ability to minimize interactions between indoor and outdoor environments can be highly successful in preventing waste, but it can also trap pollutants in buildings and compromise air quality

Common contaminants that can accumulate in modern buildings include:

  • Carbon monoxide
  • Personal care products 
  • Cleaning solutions
  • Molds and other biological agents
  • Ozone
  • Radon
  • Dander

These materials can create serious problems, ranging from eyes, nose, and throat discomfort, to dizziness, headaches, and fatigue. In more serious cases, indoor pollutants can increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, and respiratory disorders. And while some health effects manifest as distinct conditions, many are the result of sick building syndrome (SBS), a term “used to describe situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified.” All of these can impact your ability to perform at your best.

Healthy Buildings and Productivity: Looking at the Evidence

Shortly before the pandemic, Joseph Allen and John Macomber published a book called Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity. In the book, Allen, Director of the Healthy Buildings Program and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Macomber, Senior Lecturer at Harvard Business School, examined how healthy workplaces relate to productivity and, in turn, how that can influence businesses. 

“We aimed to better understand how to drive healthy building science into practice,” Allen and Macomber wrote in a 2021 Harvard Business Review article. “Locked in a global battle for talent, the business leaders we spoke with were eager to find new ways to attract, retain, and enhance the performance of their employees. Few of them realized that their buildings could play a vital role in the health of their business.” But their findings revealed that buildings can do just that. 

A few examples:

  • Every 1°F deviation in “optimal temperature” causes a 2% reduction in productivity.
  • Pollutants from a “dirty carpet” caused headaches and a 6.5% reduction in typing accuracy.
  • 57% of all sick leave is attributable to poor ventilation.

And these are just the effects related to air quality and thermal comfort—it does not take into account the deleterious impact of variables like poor water quality, noise pollution, and moisture. 

Other academics have produced similar findings. In a 2020 study by researchers at MIT and Maastricht University, workers in a building designed to promote health and well-being reported significantly reduced SBS symptoms, enhanced job satisfaction, and a 2% reduction in the prevalence of sick leave. Meanwhile, researchers from Harvard's Center for Health and the Global Environment found that workers’ cognitive function scores were 61% percent higher in green building conditions than in a conventional building. In green buildings with enhanced ventilation, the scores were 101% higher. These numbers suggest that healthy buildings can have a profound effect on both quantity and quality of work.

Additional Benefits of Healthy Buildings

While it is logical that feeling tired, having headaches, and missing work hurts productivity, it is hard to know exactly how much these factors influence productivity within each building or organization. What we do know is that employees desire a healthy workplace environment—and that makes a huge difference for employers selecting which buildings to return to after the pandemic

Being able to offer a healthy work environment helps companies attract new employees and retain valuable team members. For building owners, highlighting your efforts to protect occupant health can make your property more inviting to both employers and employees, particularly those demanding safer workspaces as they return to the office. At a time when many companies are expanding opportunities for remote work and reconsidering their office leases, a healthy building is a far more attractive option than conventional workplaces.

How Buildings Can Become Healthier

Creating healthy buildings that improve productivity and support business is a multifaceted process. WELL Building standards, for example, encompass seven different building attributes, including fitness, mind, and comfort. But making a building healthy doesn’t have to mean a complete overhaul. With the right approach and technologies, even legacy systems can become part of a strategy to protect occupant safety. 

By unifying building systems, adding IoT devices, and integrating advanced analytics, you will have a powerful tool for creating a safe indoor environment. This smart system will continuously monitor building conditions and functions and can make automatic adjustments according to your preferences. For example, ventilation can increase as a meeting room fills up, the temperature can be adjusted according to weather conditions, and air filtration can turn on when air quality drops below your desired level. While these may seem like small changes, they can have a meaningful impact on productivity and the wellness of employees. An intelligent analytics platform, like onPoint, also provides deep visibility into building performance via user-friendly dashboards and customizable reporting. This means that you can track KPIs, understand the effects of upgrades, and offer tenants objective data about the health of your building.

Innovative janitorial tracking software, like BuiltSpace, allows you to take another major step toward better health. As Allen and Macomber found, even clean carpets matter when it comes to productivity, and sanitation concerns are at the forefront of everyone’s mind as we begin the process of post-Covid recovery. BuiltSpace allows you to place QR codes anywhere in your building. Cleaning crews and maintenance staff scan these codes upon the completion of a task, creating a record of their work. Doing so allows you to verify cleaning work, refine sanitation strategies, and provide occupants with peace of mind.

By working with a partner who can integrate the latest technology into existing systems, you can give tenants what they want the most: a safer, healthier workplace that enhances productivity and helps their business succeed.

Buildings IOT offers state-of-the-art solutions to help you create healthy buildings that enhance productivity. Contact our team of experts to learn more about what we can do for you.



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