Equipped with mounting evidence about how workplaces impact employee productivity, companies have started to focus on building safe, functional spaces that promote creativity, collaboration, and efficiency for teams. Yet, even within this trend, air quality isn’t often discussed—it usually flies under the radar.
However, more and more research is showing that along with overall happiness and well-being, environmental factors like air quality, temperature, and noise have a measurable impact on productivity.
In this blog post, we explore the effects of environmental variables on employee performance and organizational success.
The Importance of Environmental Monitoring
Following COVID-19, back to work safety is top of mind for facilities teams as they prepare for reopening. Building owners and facilities managers typically monitor operations across sites, which can range from cleaning schedules to temperature control.
With Verkada's Environmental Sensors, teams can set custom thresholds to be instantly alerted via email or SMS if variables fall out of range.
Beyond general comfort in the workplace, certain industries—such as manufacturing sites—might need additional sensors that alert site managers when safe noise thresholds are surpassed. This prevents prolonged exposure to environmental conditions that can cause irreparable damage to health.
The legal implications of such hazards are vast, avoidable, and costly. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) often conducts on-site inspections without advance notice. An environmental sensor can automate recordkeeping for audits. Similarly, having a video security system in place can aid in both employee safety training and liability protection.
How Air Quality Affects Employees in Decision Making
In 2017, researchers from Harvard University, Syracuse University, and SUNY Upstate Medical discovered fascinating results after they exposed people to varying levels of air quality.
Some were in well-ventilated spaces, with low carbon dioxide levels of 600 parts per million. Others experienced typical workplace air (950 ppm). A final group spent their time in spaces with poorer air quality (1,400 ppm).
"We found that breathing better air led to significantly better decision-making performance among our participants. [Cognitive test scores were higher when] workers were exposed to increased ventilation rates, lower levels of chemicals, and lower carbon dioxide.” - Joseph Allen, Director of Harvard University's Healthy Buildings Program
Critically, the most notable findings were linked to the most important qualities we see in the workplace. "The results showed the biggest improvements in areas that tested how workers used information to make strategic decisions and how they plan, stay prepared, and strategize during crises,” wrote Allen.
Beyond the Harvard Business Study, a 2020 report from Vox noted there is a "growing literature on the cognitive impact of air pollution,” a problem shown to hurt the performance of workers, chess players, and even baseball umpires.
How Temperature Affects Workplace Productivity and Retail Sales
“We saw that temperature had an effect on workers,” wrote Allen. "When they worked under a standard comfortable temperature and humidity range, they performed better on the tests of decision making.”
This follows decades of research suggesting that high temperatures lower productivity and can even reduce sales in a retail environment. Studies show warm temperatures deplete performance on complex tasks, and decrease participants' willingness to make a difficult product choice.
Luxury brands have been keen to this for a long time and this is a big reason that luxury stores like Bergdorf Goodman are kept so cold compared to mass-market retailers like Old Navy.
The Impact of Noise on Performance Accuracy
For creative tasks, a moderate amount of noise (70 decibels—a little quieter than a vacuum cleaner 10 feet away) produced better results than listening to low noise (50 decibels—about the noise of a typical large office). As noise level increased to 85 decibels (a diesel truck driving by), the harder it was for participants to think.
The impact that noise has on productivity is clear. Studies across the board show that background noise is disruptive for cognitive tasks such as reading, staying attentive, and working with numbers. For the majority of people, results were better when these tasks were done in silence.
Improving Performance and Environmental Quality in the Workplace
The first step is to look at environmental indicators and see which ones may be causing issues. The good news is new sensor technology makes it easy to assess, monitor, and make improvements where necessary.
Verkada’s Environmental Sensors is an all-in-one solution for monitoring the conditions that could jeopardize employee health, safety, and productivity in any workplace. Simultaneously, Verkda's sensors measure air quality, temperature, humidity, motion, noise, and more. They are also compact and easy to install—coming online in minutes with no configuration required—but at the same time powerful and highly scalable.
The sensors measure and monitor for noise levels, temperature, humidity, and the U.S. Air Quality Index measures such as PM2.5 inhalable particles and total volatile organic compounds. If any predefined threshold is crossed, managers receive an instant alert to ensure that industry standards, regulations, and best practices are maintained.
Because sensors can be linked within the cloud-based Command software platform with video security cameras, site managers can even remotely monitor the location in real-time or view historical footage synched to the sensor data. This way, if there was a precipitating event, users will have full visibility into why the conditions changed.
Outside of OSHA laws and regulations, organizations have a responsibility towards maintaining a safe and healthy workplace for employees. Productivity and efficiency can quickly slip if the indoor environment falls outside the expected range.
Exactly how much do organizations stand to lose due to environmental hazards? Exact numbers differ depending on the organization, but it’s clear that investing in employees' well-being is well worth it in the long-run—especially when it results in a win/win for companies and their workers.