In the new, post-pandemic work era, focusing on employee wellness is a top priority, and this starts with getting workplace air quality, lighting, and temperature right, says Matthew Durdin, ABB ELSB Building Solutions, Global Director of HVAC Building Automation
Covid-19 has transformed the way people view and use the workplace. Hybrid working is now commonplace, and the pandemic has made employees hyper aware of the link between their wellness and their working environment.
While a consequence of this may be that not as much office space is needed today, employers know it’s paramount that space should feel safe, comfortable, and energising – to not only attract employees back to the workplace, but to get the best of them while there.
And the evidence suggests achieving this sweet spot is first and foremost about getting the basics right, such as heating, lighting, and indoor air quality. And for this, smart building technology and room automation has a solution.
Clean air is more complex than it seems
On average, people spend around 90 percent of their time indoors, and employees going into the workplace will be there for around a third of their day. Following the pandemic, people are more aware than ever of the impact of indoor air quality on public health and employee performance.
Poor indoor air quality can be caused by, among other things, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from various sources, including building materials, electronics, plants, and people themselves. Subquality air can lead to headaches, throat and eye irritation, lack of concentration and increased spread of viruses. In fact, several studies, including one by Purdue University in the USA, showed levels of many of these compounds are 10 to 20 times higher indoors than outdoors and that particle pollution is on average 3.5 times higher inside than outside.
As such, a 2022 report from the National Academies institute noted that effective management and monitoring of chemicals in the indoor environment is critical to human health.
Managing indoor air quality effortlessly
Here is where technology can help. VOCs and other air quality modifiers, such as humidity and carbon dioxide emitted from people’s breath, can be autonomously and continually monitored, and controlled by smart integrated building management systems.
Our air sensor technology, for example, uses real time data to monitor levels of all three of these modifiers to determine air quality. The results are displayed through a simple traffic light system: green for good air quality, red indicating high temperatures and/ or CO2 levels.
Similarly, our 4-in-1 sensors can also control heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning – and provide an app alert when conditions are less than optimal.
These systems take out the guess work around air quality. Facilities managers will know and be in control of the indoor environment or can delegate the job to the system itself; they can automatically make adjustments such as to blinds, temperature, ventilation and lighting, based on real-time information.
For example, fresh air is known to improve energy levels and concentration – this is why casinos pump it into their premises. To this end, sensors can automatically initiate rapid air exchange to refresh room air quickly and efficiently. This can help boost productivity by mitigating tiredness and limit the effect of VOCs and spread of airborne transmissible viruses. It will also support facilities to meet post-pandemic guidelines for air quality and circulation that include air purging strategies.
But it’s not just about meeting guidelines, these systems can help boost productivity by addressing factors impacting workplace performance. In a Harvard Business Review (HBR) survey of 1,601 workers, half of the employees said poor air quality makes them sleepier during the day, and more than a third reported up to an hour in lost productivity consequently. In fact, air quality and light emerged as the biggest influencers of employee performance, happiness, and wellbeing.
Getting light right
While the pandemic made other aspects of workplace wellness more of a priority, lighting is an important consideration. As documented in this report by City University London, there’s good evidence of an association between lighting and work performance and employee wellbeing. It suggests companies actively consider how lighting can reduce the likelihood of employee stress, absenteeism, and accidents. One way to do this is to consider people’s ‘circadian clock’ and to invest in lighting that can support this natural cycle. The circadian clock is an internally driven 24-hour rhythm that resets every day by the sun’s light/dark cycle. As the CDC notes, this clock responds to light as a signal to be awake and alert, and dark as a signal to sleep. It can affect a person’s motivation and productivity depending on their environment. For example, an employee located somewhere that’s dark and grey by mid-afternoon could experience a slump in productivity.
Human centric lighting as part of a smart integrated building management system can help prevent this. These systems can expertly create a light, bright West Coast of California feeling to counteract grey or darkness outside, supporting employee concentration. This could support productivity being maintained for around an extra two hours a day, which has been shown to tangibly boost a business’s bottom line.
Businesses embrace smart lighting solutions Companies are seeing the benefit. Electrical installation firm ELAB, at its administrative office building in Halmstad, Sweden, where winter sees on averages fewer hours of sunshine, the company decided to deploy ABB’s interface digital light control, the i-bus KNX DALI Gateway Premium. The system helped them achieve different colour temperatures – this refers to warmth and coolness of light –tailored to fit the time of day and the type of work being done in the various spaces, so they could always create the appropriate ambiance.
Similarly, a new state-of-the-art school, the Kattegatt high school, also in Sweden, is using the same system to bring light and brightness to it students – as well as energy savings. The more than 19,000 square meters premises is equipped with our KNX building automation system and all electric light units are installed with ABB’s DALI system. Using the automatic elements of the system, such as light shutting down in vacant rooms, the school has the potential to reduce electricity consumption for lighting by more than 85 percent compared with older, manually controlled luminaires.
If we follow the CBRE 1-9-90 rule – one percent is the cost of the building, 9 percent the cost of the space, 90 percent the cost of working in that space – in this respect, the energy savings and potential boost to productivity smart building systems can provide, for light management alone, make clear economic sense.
Getting the basics right to boost employee wellbeing.
What’s evident in the research is that, when considering how to improve workplace wellbeing, the basics shouldn’t be overlooked. This is what employees want employers to get right. In the HBR survey, 42 percent of recipients said they would rather personalise their work environment than opt for unlimited vacation – with temperature and lighting being top priorities.
Therefore, before considering yoga mats and tennis tables to boost employee wellbeing and office attendance, consider whether it would be best to start with a smart building solution instead.
Matthew Durdin is Global Director of HVAC Building Automation, ABB ELSB Building Solutions.
After qualifying as a building services design engineer with the CIBSE, Matthew spent a decade in hospital design before moving into building management systems technology. Matthew is an expert in all aspects of technology in the built environment as well as having practical supply chain experience.