Coming to Our Senses: How Ergonomics Applies to Office Environments and Productivity

November 16, 2015 — Posted By Eric F. Frazier

Mention ergonomics and most people think of posture — specifically, sitting at work, which a recent survey found 86 percent of U.S. workers must do.

Between commuting, desk jobs and lounging at home, Americans sit an average of 7.7 hours a day.

The computer age has brought us keyboard trays and wrist rests for carpal tunnel syndrome.

Now, it has brought us standing and treadmill desks to combat the “sitting disease” of sedentary lifestyles.

Related Article: Reinstating Boundaries: The Agile Workplace

Ergonomics, “fitting the job to the worker,” is actually a broad discipline encompassing physical, cognitive, organizational and psychosocial factors that affect workplace well-being and productivity. Researchers from architecture, interior design, sustainability, psychology, communication and human resources are examining work environments and finding strategies to boost well-being and productivity that target our senses.

Lighten Up

Daylighting, the illumination of buildings by natural light to provide effective internal lighting, is the new watchword in office design. Open floor plans help bring more natural light to the interiors of large spaces, and there is evidence of productivity gains for workers near windows.

Today’s lighting technologies enable employers to tailor artificial light, both intensity and color temperature, to best suit the use of particular spaces. Light temperature is measured in Kelvin (K), and the number rises as light wavelengths cross the color spectrum from red (warm) to blue (cool). Early sunrise is about 2,000K, whereas overcast daylight is about 7,000K.

The article “How Lighting Affects the Productivity of Your Workers,” posted by MBA@UNC, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s online MBA degree, reports that working under “blue-enriched” light bulbs with a color temperature of 17,000K improves productivity. The blue light helps workers stay alert by lowering melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy.

Other strategies include using cool lighting in spaces where workers brainstorm, medium lighting in conference rooms where you want to maintain attention but foster camaraderie, and warm lighting in spaces where you want to encourage relaxation and promote trust.

Sound Strategy

Most office noise takes the form of distractions: keyboards clacking, co-workers yakking, phones ringing, printers whirring and indistinct music from the headphones your colleague has retreated behind. Distraction increases when noises are unpredictable and workers lack control over them. Concentration and mood suffer; productivity can drop by 66 percent.

In a white paper commissioned by Biamp Systems of Oregon, sound experts recommend a four-prong strategy to reduce noise and replace it with desirable sound:

  • Acoustics - Add sound-absorbing materials to walls, floors and ceilings to reduce echoes.
  • Noise reduction - Relocate, repair or replace noisy equipment or furniture.
  • Sound system - Install a high-quality system that distributes sound evenly.
  • Content - Choose appropriate ambient background sounds to mask incidental noise.

Soothing music and fountains have long been staples in public spaces. Sound masking today also employs natural sounds, like ocean waves or birds; noise-canceling white noise, like a constant “sh”; and finely tuned frequencies calibrated to the human voice.

German neuroscientists found that white noise improves memory, but researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found that office workers focused better listening to water sounds than white noise or a quiet office background.

Related Article: Health, Happiness and Office Design

Breath of Fresh Air

Poor indoor air quality cuts productivity. Insufficient ventilation concentrates pollutants, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the chemicals you smell after new paint or carpet, and carbon dioxide (CO2), the gas each building occupant exhales. High CO2 levels have been shown to reduce concentration, attention span and memory in classrooms. In 2003, researchers identified 15 studies linking improved ventilation with productivity gains as high as 11 percent.

A team at India Institute of Technology, Delhi, working with NASA, improved air quality in a 50,000-square-foot office building by passing air through a water tank to dissolve pollutants, then through UV light to kill bacteria, and finally through a greenhouse filled with common indoor plants to convert CO2 to oxygen. They reported a 20 percent gain in productivity.

While filling your office with plants cannot match these air quality improvements, a study of two large commercial offices in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands found that adding live green plants boosted productivity by 15 percent.

A professional can test your air quality. Short of relocating or retrofitting your HVAC, productivity gains may offset the energy costs of allowing workers to use fans or open windows.

Taste of Success

A visit to Starbucks or Panera Bread, where laptops are open and people are discussing business while snacking, suggests that your office needs a space where employees find similar comfort. Many companies provide free coffee, but the trend is toward more and healthier food and beverage choices. Google is famous for it perks, including free meals. At its East Coast headquarters, no employee is stationed farther than 150 feet from food.

Online grocer Peapod surveyed 1,009 full-time office workers and found that 55 percent get free beverages, compared to 16 percent who get free snacks. Free snacks apparently produce happier workers: Of those who said their office was well stocked, 66 percent reported being extremely or very happy with their job. Does happiness translate to higher productivity? A meta-analysis of 225 academic studies published in 2005 by the American Psychological Association found that companies with happy employees have 31 percent higher productivity.

Related Article: Feng Shui & Fuzzy Feelings: Creating Company Culture Through Office Design

What all this research demonstrates is that office environments generate numerous sensory experiences that influence workers, and in turn, productivity. Each business must weigh its own unique operational needs, opportunities and constraints in applying these findings. Those that take a holistic approach can multiply gains across each of the senses to maximize results.