Work environment : how do you measure up ?

The Link Between Employee Success and the Work Environment


We all know a cubicle like it. The one crammed in the gloomiest part of the office boasting nothing but shadows and stale air. Lighting is harsh. Natural light is non-existent. Its occupant spends half of his or her time shivering in and out of a threadbare sweater.

Whether you call it ‘the hole’ or ‘the dungeon,’ one thing is clear: it is the last place your employees want to be.

A recent study by the World Green Building Council (WGBC) found that an employee stuck in that cube will be more than uncomfortable: they are likely to be less productive, less happy, and more prone to illnesses. There is no denying it, an employee’s surroundings have a tangible impact on their attendance and productivity.

But, then again, there is a chance you already knew that. After all, scientists and academics have known about the link between environment and employee engagement for decades. What was not previously known, however, was just how far this link went.

A new wave of studies on the subject has managed to quantify the value of comfortable, open, and employee-centric office design. These studies also uncovered multiple environmental factors related to employee success.

Three Benefits of Employee-Centric Design

 The benefits of good office design extend far beyond the individual employee. By promoting a comfortable work environment, your firm may also see:

  • Lower rates of absenteeism

Poor office design makes it easier to spread illness and bad attitudes. To determine the effects of an office redesign on staff, Oakley Thompson, a small law firm, combed its sick leave records. After changing its office layout to something more employee-centric, Oakley saw its average sick days per employee per month drop by 39%.

  • Lower staff turnover rates
    Employees do not want to spend their working hours in discomfort. If your environment continues to rub them the wrong way, your staff will begin to look for a greener, more comfortable office space. A study by McGraw-Hill Construction concluded that greener, more modern buildings lead to improved public image and higher levels of employee retention.
  • Increased productivity
    Undistracted employees are more efficient ones. Eliminating environmental distractions, such as loud noises or strong odors, allows staff to engage more deeply with their work. Past research focused heavily on this aspect of environment-staff relations. The City of Melbourne, for example, saw its productivity jump 10.9 percent after just one year in its newly-designed office building. Oakley Thompson, on the other hand, saw drastic improvements in its secretary’s typing speeds and its lawyer’s billings ratios.

Although a number of studies point towards the advantages of an improved work environment, results differ widely depending on the size of the company and the degree to which these changes are embraced. 

Five Environmental Factors Key to Employee Productivity


Reports published by the WGBC found that the below workplace characteristics have marked impact on employee health and productivity: 

  • Temperature
    Whether it is an office that is too hot, or one that’s too cold, improper temperatures can distract your employees from the tasks at hand. To maximize employee value, you need to make sure they stay in the “Goldilocks zone”. This can be done by giving employees control of a nearby thermostat, fitting installation, or providing cubicle heaters. Changes made to improve workplace temperature have been shown to increase productivity between 3.5 and 36.6%.
  • Air quality and ventilation
    Air that stinks of pollutants or harsh chemicals can lead to headaches, fatigue, and breathing problems. Furthermore, a lack of proper air circulation allows germs and bacteria to congregate. Research conducted by the WGBC also linked improved ventilation with increased productivity. The documented improvements ranged from  0.48 to 11%  .
  • Lighting
    Office fighting needs to do more than let you work. It must also be optimized so as to balance natural light, comfort, mood, and safety. The WBGC stated their conclusion very clearly, “Overall, the evidence is unequivocal; office occupants prefer access to windows and daylight, which bring consistent benefits in terms of satisfaction and health.”  Twelve studies have gone on to correlate improved lighting with individual productivity
  • Biophilia
    Scientists are becoming increasingly interested in how our closeness to gains between 0.7 and 23%. nature affects our productivity. Biophilic design allows employees to feel closer to the outside. A building concerned with this type of design often places picturesque windows near outside walls and makes heavy use of indoor greenery. While this field of study is up-and-coming, compelling evidence exists linking contact with nature to improved health and increased efficiency.
  • Noise
    From a conference call on speakerphone to a jackhammer, noises can easily distract us at work. According to research by the WGBC, “distraction from noise is often one of the lead causes of dissatisfaction with the office environment.” A 1998 study found that performance on a memory for prose task dropped 66% when researchers increased exposure to background noise.
  • Environmental autonomy
    Giving employees a little control over their environment can go a long way. Adding individual lighting switches, thermostats, or adjustable windows helps give employees a sense of control.
office with plants
Try to go more Jurassic Park and less concrete jungle

Three Reasons Managers Are Reluctant to Embrace Employee-Centric Design

With all this evidence justifying it, you might be wondering why more employers don’t take notice of employee-centric design. This reluctance usually finds its roots in one of three things:

  • Jackhammers are intrusive
    Office renovations are not just expensive. They are also dirty and disruptive. Managers are reluctant to disrupt workflow to install plants, shorter cubicle walls, and picture windows.
  • ROI isn’t easy to calculate
    For managers who like black and white cost savings, greener office design is hard to justify.
  • Tracking wellbeing isn’t easy
    Unless you send out constant surveys, it’s hard to get real-time feedback on employee productivity and happiness. There aren’t any “happiness units” you can count, after all. The ambiguity of the improvements makes some employers reluctant to sink millions into an office redesign.

While the first two can be difficult to overcome, we will look at three different ways to track the work environment’s effects on your employees.

Three Ways to Measure Employee Happiness

We can no longer deny that a work-friendly environment is a key component of employee success. Capitalizing on this knowledge, however, is not easy.

This is mostly due to the difficulties of tracking something as arbitrary as happiness. Employee surveys and questionnaires can only go so far. To truly monitor the effectiveness of changes, you need something more comprehensive.

There are three simple ways to do this:

  • Tracking employee output
    For example, if you work in a law office, count the number of cases your attorneys close before and after your renovations, test the typing speed of secretaries nearer to a window against those stuck in a gloomy corner. By linking these changes directly to productivity, you can quickly determine the benefit to the company’s bottom line.
  • Calculating HR metrics
    Absenteeism, sick days, and complaints can be another way to assess the effectiveness of your office space. By rigorously following this data, you can see where employees are struggling with engagement issues. However, just like with the first method, this one reveals little about the exact environmental triggers at work.
  • Using a monitoring system
    The 21st century heralded the arrival of a new type of employee monitoring system, also known as workplace environmental trackers. Devices like GreenMe’s cube send data about temperature, lighting, humidity, noise, and air quality to a central hub. By overlaying this data with employee production metrics, or HR metrics, you can get a clear view of what environmental hazards are harming employee productivity. This allows you to quickly pinpoint problem areas and make the necessary repairs.


Today, it is important to bear in mind that where your employees work is just as important as why your employees work.

While it might be costlier in the short term, your company needs to pay careful attention to the openness and ambience of its offices. Failure to do so can cost you employee trust, lower productivity, and lead to distractions. While redesigning your office, be sure to pay attention to any changes in noise, layout, temperature, and greenery.

Once you’ve implemented your changes, it’s time to track the results. While you can certainly rely on figures relating to direct output, employee feedback, and absenteeism to do so, there’s an easier way. Workplace monitoring systems now exist - these high-tech pieces of equipment provide real-time feedback on employees’ productivity and the current state of his or her work environment.

Now, get out there and try your hand at some office Feng shui!




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