Greening an organization can produce numerous savings, from leaner utility bills to less money feeding the photocopier. But a technically efficient building can still be wildly unproductive if it neglects employee comfort. You’ll certainly save on energy costs by reducing the space that is heated, cooled and lighted, but employees won’t get much work done if they’re packed in a hot, noisy office.

The aim is to create a workplace that is not only sustainable and energy efficient, but also provides a comfortable physical environment where employees can do their best work.

Here’s how to tailor sustainability measures to employee experience and strike a balance between green and productive.

See: Boost visual comfort


Now that more tasks are done on computers with back-lit screens, strong overhead lighting can be overkill. Over-illumination is not only expensive and energy-intensive, but it can also contribute to increased headaches, fatigue, stress and anxiety. Reduce artificial light levels from 750-1000 lux (designed for paper-based reading tasks) down to 300-500 lux. To maintain ideal light levels, try sensor-driven lighting systems, which dim depending on the amount of daylight, utilizing less energy throughout the day.

Daylight and views

Human beings are naturally drawn to windows and natural light, even if we can’t exactly explain why it affects our mood and energy levels. Physiologically, daylight boosts serotonin and views of nature help restock mental energy. Historically, survival depended on having a good vantage point in the light of day. In our modern age, numerous studies have linked exposure to daylight to improved sleep, concentration, memory, productivity and overall health.

What does that mean for the office?

The goal is to provide workers with the greatest amount of daylight and access to views as possible. A good place to start is with workplace layout. Obviously, not everyone can have a window seat, but a good compromise is placing common areas such as meeting rooms, lounges, and coffee nooks in parts of the office that get good exposure. Glass walls, doors and partitions also help to let the light in.

Hear: Preserve acoustic comfort

We need to hear some sound because absolute silence is maddening—literally. Noise though, is defined as unwanted sound, and it’s an unfortunate occurrence in the soundscape of many offices: overheard conversations, comings and goings of people, chirping office equipment, ventilation, air conditioning and more.

3 ways to block noise

  • At the source: Stop noise before it starts. Provide quiet areas where phones must be turned off or acoustically separate work areas for different types of tasks: collaboration, connection, concentration and confidentiality.
  • Along the path: Dampen noise as it travels with sound-absorbing ceiling systems, soft furniture materials, cushioned carpeting, and sound masking machines which ensure noise travels no further than 10 to 15 feet away.
  • At the receiver: Provide noise cancelling headphones to keep sound from reaching employees.

Feel: Maintain thermal comfort

Everyone has a different internal thermostat, but a reasonable temperature range is between 70-72 degrees. Inevitably, this range will still not work for everyone. To avoid temperature wars, thermostats should not be accessible for individual adjustments.

Temperature has energy implications, but it is possible to reduce energy without negatively affecting comfort through measures like properly sealed windows, window films to reduce solar heat gain, blinds to keep out summer heat and retain heat in the winter, as well as seasonal temperature setbacks.

Some measures are controlled by the landlord and can be included in a green lease agreement. Whatever your strategy, including the landlord and employees in the effort will make it even more effective.

Smell: Improve indoor air quality

While temperature and noise in the workplace register immediately, we’re less conscientious of air quality. But assuming most employees spend around 40 hours a week in the workplace, the air they breathe has significant impact on their wellbeing and ability to function. The adverse effects of poor air quality can be dangerous (see Sick Building Syndrome), but unless it’s odorous you likely won’t realizes it’s the culprit.

Short of something as severe as SBS are concerns about odors, particulate matter and CO2 in the air. CO2 is toxic at higher levels, and yet it’s generated continuously when people exhale. A building’s filtration system must work constantly to bring in fresh outdoor air (although in many cities, how fresh is it really?) and send out or recycle indoor air to maintain healthy oxygen levels.

A few ways to maintain sufficient air circulation are through demand ventilation based on CO2 monitoring and particulate filters. Internal pollution can also be controlled at the source by minimizing chemicals from furniture, carpeting, cleaning products or construction and renovation activities. Some newer buildings even offer underfloor ventilation to ensure good circulation.

Taste: Encourage nutrition

While not technically a part of a sustainability strategy, offering healthy food and beverage options can nevertheless affect employee wellness. Wellness, of course is a component of an employee’s overall well-being, which indirectly impacts workplace productivity. Cafeteria standards can reinforce healthy eating habits and some organizations go even further to remove drinking water impurities.

Whatever your sustainability strategy, occupant experience should be an integral pillar. When employee productivity suffers, those losses eclipse energy savings because people are usually your most expensive asset. Fortunately, sustainability and productivity aren’t enemies on your balance sheet. A workplace that approaches sustainability with people in mind can generate savings and support employee experience.



About the author

About the author

Bob Best, Executive Vice President, Sustainability, Energy and Safety
Helping commercial buildings operate more sustainably and productively through energy management, sustainability programs and engineering services.


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