Some like it hot? Work environments impact productivity


So I’m sitting at my desk, in the dark, sweating. Not because I’m late for another article deadline (though, of course, I am), but because it’s 84 degrees in my office right now. You see, our HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning, for you non-gearheads) is out, and our building, while somewhat ancient by today’s standards, is just modern enough to have no capability to open windows. Result: It’s actually hotter in here than it is outside. Has been for several days; likely to be so for several more.

Even though we’ve turned off all non-essential lights to reduce heat and we’re allowing folks to dress “ultra”-casual (don’t ask), the impact on the workforce here is palpable. You think, hey, 84’s not that bad. And it wouldn’t be, if we were sitting on a beach somewhere with a nice breeze. But put 350 people in a closed box with computer equipment, overhead lights, copiers and post-mix drink towers (we are, after all, a theatre company), and after a few hours things can start to feel a bit “close.”

As I troll the halls, I notice small groups of associates gathering to discuss the situation, no doubt planning a mutinous takeover of the building. People move slowly through the stygian darkness, finding any excuse to pause at the large box fans stationed at critical junctures. If we had water coolers, this would certainly be the main (only) topic of conversation, and “the AC Situation” is now on the agenda at most department meetings.

It’s clear that all the free ice cream in the world (the apparent extent of the building management’s crisis response—but I’m not bitter) doesn’t solve the problem, proving both aspects of Saturday Evening Post writer Herm Albright’s quote: “A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.”

Bottom line: The productivity loss is staggering.

Conclusion: Work environment matters.

Why? We know that an associate’s attitude impacts results. Our own recent annual engagement survey reinforced that point once again this year.

Orator and philosopher Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, once contended that “any fact facing us is not as important as our attitude toward it, for that determines our success of failure.”

Want an example? Witness a 2008 University of Cologne study recently quoted in The Wall Street Journal wherein golfers who were told that their ball was a “lucky ball” were 35% more likely to sink a putt than the control group. Why? Attitude.

And like it or not, work environment impacts attitude.

Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Literature abounds on this topic, but few sources are more compelling than a recent report by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, which concluded that a healthy work environment can have “a positive impact not only on safety and health performance but also on company productivity” and that a poor environment “can lead to a competitive disadvantage impairing the firm’s status among stakeholders.”

In general, this report combines several studies that link a healthy work environment with:
• reduced staff turnover
• reduced absenteeism
• fewer occupational injuries and illness cases
• improved service levels
• improved job satisfaction
• improved relations between co-workers and management

But what exactly makes for a “healthy work environment?” Here are just a few ideas:

Ventilation and temperature control.
Guess you knew this was coming, but it’s been proven that air quality influences performance and productivity. A 2000 study of nearly 4,000 employees at the Polaroid Corporation documented a reduction in absenteeism through the use of enhanced ventilation using outdoor air. In fact, increasing ventilation rates and lowering humidity was shown to reduce sick-leave rates at Polaroid almost as much as their flu vaccination program. Hmmm. Sounds like a better solution than free ice cream.

Up-to-date ergonomics. A recent before-and-after study of major upgrades in furniture at a large insurance company headquarters showed a 53 percent increase in productivity and a 14 percent drop in absenteeism after the upgrades. Think about it. The typical office worker spends more hours a week in their chair than most of them spend in their beds. And when it comes to office furniture, you generally get what you pay for. A good chair, while expensive, can reduce fatigue and the likelihood of repetitive stress disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome. A $50 special from Staples is going to have employees chomping at the bit to get home each day, and won’t last the year in most offices.

Casual dress. Casual dress remains one of the best (and cheapest) ways to improve employee perceptions of their environment. It costs the employer nothing, and has an inordinate impact on employee satisfaction. Most employers currently offer some form of casual dress code, and a recent poll shows that many have even switched to full casual (jeans, etc.) every day, as we have at AMC. Warning: Even a full casual dress code won’t be well-received if the policy is 28 pages long, with more rules than the IRS tax code.

Etiquette training.
As more offices embrace open, high-efficiency designs, how employees behave in the space has even more impact than in traditional settings. Noise control is emerging as a huge challenge in these environments. In fact, according to the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), noise is the number-one threat to office productivity in open environments. Among the open-office no-no’s: 1) use of speaker phones, 2) hallway meetings, 3) yelling across workstations, and 4) “sharing” your music with co-workers.

In 2003, a field simulation study was conducted by the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and National Research Council of Canada that indicated a causal relationship between lighting quality and worker satisfaction and motivation. Test subjects demonstrated improved satisfaction and motivation when provided a lighting design scheme that included such features as wallwashing at the perimeter and the addition of personal controls. Simple stuff, right?

I could go on and on here, but it’s getting late, I’m hot, and they’re offering ice cream downstairs. (Hey, I never said I didn’t like ice cream—I’d just like a little air conditioning to go along with it). Cheers.

Keith Wiedenkeller welcomes comments at