Improving workplace environmental quality through a holistic approach

9 February, 2022

An often-surprising statistic is that by the time we reach 80, we will have spent 72 years of our life indoors! Buildings are an inescapable feature of modern life but only recently, as the pandemic upended all previous norms, we have begun to consider the dramatic ways in which they affect our well-being.

Hybrid work might have reduced our time in the office, but our newfound understanding of how bacterial and viral infections propagate through the air means that employees are now unhappy coming to work, even for a few days per month, if indoor environmental conditions are not solidly monitored and controlled. Stuffy meeting rooms, draughty open spaces, or bad odors are no longer seen as some inevitable by-products of office life. On the contrary, they literally act as a proxy indicator of something potentially wrong with the building. Moreover, the invisible threat of SARS-CoV-2 is forcing many employees to seek reassurance that the ventilation and air conditioning system maintains an acceptable level of air quality, even when a building is modern and free from obvious problems.

Office environments are therefore critical factors to company success. Although traditionally neglected, it’s becoming more and more accepted that indoor environmental quality can significantly affect whether your business reaches its KPIs or not. In the following paragraphs, we will explain all  the different factors a company should focus on and the ways to control them, in order to run a healthy – literally and figuratively speaking – business.

Distracting or harmful noise levels

According to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, “employers are required to implement a hearing conservation program when noise exposure is at or above 85 decibels (dBA) averaged over 8 working hours”. This basically means that to communicate with someone being 3 feet away, one would have to raise his voice and it best applies to outdoor work environments, such as busy industrial floors or construction sites.

However, even in office environments where noise levels usually range between 50-70 dBA, sounds can be all the way from distractive to harmful. Frequently used printers, loud ventilation systems, ringing telephones and boisterous conversations can be very annoying when an employee needs to focus or effectively communicate with colleagues. Especially in a competitive working environment where people are judged by the numbers, i.e. sales, such noise interventions elevate the stress levels, may be harmful to the ears, cause headaches and directly affect the employees’ performance.

To deal with these issues – whether it is removing, isolating, or masking the noise sources – a company must first identify them and measure their magnitude. Smart building systems provide such solutions, and we shall highlight the importance of applying noise monitoring systems to all workspace areas. As humans have the tendency to adapt to their environmental conditions, employees may be operating daily in the presence of medium sound levels without even paying attention to them. However, continuous exposure can result in hearing problems and the compromise of their mental health.

Poor indoor air quality

A recent research in more than 300 office workers across six countries led by the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University found that increased concentration of particulates (PM2.5) and lower ventilation rates (measured using CO2 levels) were associated with slower response times and reduced accuracy on a series of cognitive tests. In other words, air pollution has a direct, immediate, and measurable impact on our brain. It concluded that poor indoor quality affects health and productivity “significantly more than we previously thought”. Moreover, badly controlled humidity, temperature, and airflow can increase the likelihood of respiratory illnesses (including Covid-19) in an office environment which is typically served by air handling units or often by less sophisticated ventilation systems.

Nonetheless, it is often argued that the effects of good air quality cannot be quantified and therefore any investment to that end will be impossible to assess. This is no longer true since granular air quality monitoring is available via inexpensive but very accurate sensors which can be installed with much ease covering every available building area. Furthermore, they may be interlinked with the building’s HVAC system offering an invaluable information loop and helping to maintain ideal air quality conditions irrespective of occupancy, space utilisation, outdoor particulate levels (typically a result of heavy traffic), or weather.

In addition, there are smart facility management platforms that seamlessly integrate the information from any type of sensor or meter with sophisticated monitoring and analysis algorithms that, apart from monitoring, are able to recommend actions or act upon predetermined rules to automatically regulate the operation of any number of building systems. Moreover, some platforms provide unparalleled analysis and reporting capabilities, deploying powerful machine learning methods and allowing fully customizable reporting templates and alert/alarm configurations whenever environmental metrics levels are out of the optimal zone.

Inadequate or excessive lighting

Lighting is responsible for a big part of a building’s energy consumption, only second to that spent on heating, air-conditioning, and ventilation. Therefore, it’s common for companies to try and limit their offices’ light intensity, to keep operational costs under control. But does this tactic really pay off?

Not really, if done in an ad-hoc way where decisions are made based solely on the facility manager’s appreciation. Insufficient lighting can make employees feel uncomfortable and sleepy, imposes extra cognitive strain, and causes prolonged tiredness that leads to mistakes and poor performance. So, an enterprise may be saving money one way, and at the same time, losing money in another.

Smart facility management systems, however, can help discover the right lighting balance for a corporate building. Hong Kong’s Labor Department advises that “the optimum lighting for normal desk work is between 300 – 500 lumens and it should not be less than 200 lumens under any condition.” Setting these values as the acceptable lighting intensity range and automatically correlating information regarding the lights’ use in specific building areas or the current desk occupancy, will ensure that you maintain a healthy, productive environment, without having to pay a fortune for your energy bills.

At a first glance, the above may be overwhelming. Especially for companies that occupy buildings with no intelligence at all. But the reality is much more straightforward. Integrated facilities management solutions should ideally be modular, each module able to operate independently. This way, it can be initially applied in specific areas of your business and once the first audit is finalized successfully, then have them scaled up to the rest of the building. Additionally, modules don’t need to be implemented all at once. For example, an employer may decide to start with indoor air quality and sound monitoring, and incorporate complete energy management, flexible desk booking, and detailed ESG reporting at later stages.

At Yodiwo, we know all about how to start small and profitable. We can help you break down and prioritize your business needs, start seeing tangible gains with scalable smart solutions and then roll out best practices to your entire workplace or other facilities. So why wait? Just go on and book now your free consultation call with one of our facility management experts.