From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

An Expert Looks at a Perennial Office Challenge

What’s chilly for one office worker might be too toasty for another, and studies show even mild discomfort can impair productivity. These two factors make a case for giving employees control over the temperature in their own immediate workspace. If only making a case were enough! Office thermostat issues resist solutions. In a recent interview with The Ergonomics Report™, Alan Hedge, Ph.D., CPE, offered several reasons, and talked about a new study that exposes an overlooked handicap to productivity. 


Surveys of the members of the Houston-based International Facility Management Association reveal that "too hot" and "too cold" are employees’ top two complaints.

As individuals have been shown to experience temperature differently, setting a thermostat to suit everyone in an office is not an easy task. In any case, the number of people floating in and out of a workspace or office can push the temperature up or down at a pace that confounds thermostats, while idiosyncrasies in the construction of the building or its HVAC system can create hot and cold spots out of reach of the sensors.  


If anything was needed to gauge interest in the subject of workplace environmental comfort it was the scale of the news coverage of a 2004 study by Professor Hedge and his team at Cornell University’s Department of Design and Environmental Analysis. Over 240 newspapers and many radio and television networks worldwide jumped on the university’s press release about the findings. These experiments showed that workers typed only half as much and made more than twice as many errors when office temperatures went from 77 degrees to 68 degrees. The professor estimated that the decreased productivity resulted in a 10 percent increase in labor costs per affected worker.


The strong case for providing employees with the means to determine what temperature works best for them hasn’t produced solutions. Professor Hedge told The Ergonomics Report™ in June that a number of technologies have been developed over the years, “but all of them have added a very significant cost to the work station – in the order of a thousand dollars plus.” The challenge has been finding a way that is not “cost prohibitive,” he added, a way to “provide something that gives the person an ability to control their local environmental conditions but that doesn’t necessarily tie into the ventilation system, put a huge extra overhead on the power distribution system, or add a significant cost to the facility’s owner or manager.”


Employees commonly take matters into their own hands, according to the professor, by bringing their own little fans, air cleaners, heating blankets or portable heaters to work. As a result, “what you get in an office is something that just looks pretty shoddy because there is no standard appearance, and no one device does everything.” He pointed out that the air cleaners don’t heat or cool the air, that fans just move the air without changing the temperature or cleaning anything, leaving the problem of finding “a relatively compact device that can give you control over thermal conditions, such as warming and cooling, and also some control over air quality in terms of the amount of air movement and in terms of the filtration of the air.”


He named Johnson Controls Personal Environment Module as one product that met some of the challenges, but couldn’t overcome the cost factor. “When that device first came out the module itself cost more than the workstation. The price came down to around one thousand dollars per work station,” he explained, “but you still then had to install this, you still had to connect it in some way to the ventilation system and so on.”


Even though there had been work showing [the Johnson Module] improves productivity, he added, “it never really took off in any meaningful way because it was cost prohibited.”


He noted that the costs go up significantly during periods of “office churn.” The expression was coined in the business community to describe the regular updating  and reorganization of an office or commercial space.


He also attributes the delay in finding solutions to “a mismatch between what people need and what engineers think about in terms of the scale of operation.” The size of the unit in relation to the area that needs to be changed is a consideration, he explained. “One way a lot of the thinking up to date that has been misplaced is that people have been [considering] change at a very gross level.” You don’t need to think about “how to completely clean all the air in this 10 foot by 15 foot by 9 foot high office space, you only need to clean the air where the person is breathing the air, and the person isn’t breathing all of the air in that space. The same with heating or cooling. You don’t have to cool all of the air. Think about a car. You don’t need to cool the whole car if you can get cool air blowing on the person’s face it will make them feel cool.”


The latest manufacturer to take on the challenge is Herman Miller (HM), a Michigan company that has built its reputation on the human-centered design of office furniture and accessories. It unveiled its C2 desktop heating and cooling device at the NeoCon World’s Trade Fair, the office furniture industry trade show, in early June.


HM product literature about the C2 suggests the company is very aware of the handicaps that doomed other makers’ purported solutions. The C2 is designed to work best at up to 18 inches from the user. Each unit is expected to retail at 300 dollars, a figure that might not be “price prohibited” for the intended market. It also plugs into a 110-volt outlet, doesn’t need to be tied in to the ventilation system and is reported to be energy efficient. One HM representative believes the C2 will become as much a part of office life as the desks, chairs and other office wares for which the company is renowned. At 2.5 pounds and 10 inches high, the device looks like a small humidifier, according to a Reuters news service story about the release. Company spokesman Wayne Baxter told Reuters that in company tests, starting with a surrounding air temperature of 72 degrees, the C2 raised the temperature within six inches by 40 degrees and was able to cool it by eight degrees.


HM boasts that the C2’s thermal electric technology is proven in the automotive industry. The device heats, cools and cleans the air with an air filtration system that is “significantly better than a typical home furnace,” HM says. The company adds that the C2 will remove air pollutants – pollen, dust, pet dander and household airborne particles – as small as five microns.

When asked whether the C2 represents a promising direction, Professor Hedge replied, “Absolutely. It does have a lot of things going for it.” There is no question that variations, particularly in temperature and also in some other air quality variables, have a significant effect on work performance, he added.


Along with Dr. Dan Gaygan, the professor and his team have just wrapped up a study that quantifies the impact of air quality on productivity, and also provides a closer look at the effect of temperature on performance. The professor describes their new findings as exciting and the team’s first substantial research in the area.


The study followed the 16 people – attorneys, administrative staff and data entry workers – in a law office for one month. “We’ve collected environment data on a minute-by-minute basis for every location. We’ve collected their work performance data in terms of the amount of correct keystrokes they make every minute, the amount of errors they make and the amount of mouse use they make on a minute-by-minute basis. And then what we’ve been able to do is build this in a statistical model that aggregates data in a one-hour time period.” The one-hour unit is easy to relate to, he explained, as people are paid on an hourly basis. “Within that time period we have a lot of data points that we can look at. … What we’re looking at here is temperature, and humidity, carbon dioxide levels, respirable particulates and volatile organic compounds.”


The professor recalled that there was a snow storm in the middle of the study, conducted from March through April this year, and the temperature varied over a large range in the building, from the low 60s F to the high 80s F. At the same time, the relative humidity was on the low side, mostly between 20 to 40 percent. They found no effect from the humidity at these levels, but “a very significant effect of temperature on the amount of [correct] keying that the employees did.” Though the carbon dioxide levels in the building were relatively good and never approached the ASHRAE comfort limit of 1000 PPM, he said, they found “a significant effect of carbon dioxide on mousing activity. He described the level of volatile organics in the building as “pretty low,” and no effects on performance were found.


“Respirable particles” amounts to basic air pollution, he said, dust and dirt in the air and higher carbon dioxide can indicate poor air quality. They found that both carbon dioxide and respirable particles increased keying errors, but this was seen in the next hour after the exposure. “What we’re seeing is that these effects don’t happen immediately, that there is a lag. In other words, what you are exposed to in one hour affects your performance, not in that hour but in the next hour. So temperature has an immediate effect, and air quality has a delayed effect on people’s performance.”


The professor described the employees’ performance as “unquestionably real.” This isn’t a self-reported survey, it is actual work performance, he added.


Asked if the study methods provided very close and accurate picture of the factors affecting performance, his response was, “absolutely.”  I think this is the first study that has really been able to do this, he added. “There is no question now that we have absolutely hard data showing that thermal conditions are important and air quality is important [to performance] in an office environment.”


Sources: Professor Alan Hedge; Herman Miller; Reuters    


This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2007-06-15.