Why is indoor air quality so important when it comes to workplace wellbeing? And how can smart controlled heating, ventilation and air conditioning (smart HVAC) help improve staff morale, employee retention and productivity?
When the University of Birmingham carried out a study into workplace comfort, it revealed that temperature, humidity and ventilation are primary influencers of wellbeing. Any departure from satisfactory conditions can lower productivity and may even lead to harmful health effects.
The study highlighted several recommendations and observations on current legislation:
Temperatures in the indoor workplace are covered by the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992. These regulations place a legal obligation on employers to provide a ‘reasonable’ temperature in the workplace.
As recommended by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the minimum temperature for a workplace should be 16 degrees Celsius. Unless much of the work involves extreme physical effort, the temperature should reduce to 13 degrees.
However, the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers recommends 20 degrees Celsius for sedentary work, although exceptions apply in certain circumstances.
The HSE recommends no maximum temperature. It is simply stated that it should be ‘reasonable’. However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends a maximum of 24 degrees for comfortable working.
Birmingham University recommends adopting a degree of flexibility and adapting to changing conditions, provided appropriate health and safety measures are maintained.
The trouble is, says the University, even where set guidelines are adhered to, certain conditions may not suit everyone. Some people prefer being cooler, whilst others relish being warmer.
Low humidity levels can aggravate existing skin or respiratory conditions, and dry air can also lead to a build-up of static electricity, which can lead to electrostatic shocks.
There is no specific legislation dealing with workplace humidity, although general recommendations are between 40 and 70 per cent.
Generally, lower humidity is where problems lie.
If it can be detected, steps can be taken to manage it, such as installing a humidifier or adding live plants to the workspace. Whether these steps need to be temporary or permanent will be down to the quality of the data that is fed back.
Fresh air is a vital component of a healthy workplace. It removes and dilutes impurities and gets rid of excess heat.
The law states that all enclosed workspaces must have ‘effective and suitable ventilation which provides a sufficient quantity of fresh or purified air’.
Generally, windows are relied upon to supply sufficient ventilation. However, there will not always be opening windows in a workspace. If this is the case, then some form of mechanical ventilation system will need to be employed to provide replacement air.
Replacement air must be free from impurities, with air inlets situated so that they can draw in fresh air.
The Federation of European Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning Associations (REHVA) recommends that to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, ventilation should be increased and outdoor air funnelled in, rather than using air recirculation systems.
The benefits of healthy buildings, and what makes a building unhealthy
Healthy buildings are valuable to employers, brands and landlords for many reasons.
- For employers, healthy buildings assist in recruiting and retaining the best talent, boost productivity and enhance staff satisfaction.
- As a brand, a healthy building can improve reputation and play a pivotal role in boosting ESG ratings.
- For landlords, healthy buildings are known to attract longer-term tenants, higher rental rates, and lower energy and operational outlay.
There are various heating, ventilation and air conditioning-related factors that can cause a building to suffer from ‘sick building syndrome‘, whereby occupants experience headaches, sinus issues, skin complaints, dry eyes, sore throat, fatigue and difficulty in concentrating.
Poor air quality caused by, for example, emissions from appliances, office equipment and cleaning products, and inbound pollutants and viruses is one such factor. Other factors include ambient dampness, lack of adequate ventilation and insufficient temperature and humidity control.
When individuals lack control over their immediate working environment, this can lead to physical health issues and a lack of comfort, which can dampen morale and negatively affect productivity. Staff retention can also suffer as a result, and sickness leave can become a real problem.
How does indoor air quality impact building health and employee wellness?
Indoor air quality (IAQ) is known to be a significant influencer of building health, with a raft of research demonstrating that the amount of ventilation, or fresh air brought in from outside, is a critical influencer of health.
Good ventilation has also been shown to reduce sick building syndrome symptoms, reduce absenteeism, and lower the spread of infectious diseases.
A study carried out by Joseph G. Allen, an assistant professor and director of the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, sought to ascertain whether improved ventilation affects cognitive function, which is an indicator of productivity.
The question the Harvard team asked was, ‘does better air influence a worker’s ability to process information, make strategic decisions, and respond to crises?’
The study revealed that breathing better air did indeed lead to significantly better decision-making performance amongst the participants. Higher test scores were apparent where workers were exposed to better ventilation, lower levels of chemicals, and reduced carbon dioxide levels.
The most significant improvements came when workers were asked to make strategic decisions, which is crucial in business.
What can be done to overcome indoor air quality issues and put control into the hands of the individual?
As the University of Birmingham identified, the importance of adapting to changing workplace conditions cannot be overemphasised. Not everyone appreciates the same levels of temperature. Others are more affected by low humidity than others, and some naturally need more access to fresh air. In other words, everyone is different.
Allowing individuals to control their working climate is the ideal scenario. Not only will it benefit them physically and therefore in terms of productivity, but it will also lead to raised morale.
Interested in knowing more about Workplace wellbeing? Read the first part of this two-article series How Smart Lighting Contributes to Healthy Buildings here.
Is individual HVAC control possible?
It is indeed, and it is known as ‘smart HVAC’.
When used in conjunction with a building management system, a smart HVAC system has the power to reduce energy consumption whilst providing optimal personal comfort.
Courtesy of a system of motion and noise detectors, location indicators, geo-fencing, humidity sensors and thermometers, as well as real-time weather data from the internet, information is fed into an artificial-intelligence powered platform.
This platform has the capability to make automated changes to a building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, adapting readily to changing environmental conditions to ensure the best comfort levels for all building inhabitants.
The great thing about an intelligent HVAC system is that it learns from user input. So, as occupants add their preferences, it takes these on board when making alterations in the future.
The system also allows individual users to tailor their climatic conditions to suit personal inclinations and current environmental status, as well as the tasks they’re currently working on.
How can Smart Spaces positively influence workplace wellbeing through smart HVAC?
Smart Spaces is an Internet of Things (IoT) led platform made up of internet-connected sensors and powered by artificial intelligence. It can automatically control various elements of a building management system, including heating, ventilation and air conditioning.
When integrated with the building management system, Smart Spaces allows facilities managers to assess, regulate, and maintain the highest indoor air quality standards.
Using a ‘digital twin’ visualisation system, a 3D replica of the building is produced for an uninterrupted view at floor and room level, making it straightforward to see what needs to be actioned in order to achieve the best-optimised working conditions.
Data on the likes of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon dioxide, noise levels, and temperature and humidity levels is also fed through, allowing managers to make the necessary adjustments to ensure the ultimate in staff wellbeing and productivity.
What’s more, via a smartphone app, users get to control the ambient temperature within individual workspaces. Machine learning stores personal preferences and creates pre-sets for specific tasks, times of day and environmental conditions.
Interested in learning more about the benefits of Smart Spaces?
Request a free demo or get in touch to discover how this operating system can help you achieve improved working conditions and, therefore, a healthier building and optimised workplace wellbeing.