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Workplace environment monitoring system increases productivity

Much remains unknown about how office environments affect productivity. A new study reveals some subtle effects.

Digital Economy

Our environments affect our moods and feelings, which is especially true for workplaces. The most obvious effects of office environments on worker productivity have been studied since the 1920s. As a result, workplaces are now safer. Yet, the field of workplace study has neglected subtle and less obvious factors that may not drastically affect productivity. Furthermore, earlier research produced conflicting results indicating that subjects change their behaviour when they know they are being observed. So the picture remains unclear, and therefore many workers probably still toil in suboptimal environments. The EU-funded 720IEQ project investigated. The research focused on ‘knowledge workers’: educated people who apply their professional knowledge for work. The key goal was to gather as much data as possible about how environmental quality affects productivity. Project researchers therefore developed a holistic method for analysing and controlling the internal environment of large buildings.

Novel building monitoring and analysis system

To do so, they developed a system that monitors building environments, called 720 degrees. “This refers to how much a half-spin [subatomic] particle needs to rotate to return to its original state,” explains Rick Aller, project coordinator. “The name’s very geeky, but we are very geeky. It suits us.” Using third-party sensors, the system analyses many environmental variables, including air composition, air quality indicators and temperature information such as that which reflects comfort. The system also monitors building parameters such as energy consumption, ventilation rates and pressure differentials. Aided by machine learning neural nets, the team analysed the collected data to highlight when parameters are outside the range for comfort, well-being or productivity. Analyses are shared among building owners, managers and tenants. Any of the parties may take action manually. Building management systems can also be set up to automatically respond when certain parameters exceed the recommended ranges.

A complex picture emerges

The study’s results indicated that the factors affecting productivity can be very complicated. According to Aller, almost everything affects productivity. “But whether the effect is positive or negative, long or short term, is a matter for discussion,” he says. “For example, we have evidence that temperature variations positively affect our health, whereas they negatively affect our comfort. This could indicate a long-term positive effect, while in the short term we may see a productivity decrease.” Nevertheless, the researchers found other less ambiguous effects. It seems that high temperatures clearly reduce cognitive abilities, decreasing both productivity and comfort. Other issues were found to have a measurable effect, although perhaps not immediately. One example is breathable particulate matter, which shortens lifespans and affects health at national levels, but it was not shown to have any immediate effect on productivity. The team is presently commercialising the system. Researchers will be working with new and existing customers to scale it up. Further information will help resolve the remaining questions about productivity. The outcome will be buildings that are smarter and healthier. This will make knowledge workers more productive and maybe happier.

Keywords

720IEQ, productivity, environment, workplace, temperature, monitoring, knowledge worker, buildings

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