Wellbeing and productivity is all 'up in the air'

Posted by Sara Gammon on 22/09/2016

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After a study shows the importance of air quality on cognitive ability, Interaction discuss 4 factors that also support wellbeingproductivity

A recent study has suggested that indoor environmental air quality can impact upon cognitive ability in the office. The study, conducted by researchers at Harvard set out to investigate the relationship between cognitive function and indoor environmental quality in different simulated office buildings. 

The study created three different office conditions, a ‘Conventional’, ‘Green’ and ‘Green+’ office.* Twenty-four participants spent 6 full work days in these environmentally controlled office spaces, blinded to test conditions. It was found that decision making and general cognitive ability was 61% higher on the 'Green' building condition and 101% higher on the two 'Green+' days than the conventional days.

The study isn’t without it’s faults, the ‘conventional office’ condition, which was designed to reflect conditions that are commonly encountered in every day office environments is based on a 1990’s study in the US. How much the dated study actually reflects modern conventional office buildings is ambiguous. 

Despite the flaws, this study does have significant implications for office design, suggesting that sustainable design practices such as improving the air quality may reignite debates as to what factors can improve employee health and productivity.

When we design workspaces we always take care to make them as aesthetically pleasing as possible, but the quality of the environment to aid wellbeing is paramount. From our experience, some of the factors that we’ve found to impact upon productivity and wellbeing are:

Wellbeing | Productivity | Air Quality | Workplace Tips

1. Connection with others 

As you spend so much time with your colleagues in everyday working life, having strong bonds and connections is incredibly important. Whilst we can’t directly influence this, we design offices that allow employees to seamlessly communicate and collaborate. By designing offices with clear collaborative areas, and a variety of flexible working space allowing these connections to be formed naturally.

2. Exercise and Movement

As shown in recent BBC reports and many studies in this area of research, a desk-bound working lifestyle can have detrimental effects on health. It’s claimed that an hour’s ‘brisk exercise’ a day may offset the negative effects, however we think you can go beyond just a dedicated hour to exercise. We think working in an office shouldn’t mean you’re forced into a sedentary lifestyle. Designing offices to encourage people to get up, have flexible space, go for breaks, talk to colleagues, have stand-up meetings and exercise is something we take seriously. That’s why we design great and exciting breakout spaces, so people will want to spend time in these spaces and not perpetually sitting at a desk.

Wellbeing | Productivity | Air Quality | Workplace Tips

3. Connection with nature 

The relationship between nature and productivity and wellbeing can often be over-looked. But as this study shows, green office environments can improve productivity. Psychologically nature can have a calming effect, therefore it’s important that people who work indoors are exposed to nature and the world outside. 

We design workspaces to allow people to easily make this connection, whether it’s implementing biophilic design, creating outside spaces for employees to use or making sure there is easy access to windows and natural air ventilation.

4. Understanding the bigger picture 

To understand the bigger picture, you need to have access to the information and knowledge of why the business you work for exists, and what it’s purpose and values are. But just having the information may not be enough. When you get directors, assistants, managers and designers all sitting together, this gives people a greater understanding about their job roles, and ultimately the bigger picture. That’s why we design and encourage offices to have an open and transparent layout which can help people feel included, help with job satisfaction, wellbeing and knowledge sharing. 


Overall, the debate as to the factors that can influence wellbeing and productivity is sparked by this study. To extend and contribute to the debate, we think these four factors play a key role in this, as we’ve seen in the past. If you are conscious of what factors influence productivity and wellbeing, and look at how you can practically or indirectly improve them then you will inevitably get results. However the discussion still remains open and more research is always necessary in this area to further our understanding on this complex topic. 

*The research team simulated three conditions by manipulating air quality as follows: the ‘Conventional’ (with high concentrations of Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs) office, the ‘Green’ (with low concentrations of VOCs) office and the ‘Green+’ office (with high outdoor air ventilation).