Being Green Has its Benefits, but Can it Also Boost Productivity?

Creating a greener workplace may be good for the planet and reducing energy costs, but it’s not always a win for employees.

green workspace
Image courtesy of Death to Stock

Consider this: a company trying improve their environmental impact and save money reduces its heating and cooling levels. The result? Cranky employees who complain that it’s too hot, too cold, or too stuffy. Are the cost savings worth it?

Green initiatives aren’t just tied to a company’s energy footprint. They also have a direct impact on the employee experience at work. Productivity can plummet in a workspace that’s too hot, too noisy, or too bright. Significant evidence shows that those employee complaints might warrant some type of action. As shown in the World Green Building Council’s 2014 report on Health, Wellbeing & Productivity in Offices, sponsored by JLL, studies have found that productivity declines by four percent when employees feel cold, and by six percent when they feel too hot.

It’s not enough to just focus on “being green.” When green hampers productivity, the potential negatives quickly outweigh the benefits. Instead, look for a balance between having a sustainable office and providing a comfortable physical environment that enables employees to give their best. The challenge is figuring out which green investments will generate the greatest return on investment in terms of employee productivity.

Finding the Sweet Spot

Research over the past decade has turned up a number of green initiatives that translate into a happier, healthier workforce:

  • Breathing deeply: Air quality is a powerful invisible factor inside the workplace. Numerous studies have shown that high levels of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are common in building materials, can make employees feel sluggish and less able to think clearly; or even lead to health issues such as asthma or allergies. One joint university study found that employees’ cognitive performance scores in crucial areas, such as crisis or strategy development, were nearly two times higher for those in well-ventilated offices with below-average levels of indoor pollutants than those in typical environments.
  • Going green, literally: The concept of biophilia, or people’s affinity for nature, has been around for a while, but momentum is now building around the benefits of greenery inside the workplace. Whether it’s a wall of plants, or simply a potted plant on a desk, having living plants around the office helps improve air quality, reduce stress and enhance creativity.
  • Seeing the light: With employees spending more time behind computer screens, lighting issues—including flickering light, excessive light, a lack of daylight, and glare—can become a major source of eyestrain and headaches. Improving access to natural light sources can lower electricity bills and create a healthier work environment. Limited access to natural light can throw off your circadian rhythm, affecting sleep patterns that can lead to poor concentration and other health issues. Improving views and lighting inside the office can increase productivity by more than five percent.
  • Getting smart: A variety of smart building technologies are available to help companies improve energy and cost efficiencies. New HVAC systems can automatically adjust air flow to keep carbon dioxide out of the office. Room sensors can detect the presence of employees, automatically adjusting the temperature or lighting so that energy can be conserved in unused rooms. A joint CoreNet Global and Rocky Mountain Institute study shows that smart buildings can reduce energy savings by as much as 10 to 15 percent, in addition to improving the maintenance staff’s productivity.

While these are powerful data points, how do you know what will have the most impact on your particular workplace?

Using the Right Formula

A good starting point is to think about the 3-30-300 model of real estate costs. Companies typically spend approximately $3 per square foot per year for utilities, $30 for rent and $300 per for payroll. This 3-30-300 model illustrates that improving employee productivity can increase workplace value more than reducing energy costs alone.

For example, a two percent improvement in energy efficiency would lead to savings of $.06 per square foot, while a two percent improvement in productivity would result in savings of $6 per square foot. Therefore, initiatives that improve employee productivity as well as space efficiency, resource conservation, or energy efficiency have exponentially more value.

Companies must begin with a careful assessment of how and where green real estate practices are working for or against employee productivity and wellness, generally categorized under the following the buckets:

  • Energy, water, waste, and use of resources (e.g., server rooms, lighting, heating/cooling, recycling programs)
  • Space use efficiency and layout (e.g., areas that support team interactions vs. individual tasks)
  • Employee wellness and productivity (e.g., acoustic and visual comfort, indoor air quality)

New software has emerged in recent years to help with these assessments, identify areas for improvements, estimate which initiatives might offer the greatest overall benefits, and benchmark results.

Power in Numbers

Although measurements are still imperfect, it’s clear that sustainability efforts are exponentially more powerful when the return on investment is linked to employee productivity. Companies that take a holistic approach to monitoring and measuring the various employee and energy outcomes can make a powerful case to justify the upfront investment of these initiatives.

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