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Is Sustainability the Key to Your Employee Productivity Problem?



Is Sustainability the Key to Your Employee Productivity Problem?
We all know that sustainable buildings are better for the environment than conventional ones — but have you ever considered that they might be better for your business too?


Unless you happen to be an architect, you probably don’t give all that much thought to the structure of your company’s workplace. It’s a functional space: a place where you gather with your team to build your business to greater heights. In your mind, it checks all of the obvious boxes: it’s large enough to support an employee base, offers the proper facilities, and encompasses all necessary equipment. What more could you possibly need?


Quite a lot, as it turns out. An office might be functional, but function alone doesn’t necessarily provide environmental support to those using a space. Sub-par working environments can have a powerful impact on employee health, happiness, and performance — all three of which can, in turn, negatively impact business achievement.


Research has proven this several times over. In 2016, a joint research initiative led by Harvard University and the State University of New York Upstate Medical University sought to examine the relationship between workplace conditions and performance. Over the course of three distinct studies, the researchers examined how participants’ working efforts differed when working in conventional office spaces (i.e., offices with high concentrations of volatile organic compounds) versus green-certified (i.e., low levels of VOCs).


Their findings are striking. The researchers reported that cognitive function scores were significantly higher in every studied domain for those in green buildings when compared to conventional offices.


Workers in green-certified spaces saw a host of benefits; they enjoyed a 6% boost in sleep quality, 30% fewer instances of sick-building symptoms such as skin irritation, respiratory problems, and fatigue, and a 73% increase in their capability to respond in crises. Those in environmentally-friendly spaces also experienced a whopping 44% increase in applied activity levels, which influences the ability to make decisions on workplace tasks, as well as a 38% boost to their focused activity level, which affects their capacity to pay attention to the task at hand.


The newly-realized role that green conditions play in determining workplace performance could be game-changing for businesses in every field. As the researchers for the above studies put the matter in a brief, “These findings have wide-ranging implications because this study was designed to reflect conditions that are commonly encountered every day in many indoor environments.”


Sustainability isn’t just an environmental issue anymore; it’s a business imperative. After all, if you could make changes that would ensure that your team was better capable of stepping up at work and innovating, wouldn’t you consider taking action? The benefits are as clear as they are myriad; workers in green spaces are better-equipped to focus, complete their work, make decisions under pressure, and remain healthy at work. When totaled across an organization, the accumulated productivity could have an incredibly powerful impact on a business’s potential to grow and achieve in the long run.


According to one survey from the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO), over 90% of surveyed executives agree that promoting wellness in the workplace can positively influence employee productivity and performance. The same survey also reported that the majority (57%) of participants saw employee wellness initiatives as a core business strategy. Given the pervasiveness of this perspective and the apparent health and performance benefits that sustainable office conditions provide, it doesn’t seem like all that much of a reach to the position having a green office as a crucial investment in human capital.


Unfortunately, a business’ ability to take advantage of the benefits that green spaces offer does depend on their budget and circumstances.


In an ideal world, business leaders would be able to move into a building that has been certified as a “green” building. Several organizations provide these designations, but the one most-discussed in the U.S. is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).


First established by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in 1993, LEED stands as one of the foremost certification programs in the world; it considers not only the environmentally-friendly design and construction of buildings but also how structures are maintained and operated. Statistics shared by USGBC indicate that LEED-recognized buildings produce, on average, 34% less carbon dioxide and use 25% less energy than conventional buildings. Since its founding, LEED certifications have been applied to over 83,000 registered projects worldwide and encompasses a real estate footprint of approximately 1.8 billion square feet.


Depending on their budget, business leaders can choose to build or retrofit their working spaces to achieve a LEED certification. Some businesses may even decide to exceed the base requirements; consider the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), an organization whose work to incorporate green thinking into their office design earned them a top-tier, platinum rating from the USGBC. According to a profile piece published by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) in 2017, the UUA’s project included thoughtful touches such as choosing carpeting and paint that produce zero toxic emissions, as well as pursuing a more open, naturally-lit floor plan.


Of course, not every business will have the resources to build a headquarters from the foundation up like UUA — but that lack isn’t as much of a barrier as one might think. Even if company leaders cannot justify extensive renovations, they can still improve features like office ventilation and lighting. The former is particularly important; one study conducted by the joint research task force mentioned above found that doubling the average ventilation rate improved worker performance by a full 8% and led to a $6,500 increase in employee productivity each year. Moreover, the researchers noted, participants who implemented energy-recovery ventilation systems often entirely offset the financial and environmental costs of raising their ventilation rate.


Other solutions are intuitive; business leaders can invest in solar power, energy-efficient appliances, and sustainable in-office practices. As USGBC talent manager Ashley Fowler commented for SHRM, “Even if they’re not looking to retrofit their building or get a new building, HR can be involved in working with facilities on space planning or office design to encourage collaboration, to help boost employee engagement by figuring out how to maximize daylighting.”


If there is one point I want to make, it would be this: Investing in sustainability is an investment in business growth. When you put time, effort, and resources towards creating a green environment for your team, you will see the returns come back tenfold in employee happiness, productivity, and business achievement. Given all of that, why would you bother to stay conventional?


Go green — your business will thank you for it.

Daniel Neiditch has spent decades in the competitive NYC real estate industry. His agency, River 2 River Realty, has been responsible for over $1 billion in acquisitions over the past decade. Neiditch is also passionate about green building; his property, Atelier Condo, maintains the highest array of solar panels in NYC. He is a prolific writer on the topic of sustainable building and has been published in Forbes, Entrepreneur, and SCORE.