‘Green’ buildings may boost productivity

By Michael Molinski for the Society for Human Resource Management

When evaluating a job offer, there's more to consider than salary and health care benefits. New research suggests that working in a green-certified building could improve productivity, job performance and overall well-being.

A series of new studies, led by Harvard University and SUNY Upstate Medical University, found that occupants of high-performing green buildings showed higher cognitive function scores, fewer sick-building symptoms and higher sleep quality scores than workers in high-performing buildings without green certification.

"One thing employees might not be thinking about, but should, is their workspace," said Joe Allen, assistant professor at Harvard University's School of Public Health and co-author of the report. The studies, he said, "found that green certification, thermal conditions and lighting influenced worker perception of their space as well as their cognitive function. Good companies know the value of providing a healthy workspace. Healthy buildings are a recruiting tool, after all."

A "high-performing building" is one that meets the standards of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, which promotes energy efficiency and good indoor air quality in buildings. A "green-certified" building is one that not only is high-performing but also meets the U.S. Green Building Council's standards for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

The studies, released Nov. 25, 2016, surveyed 109 office workers during 2015 and 2016 across 10 high-performing office buildings in five climactically different U.S. cities—Boston, Denver, San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles.

"[The studies] suggest that if you work in a green-certified building, you're likely to sleep better and feel better—which can then improve how well you perform at work," said John Mandyck, chief sustainability officer at United Technologies, an aerospace company based in Hartford, Conn., which commissioned the study.  

What is a "green" building? The green list put together by Newsweek suggests it's a building that keeps its pollution levels to a minimum. The U.S. Green Building Council's LEED certification program suggests it's a building that's well-ventilated and where the water is toxin-free. Some environmental organizations say it's a building that leaves the smallest carbon "footprint" it can by conserving energy and recycling.

"We make every effort to heat, cool and light our offices with the minimal amount of energy needed and use building controls to ensure these systems are only on when we need them," said Anthony Ravitz, head of real estate and workplace services at Google, which was awarded a LEED gold certification for its San Francisco office. "We're excited about this certification because it means we're on the right track with our approach to building environmentally sound offices.

"All the paints, sealants, adhesives, carpet and furniture we purchased for the San Francisco office had the lowest possible levels of VOCs [volatile organic compounds] and formaldehyde, both of which have adverse effects on indoor air quality and long-term health," Ravitz said. "We also looked for sustainable materials that are locally manufactured, high in recycled content and free of environmentally harmful materials."

Public institutions—such as libraries and universities—have tended to take the lead on creating green buildings, but the private sector is following suit. For instance, the corporate headquarters of Pittsburgh's Sota Construction Services won a platinum-level certification by the LEED committee. One thing Sota did was install heating and cooling systems that rely on radiant energy, which greatly reduces the amount of air movement through the systems, thus conserving energy. 

The studies found that, compared with those working in non-green-certified buildings, occupants of green-certified buildings had, on average:

  • A 26.4% higher cognitive function score.
  • A 73% higher crisis response score.
  • A 44% higher applied activity level score, which reflects the ability to make decisions that achieve workplace goals.
  • A 38% higher focused activity level score, which reflects the capacity to pay attention to the task at hand.
  •  30% fewer self-reported sick-building symptoms such as respiratory problems, fatigue and skin irritations.
  • A 6.4% higher sleep quality score.

The results for each cognitive function are summarized in the chart below:

Cognitive scores and 95% confidence intervals for each domain of the SMS tool after controlling for participant, normalized to high-performing buildings, for participants in high-performing and high-performing, green certified buildings. Source: The impact of working in a green certified building on cognitive function and health; Harvard University, Nov. 2016.

Cognitive scores and 95% confidence intervals for each domain of the SMS tool after controlling for participant, normalized to high-performing buildings, for participants in high-performing and high-performing, green certified buildings. Source: The impact of working in a green certified building on cognitive function and health; Harvard University, Nov. 2016.

Since many employees spend a majority of their time working inside a building, it makes sense that job applicants increasingly consider a building's green certification when interviewing. The workplace environment could contribute to his or her overall health, personal performance, level of engagement and accomplishment.