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Ideas for Leaders #669

Typical Air Quality in Offices Hurts Cognitive Function

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Key Concept

Controlled laboratory experiments yield evidence that air quality in conventional offices will impact our cognitive abilities, compared to the quality in ‘green’ offices and buildings.

Idea Summary

Over a period of six days, a team of researchers recreated a variety of air quality conditions, and simultaneously conducted cognitive tests of volunteers under the various conditions to determine whether poor or even average air quality impacts our cognitive abilities.

Manipulating in a laboratory setting the amount of airborne Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which are pollutants created in a typical office (from copying machines, for example), the researchers recreated the indoor environmental quality (IEQ) of conventional (high VOCs) and green (low VOCs) buildings. Adding a high outdoor ventilation rate to the green condition, the researchers simulated a third environmental condition, the green+ condition. Finally, the researchers tested, independent of the other tests, the impact of various CO2 levels, specifically at optimal (green) levels, at recommended levels, and at high (but not uncommonly high) levels.

During the six days of the experiment, a group of 24 volunteers worked 8 hours a day on tests and assignments designed to measure their cognitive abilities. Specifically, they were tested on:

  • Basic Activity Level. Overall ability to make decisions at all times
  • Applied Activity Level. Capacity to make decisions related to overall goals
  • Focused Activity Level. Capacity to stay focused and pay attention to the tasks at hand
  • Task Orientation. Capacity to make specific decisions that lead to the completion of tasks at hand
  • Crisis Response. Ability to prepare for crises, as well as responding under emergency conditions
  • Information Seeking. Capacity to gather information as required from different available sources
  • Information Usage. Capacity to use both provided and gathered information effectively to achieve overall goals
  • Breadth of Approach. Capacity to make decisions along multiple dimensions, and use a variety of options and opportunities to attain goals
  • Strategy. The most complex of the cognitive abilities. Ability to use information optimally, plan effectively and implement well-integrated solutions.

The researchers then compared the cognitive scores to the different conditions. The results showed that, on average, cognitive scores were 61% higher when the IEQ reflected Green levels, and 101% higher when the IEQ reflected Green+ levels. For the Green+ day, cognitive abilities were higher in all nine domains tested.

Business Application

It’s important to emphasize that the environmental conditions created were not extreme. The Conventional environmental condition reflected the indoor air quality of the typical office, while the Green condition reflected air quality in Green buildings. In addition, the tests were blind — unlike field experiments, the participants never knew in which environmental condition they were working. 

The implications are clear. Improving indoor environmental conditions is not just a matter of being environmentally friendly or even of improving the health of your employees. You are also improving your employees’ productivity, efficiency and effectiveness, and decision-making abilities. For your people and for your company, an investment in better internal environmental conditions yields a variety of positive returns.

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Idea conceived

  • June 2016

Idea posted

  • September 2017

DOI number



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