Indoor Air Quality Affects Productivity

Do you ever feel more productive in certain environments compared to others? Maybe you focus well in the library near large windows, at your desk with headphones, or even outdoors in the shade. Preferences will vary from person-to-person. But could there be a common environment where most people are less productive? The first thought that comes to mind is a stuffy conference room. And there is actually science to back this up.

The NBER White Paper: The Impact of Pollution on Worker Productivity

In April 2011, the National Bureau of Economic Research published the first report that addressed air pollution and its effect on worker productivity. Researchers Joshua Graff Zivin and Matthew Neidell studied whether or not reduction in surrounding ozone concentrations can improve human capital and therefore improve productivity. They used data regarding the productivity of agricultural workers and data from the California air monitoring network regarding environmental conditions to compare worker productivity and ozone concentrations.

They found that ozone concentrations even below federal air quality standards have a significant impact on the productivity of workers. Specifically, a 10 ppb (parts per billion) decrease in the concentration of ozone increased worker productivity by 4.2%.

A more recent study confirms and builds on this report.

The Harvard Study

In 2017, Harvard Business School released a report regarding whether improved ventilation (superior air quality) affects cognitive function (a factor of worker productivity).

The first phase of the study examined twenty four individuals – managers, architects, and designers – over a two-week period in a controlled environment. These individuals completed their normal work routines remotely from 9 AM to 5 PM each day, as the experimenters changed the air conditions without their knowledge. They compared standard conditions to an optimized environment with differences in ventilation, VOCs, and carbon dioxide. Using tests to score decision-making performance and controlling for various types of biases, they found higher test scores in environments with increased ventilation and lower levels of VOCs and carbon dioxide. Essentially, improved decision-making with cleaner air.

The second phase of the study expanded into the real world. They examined 100 individuals amongst ten buildings within the United States. Controlling for a variety of factors – some of which included salary, type of work, and geographic location – they found that individuals working in “green certified” buildings scored higher on decision-making tests than others. Again, cleaner air linked to improved decision-making.

Why Does This Matter?

These studies are significant due to the various economic and social implications. This should motivate employers to improve the air quality of their office space to ensure greater productivity from their workers, and workers should seek cleaner air to improve their own decision-making capacity and ability to process information.

But there are also implications for everyone else. What about the air quality in schools? At home? At conferences? Wherever you may be working or studying, the air quality could be impacting your performance.

If part of the reason for reduced productivity is your air quality, what do you plan to do about it?