Air quality monitors for empowerment and performance

One of the most pernicious aspects of modern working is the use of monitoring equipment by organizations to keep their staff on their toes. Often such monitoring is used to determine productivity metrics (without much understanding of what productivity really means).

However, there are some occasions where monitoring can be quite empowering, and that is in the area surrounding the use of environmental monitors, especially those for air quality.

The new RESET standard, for example, is one of those certifications that has the potential to empower and embolden building users (office workers, retail customers, hotel guests, etc.) to demand changes to the environment for comfort and safety (and also productivity).

The RESET standard (which has some degree of alignment with other building certification systems, such as WELL) not only requires several important parameters of indoor air quality to be measured and recorded (useful for building managers assessing the performance of their HVAC systems), but also to have indoor air quality reported in real time and displayed in such a way as to be accessible and understood by building users.

Awair Omni indoor air quality monitor. The green indicator light and the score show that the air here is very good

Such monitors can be very empowering. If they are visible and showing that there is something not quite right about the air, then that provides the evidence required to make a complaint to the facilities help desk. As well as the office worker seeing the data, the facilities help desk should be able to see the same information. Not only that, but there will be a record of the data, so trends can be observed and potential problems identified and fixed quickly. Furthermore, employers can be held to account if monitor data are not acted upon.

Sometimes, people are reluctant to complain, for fear of being regarded as moaners. However, a dispassionate air quality monitor certainly empowers and emboldens people to encourage their employers to manage the environment better, or even hand over control, where practical, to the users of the space concerned. Where organizations are struggling to retain and recruit, such a visual demonstration of provision of a decent quality working environment is very helpful.

Taking appropriate action

My recent forays into the complex world of indoor air quality (and I claim little expertise beyond a couple of online courses and some fascinating discussions with real experts) has demonstrated just how complex and multi-dimensional the subject is. Even though there are many indices for air quality, it is an understanding of the relative importance of each parameter in different situations that is fascinating – and this goes beyond purely objective physiological impacts. It strays well into aspects of human behaviour.

It is actually very important to recognise how individuals are pretty good at determining what matters to them.

Whilst maintaining a safe environment always has to be a top priority for building operators, the fickleness and resourcefulness of the apparently irrational humans that populate the building have to be taken into account.

In buildings where it is still possible to open windows, there is a risk that pollutants from outside will be brought in, which might worry a facilities manager doing their best to keep particulates out. However, that simple act of opening a window because the office is stuffy is both empowering (individual control rather than imposed conditions), but also might be the most effective way of getting rid of pollutants building up inside the building (carbon dioxide and VOCs for example).

People are actually quite good at assessing some risks. At one building where I carried out some interviews of office workers, most people readily appreciated that there were risks of pollution coming in when opening a window (the office was only a few hundred metres from a busy motorway), but they were prepared to do that because they wanted to freshen the air and reduce stuffiness (associated with carbon dioxide, temperature and humidity).

An air quality monitor might be one way to resolve arguments between facilities managers and building users – the decision to open the window can be validated by an improvement in the particular indoor air quality parameters that mattered to the user at the time.

Air quality monitoring for performance

Some recent research, for example that carried out by Joseph Allen (https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/10.1289/ehp.1510037, for example) shows clearly that elevated levels of carbon dioxide have a significant impact on cognitive ability.

It only takes a few minutes in a meeting room for carbon dioxide levels to increase above levels that are detrimental to cognitive ability. One of Allen’s studies showed that, on average, a 400-ppm increase in carbon dioxide was associated with a 21% decrease in a typical participant’s cognitive scores.

My own (rather informal) studies carried out in a small (but not untypical) meeting room showed that a small group of people in a 36 cubic metre room could increase carbon dioxide concentrations from a base level of approximately 500 ppm to over 1,200 ppm in under fifteen minutes.

Given that important business decisions are often made in small meeting rooms, rather than well-ventilated open-plan offices, it is potentially very concerning that those critical decisions are made by people whose cognitive abilities are compromised by high levels of carbon dioxide – senior executives are just as susceptible to the effects of elevated carbon dioxide as anyone else.

Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

A good quality indoor air quality monitor might be one of the best investments a business can make.

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