Where we work now

Here in the UK, it is the last day of National Plants at Work Week, organized by the interior landscaping trade association, Plants at Work. Usually, this is a celebration of the benefits of greenery in the office.

This year, however, our workplaces are very different, and may continue to be for a while yet, and Plants at Work have been discussing the ways by which we can all use plants wherever we work – the home office, kitchen table, spare room or even in the garden.

Where we work is not just a room, with a desk and computer. For many, the place where we really work often isn’t physical at all, but inside our heads. The office and the laptop are just tools to communicate the outputs of work. For many, work can’t be measured by keystrokes or attentiveness to a camera or attendance at virtual meetings. At best, that is just a measure of activity.

Certainly, for some jobs, activity measures are the only practical proxy of work outputs, but those for whom the office is primarily the place to transfer ideas to a document or communicate them to a colleague, then the place where those ideas are formed is the real workplace. That means being in environments that forge creativity.

That could be a warm bath, or a walk in the woods. It could be the laptop on the dining table, but it may also be somewhere else entirely. Inspiration can happen anywhere and at any time – not just between 9 and 5 in an office block.

As good a place to be creative as anywhere. Photo by Tanner Vote on Pexels.com

For many years, those that have worked from home as a matter of course were often viewed with suspicion by employers and colleagues alike. Were they really working, or were they slacking off? (Were those employers incapable of actually measuring outputs?)

Some employers did insist on monitoring remote staff using technology, but now that even those managers are forced to working at home, maybe there is a little more understanding that people can be trusted to do good work without the need for a desk in the corporate office.

Evolution

It may be that as we contemplate the future of work, there will be a more rapid evolution of the home working environment. Already, employers, faced with a future when more and more people will be working away from the corporate office for extended periods, are examining their responsibilities for creating safe and healthy working environments.

This certainly includes getting technology right, and ergonomics. Good chairs and lighting are going to be vital, along with legal obligations such as complying with display screen regulations.

As well as the bare minimum, enlightened employers might be considering providing some of the things that make office life more bearable – perhaps some professionally prepared plant displays (e.g. this service from a London firm, Indoor Garden Design through their new venture https://www.intrayplants.com/ ).

Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

Some are even offering the delivery of home office buildings, although that raises many questions.

I wonder about how insecure a company must feel that it needs to remind its employees who they work for with a branded pod placed, presumably rent-free, in the back garden with the desk facing away from the window – recreating the environment of the office battery cage. If company culture has to be reinforced by having a massive logo, rather than by decent management, then I would be very worried. And what might be the consequence of hanging a poster over the logo?

The pod itself looks really well designed – good acoustics, modern lighting and all pre-cabled, but is this where you will be expected to be creative and imaginative? Maybe a few pot plants would help.

The nature of work is changing, and it is changing in ways not even imagined at the beginning of the year. Many office workers have had nightmares of trying to juggle space, homes schooling and caring along with work, but many have also experienced the benefits of being able to manage their work with more freedom, and have found themselves more productive, more creative and more engaged.

By being forced to loosen the leash on staff, employers should be seeing the benefits of empowerment and trust. The benefits to employers and employees of being liberated from the constraints of the workplace battery farm need to be preserved.

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.