Improve Employee Productivity and Engagement with Customizable Environments

The struggle over the office thermostat is real, and it’s impacting more than the relationships between sweater lovers and those who wear sandals in the dead of winter. Having personal control of your workspace, including temperature and lighting, improves productivity and engagement.

That’s according to new research from Purdue University’s Center for High Performance Buildings (CHPB) and JLL. The two-year study, “Development of self-tuned indoor environments,” explores the effect of customizable indoor environmental conditions on building energy consumption, as well as employee productivity and satisfaction.

Most companies would agree that employee engagement is critical to the company’s success, but JLL research shows that 59 percent of employees around the globe aren’t engaged or are only somewhat engaged at work. And it’s an expensive problem: Gallup estimates stagnating engagement costs U.S. businesses more than $450 billion in lost productivity every year.

The Power of Choice

The controllable environment study aims to find solutions to the engagement problem. Researchers are collecting data from more than 200 participants in private and open-plan offices in an on-campus living laboratory. Each private office has dimmable electric lights, motorized shades and a variable air volume system.

At the start of the study, researchers installed workplace sensors in office buildings to measure temperature, light levels and employee actions during a regular eight-hour workday. One group of workers used customizable desktop computer controls, designed by the Purdue researchers, to control light and temperature. Separately, another group worked in an office with standard wall-mounted thermostat and lighting controls.

Initial findings suggest that big benefits come with choice. The workers who could easily adjust room lighting and temperature from their computers were more engaged than those using the wall-mounted controls. They also relied more on daylight than artificial light, thus consuming less building energy. With light and temperature just right, these participants also reported higher levels of productivity and performed better in cognitive tests than the control group.

A View into the Future of Smart Buildings

The data coming from the study is enabling the researchers to develop algorithms that can learn occupant preferences accurately and efficiently. People acted fairly consistently over the duration of the four-month study, an encouraging sign that software could be designed to create specific profiles.

Faced with the challenge of collecting a large amount of data, the research team developed the novel idea of “clusters”—groups identified by similar preferences and behavior in the workplace environment. With these cluster groups in place, unique profiles for new individuals could be measured using a fraction of the data points and assigned values based on the percentage of preferences that aligned with each cluster.

The preference profiles enable a faster path to identifying and meeting an individual’s specific workplace needs. This process is enabling a shift to a more human-centric workplace environment, which has been slow in the real-estate industry.

One year into the study, the research team is looking forward to what’s next. In the second year, the researchers will implement prototype algorithm-based software in actual office environments. In the end, the researchers hope to leverage the data to create smart building technologies, bringing the power of choice to both warm and cold-blooded office workers.

About the Author

Leo O’Loughlin
Leo O’Loughlin is senior director, JLL Energy & Sustainability Services.

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