It’s about a new study led by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who wanted to find out if there’s a connection between air quality in offices and the cognitive function of the people who work there.
Short answer? Yes. Not only is there such a connection, but there are some uncomplicated ways to improve air quality and as a result, measurably improve the focus and response times that people demonstrate at work.
Here’s the study, the results, and how you might want to adjust your environment, whether you’re back in an office, or working remotely during the pandemic and beyond.
Carbon dioxide and fine particulate matter
Lead author Jose Guillermo Cedeno Laurent and colleagues say they recruited 302 office workers between ages 18 and 65 for their experiment, who lived and worked in six countries including the United States.
They outfitted the subjects with sensors to record the temperature and humidity in their offices, along with the amount of carbon dioxide and fine particulate matter in the air. Then, they followed them for a full year, from 2019 until just before the pandemic in March of last year.
The researchers also gave the subjects an app that ran on their phones, and that offered two types of cognitive tests when the carbon dioxide or fine particulate matter numbers breached certain thresholds.
The first type of test included something called the Stroop color-word test, which asked the workers to identify the color of the text of a word when the word itself literally spelled a different color.
*Example: The word “pink,” written here, displays in a black font, even though the word itself spells a different color. The point of the test is to measure attention and the ability to disregard irrelevant data.)
The second type of test simply asked subjects to add and subtract two-digit numbers, which measured cognitive speed and working memory.
1 to 8 percent
Overall, the research showed that relatively small differences in the levels of carbon dioxide and fine particulate matter in the air led to a measurably varied performance on the cognitive tests.
As an example, an increase of about 500 parts per million of CO2 — which the study suggests is roughly the difference between office air and the air outside a typical office building (which has about half as much CO2, in general) — was associated with between 1 percent and nearly 8 percent less efficient cognitive responses on the tests, depending on which cognitive attribute we’re focusing on.
“We have a huge body of research on the exposure to outdoor pollution,” Cedeno Laurent told the news site France24, which reported on the study this week, “but we spend 90 percent of our time indoors.”
Imagine if that 1 to 8 percent increase in cognitive function and focus at work were to translate into a similar increase in productivity, revenue, or profits. I’m sure you know a lot of companies who invest a lot more in initiatives that don’t achieve anywhere near that level of results.
Invest — and open a window
The data from this study came from just before the pandemic, but with Covid-19 still raging, mask and vaccine debates, and the question whether employees should go back to the office or not, it’s even more relevant now.
So, let’s go to the practical takeaways and advice.
First, air filtration and ventilation are worth paying attention to — and perhaps spending a bit of money to fix. Upgrading a building’s systems might be a worthwhile investment, along with good quality portable air filters.
Next, as Cedeno Laurent recommended to France24, if the U.S. government is truly about to pass a massive infrastructure package, this might be a smart time to start planning for “energy-efficient, high-performance buildings that provide the right amount of ventilation and air filtration.”
Finally, there’s also a less expensive solution, or else one you can implement even if you don’t have the ability to overhaul your building’s ventilation system: given the lower rates of CO2 and fine particulate matter outside, just get used to working with the windows open.
The study can be found in the most recent edition of the journal, Environmental Research Letters.