Improving productivity in the workplace

High CO2 decreases cognitive capability

We all instinctively know that poor office conditions lead to dissatisfied, unproductive and unwell building occupants. However, until now the relationship between indoor environmental conditions and productivity has been largely studied in the laboratory.

The research:

Whole Life Performance Plus (WLP+) is a £530,000 three-year study, led by Oxford Brookes University and LCMB Building Performance, with funding support by Innovate UK and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). We studied people’s performance in real world environments and found that office environments can dramatically undermine people’s wellbeing and productivity.

Between February 2017 and October 2018, the WLP+ project monitored two office buildings that represent UK working conditions – one modern and one older building.

Workers from the two case study buildings took proofreading, numerical, and Stroop tests in a variety of indoor temperatures, CO2 levels and Relative Humidity conditions which were adjusted to test the impact on performance. Over 250 staff undertook a total of over 7,850 surveys and tasks to complete the analysis. The lessons learnt were applied in another ultra-modern building.

The findings:

The research found that when CO2 levels were lowered, people completed the tests dramatically faster and scored better:

  • Test scores improved by up to 12%
  • Where test speed was measured in one building, people worked 60% faster in lower CO2 concentrations, taking a mean of 8.2 minutes to complete a test in low CO2 concentrations, compared with 13.3 minutes in modest CO2 concentrations.

The implications of this ground-breaking study are dramatic. Previous studies1, 2 have shown that UK productivity can be improved by between 2 and 3.5% by optimising workplaces, which equates to £40 – £70 billion of additional output to the UK economy. After three years of development, LCMB have developed a solution that takes the benefits previously demonstrated in the laboratory into something that every company can easily benefit from, using the knowledge gained from this unique study.

This matters because as we all know the UK has a productivity problem. A UK worker currently produces less output per hour than a German, French or US worker. Over the long term the UK’s competitiveness, wealth and everyone’s standard of living will be determined by our productivity.

International comparisons of UK productivity (ICP), final estimates: 2016, ONS.


The growing body of evidence

Our research adds to the growing body of evidence that Indoor Environmental Quality (often referred to as IEQ) impacts worker productivity. Our research is important because most research to date has been carried out in laboratories and climate chambers. In contrast, the WLP+ project is the first significant study of productivity and the indoor environmental conditions temperature, CO2 and relative humidity in real world conditions.

Some of the existing evidence is summarised here:

In 2014, the World Green Building Council published “Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices” which presented overwhelming evidence that office design significantly impacts the health, wellbeing and productivity of staff. For example, the report suggested that better indoor air quality can lead to productivity improvements of 8-11%.

In 2015, Harvard University published their research “The impact of green buildings on cognitive function” which showed that worker cognitive scores were 61% higher in low VOC indoor environments and 101% higher in low VOC indoor environments with improved ventilation.

In 2016, The Stoddart review identified that effective workplace can improve business productivity by as much as 3.5%. Interestingly the study also found that UK business typically focused on making the workplace more efficient by reducing real estate costs, rather than focus on making people within the workplace more efficient. When we consider that people costs are many, many multiples of real estate costs, this logic is counterproductive.

An overview of the 2015 Harvard study


In 2017, the British Council for Offices published their report “Defining and measuring productivity in offices” which suggests that productivity benefits of 2-3% could be gained by improving the workplace environment. They estimated that the value of productivity gains to occupants is roughly equivalent to between 30% (in central London) and 75% (outside of London) of the annual office rent.

All of this work, and research, suggests that UK businesses and organisations are sitting on untapped potential of 2-3.5% productivity gains by optimising their workplace environments. This research had predominately been undertaken in laboratories and climate chambers.


Our approach

The WLP+ project co-led by Oxford Brookes University and my company LCMB Building Performance set out to examine the relationship between productivity and indoor environmental conditions in the real world.

“We spend 90% of our time indoors and it’s crucial to understand how today’s climate-controlled environments are impacting the way we perform. Our research has developed an innovative approach for measuring and optimising indoor environmental conditions and workplace performance to create productive working environments. This ultimately could see better staff engagement and greater return on investment for businesses”.

Professor Rajat Gupta, Oxford Brooke University

The WLP+ research looked at worker performance in two case study buildings typical of UK building stock:

  • An older, refurbished central London office building used as King’s College London’s administrative centre.
  • A more modern office building used by NATS near Southampton. NATS is the National Air Traffic Service.

Over 250 workers undertook a total of over 7,850 surveys and the analysis shows that worker performance was significantly affected by CO2 levels, temperature and relative humidity.

An overview of worker performance in WLP+ case study buildings from right to left, comfort levels vs perceived change in productivity, CO2 concentrations vs cognitive test scores, CO2 concentrations vs time taken to complete cognitive test, CO2 concentrations vs cognitive test scores

Our research proves that real-world workplace performance is positively and negatively impacted by changing indoor environmental conditions. All the buildings we looked at during our research, not just the case study buildings, had sub-optimal indoor environmental conditions to a larger or lesser extent, typically depending on their age and the sophistication of their design and control.

Conclusions and insights

Based on our research, we have concluded that buildings and workplaces that are optimised for IEQ will increase worker performance, productivity and well-being. This suggests to us a compelling economic argument and business case for ensuring new and existing workplaces are optimised for indoor environments. Adopting this approach will help businesses access the 2-3.5% workplace productivity improvement identified in study after study.

“This groundbreaking study provides insights that are valuable for every single UK company. This study highlights a relatively simple way for UK businesses and Government to increase the output of our economy by 2 to 3.5%, worth an additional £70 billion. LCMB has developed a workplace performance and productivity measurement and improvement methodology to help organisations improve their resource utilisation and return on investment based on the project findings”

 John O’Brien, MD and Founder LCMB


Download The full report: WLP+ PROJECT REPORT – 29 November 2018: “Improving Productivity in the Workplace – lessons learnt and insights from the Whole Life Performance Plus Project”








1The Stoddart review (2016)

2 BCO(2017) Defining and measuring productivity in offices

John O’Brien is the Founder and Managing Director of LCMB Building Performance Ltd, and has designed, constructed and operated over £3.5 billion worth of real estate. John and LCMB’s aim is to make a difference by making buildings work harder for their clients, their staff, customers and society. He can be contacted on t: 01295 722823, e: [email protected] .

About the WLP+ Project

The Whole Life Performance Plus (WLP+) project brings together a consortium of leading experts in building performance, property development and facilities management. LCMB Building Performance Ltd. and Low Carbon Building Research Group of Oxford Brookes University are co-leads on the project. The WLP+ solutions have been tested in office buildings managed by Argent (developer) and EMCOR UK (facilities management) and those owned and occupied by King’s College London. Throughout the project, findings have been disseminated by the British Council for Offices and Constructing Excellence.


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