Building services for better business

Ergro, productivity, maintenance
Investing in the working environment — Chris Wollen.

Building services are often talked about in terms of energy efficiency, cost and functionality, but how they operate has a direct effect on employee productivity. Apart from influencing a businesses’ bottom-line when it comes to fuel bills, ‘bad’ building services can also reduce output, cause employee unhappiness and even days off for ill health. Chris Wollen of Ergro, looks at the common issues and how they can be resolved through good installation and maintenance choices.

The effect of temperature, lighting and workplace layout on employee productivity has been well-documented, with ‘sick building syndrome’ the catch-all term to describe the feelings of lethargy and other physical symptoms caused by poor building services and layout. Research* conducted in 2006 indicated a 10% reduction in staff performance at both 30°C and 15°C, compared with a baseline between 21 and 23°C. Despite there being a clear correlation between badly thought-out buildings and employee output, according to our own research businesses are still compromising staff well-being.

In our survey** that examined effective and productive workplaces in the UK, 38% of employees were unhappy with the temperature of their workspaces. 29% of staff have no air conditioning at all, with the south east of England being the most overheated region; 39% of recipients from this area complained of being too hot. Worryingly, only 18% of managers considered workplace design, highlighting the disregard of its importance.

So, what is the answer?

Buildings must be well-designed and well-maintained, with the long-term benefits of employee productivity and energy efficiency taken into account, over and above short term cost. New buildings tend to be better thought out, using the latest technologies and proper temperature zoning. The big issues lie in existing buildings, particularly where these have to be modified to accommodate additional staff.

We often see office spaces where no thought has been given to how heating, air conditioning and ventilation is delivered and where employees work. In open-plan offices, for example, where partitioning is used, this is commonly placed with no regard to the existing fan-coil or grille locations. We see partitions installed through the middle of the grilles, or under fan-coil units. In addition, fan coils are used to serve more than one office. All of this results in an inability to control temperature in individual areas.

Improving workspaces

Ergro was asked by TEVA UK, one of the top-10 pharmaceutical companies in the UK, to investigate hot and cold spots around the company’s offices in Harlow, Essex. Over a 3-month period, Ergro monitored all the air-conditioning units and the building’s temperature. Mini USB sensors were fitted around the office, and a text and e-mail alert system was implemented to advise the building engineer when a fluctuation in temperature occurred.

This monitoring allowed Ergro to pinpoint any problem areas, which highlighted fluctuations in temperature caused by staff making ad hoc heating decisions throughout the working week, resulting in an imbalance in air conditioning.

Where offices have been expanded to, for example, accommodate six people instead of two, the additional cooling and ventilation requirements needed for the increase in body heat are not considered. Many older buildings have no air conditioning at all (29% nationally according to our survey) leaving sweltering conditions in the summer that are definitely not conducive to productivity.

For offices that do include air conditioning, the common approach to maintenance is to wait for the problem and then deal with it. In the height of our hottest months, fixing the air conditioning or making a decision to get a system installed will be too little, too late. Air-conditioning engineers are in peak demand, and the work itself will cause parts of a building to be out of action — with staff already suffering.

Where buildings are ‘too hot’ in the winter, a scenario that can cause sickness as people come in from the freezing cold to overly warm internal spaces, buildings that still have a cooling load should check chiller, boiler and air-handling-unit settings and alter them to provide ‘free’ cooling — an obvious but often ignored process.

Generalising is not the answer. Individuals need control where possible. Everyone has different requirements when it comes to temperature, and zoning in offices will also help reduce energy wastage. Unfortunately, even if zoning has been implemented, when spaces change this zoning is often not reconfigured.

Building services, how they are managed and maintained and their effect on employee well-being (and businesses’ bottom-line) should be an integral part of an organisation’s plans for 2016. On a day-to-day basis, uncomfortable working conditions will leave staff unhappy, with a direct effect on their productivity. Where these systems aren’t maintained, or the culture is one where problems are dealt with as they arise, breakdowns and reactive maintenance can prove costly and disruptive compared to a planned approach to maintaining a building. An investment in the working environment is an investment in a businesses’ success.

Chris Wollen is chairman of Ergro.


** The Ergronomics report was conducted by Populus among 1074 UK workers between on 3 and 4 June 2015

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