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How to create a productive, healthy workspace

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Entrepreneurs who make even minor improvements to their employees' work environments will see a significant jump in productivity, according to the National Research Council of Canada. Whether it's air quality, thermal comfort or the layout of your office, a healthy work environment helps cut absenteeism by ensuring that employees stay in good health and have a general sense of well-being.

Buildings that are environmentally friendly are typically more comfortable for employees and so reduce costs in the long term. Here are some pointers to consider.

The role of your contractor

Your contractor should help ensure that your building meets heating and air circulation codes and other guidelines. Ideally, he or she should be aware of the latest construction methods and materials that improve workplace environments. Check your contractor's portfolio to see if they have developed expertise in this area.

Even if your contractor is meeting basic legal specifications, this doesn't necessarily mean your work environment will be an ideal one. You can measure your building's environmental performance using well-known standards such as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green building rating system, or LEED, which can help you determine green design strategies and measure and monitor your progress.

Air quality

In Canada, the importance of air quality is directly related to the weather and the amount of time employees spend indoors. Poor air quality can result in a phenomenon known as sick building syndrome involving headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, sinus congestion, coughing, sneezing, dizziness or nausea, as well as irritations of the skin, eyes, nose or throat—all of which reduce productivity.

Many indoor pollutants are invisible and can be inhaled. Some key pollutants are:

  • Biological contaminants, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, dust-mite allergens and pollen. The presence of moisture and dirt can cause mould and other biological contaminants to thrive. High humidity levels can also spread unhealthy biological pollutants.
  • Chemical pollutants, including emissions from products used in the building such as office equipment, furniture, wall and floor coverings and cleaning products.
  • Particle pollutants—solid substances light enough to be suspended in the air. These substances can be drawn into a building as a result of outside activities such as sanding, printing, copying and machine operation.

To improve your building's air quality, first assess the materials used to build it, such as insulation and floor and wall coverings. The dust emanating from these building materials can have long-term negative effects on employees.

Another step is to evaluate the efficiency of your heating system or look at alternatives. For example, conventional, forced-air heating systems can be combined with radiant floor heating to improve building occupants' comfort.

Employees can also help improve your building's air quality. Be sure that they avoid blocking air vents with furniture or equipment, water and maintain office plants regularly, report water leaks immediately, dispose of garbage properly, store food correctly and immediately report any changes in air quality.

Thermal comfort

Thermal comfort in a work environment—the extent to which employees feel hot or cold—can affect morale. You should aim to achieve a level of reasonable comfort that satisfies the majority of employees in the workplace. Three main factors determine thermal comfort levels: Ambient temperature, relative humidity and air circulation.

Ambient temperature

Hot workplaces tend to make employees feel tired, while very low temperatures will leave employees feeling agitated and reduce their ability to concentrate. Even slight variations can have a significant impact on comfort and productivity. The following thresholds can be used as benchmarks:

  • 24 C (75 F): People feel hot, drowsy and lethargic.
  • 22 C (72 F): The perfect, year-round indoor temperature for workers who primarily do their jobs sitting down.
  • 21 C (70 F): The ideal temperature for knowledge-based, professional work.
  • 18 C (64 F): Sedentary employees begin to shiver, while physically active personnel feel fine.

Humidity and air circulation are also important. When humidity is too high, it makes office air feel heavy and can lead to growth of bacteria and mould. Conversely, an unduly dry environment will make employees uncomfortable, with dried-out mucous membranes, chapped skin and electrostatic shocks.

Thermal guidelines

In light of all this, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) recommends that office temperatures be kept between 21 and 23 degrees Celsius (between 69 and 73 degrees Fahrenheit) and that relative humidity be maintained at 50%, while every possible effort is made to reduce air circulation.

This CSA standard includes a series of measures for improving workers' physical well-being. Taking these factors into consideration when designing their workplace and selecting the right ventilation system and windows will leave you better equipped to maintain thermal comfort and avoid sick building syndrome.

Office and plant design and layout

The design and operation of your indoor environment—including acoustics, lighting and design—can also have a big impact on your work environment and, ultimately, on employee productivity.

In offices, be sure your acoustical environment is pleasant and causes no unneeded stress. Sound-absorbing panels can help, as can arranging your office layout so that employees who need to concentrate are exposed to less noise.

Workstation layouts should minimize demands on posture, with monitors correctly placed at eye level to avoid neck injuries. As well, ample non-glare lighting should be provided for employees who work at computers. Be sure that spaces such as conference rooms or rest areas feature comfortable lighting.

In manufacturing settings, a plant's layout can have a major impact on employees’ ability to move about easily and perform their tasks. BDC Advisory Services can provide advice on designing your building space to maximize fluidity of movement and improve productivity. Lean manufacturing practices encourage entrepreneurs to design indoor spaces and production lines with ease of movement in mind.

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