David Willetts: The role of daylight in employee engagement

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What makes you get up and go to work each day? A monthly paycheck, interesting work, a good boss and strong relationships with colleagues all get us out of bed and into the office. But the physical environment we work in has an increasingly important role to play in keeping us engaged when we get there.

Research from furniture giant Steelcase reveals that employees who are highly satisfied with various aspects of their workplace also demonstrate higher levels of employee engagement. But, worryingly, only 13 per cent of global workers are highly engaged and highly satisfied with their work experience. That’s corroborated by research from global think tank Leesman which shows that just 55 per cent of people feel the design of their workplace enables them to work effectively. Of the more than 200,000 employee in 63 countries surveyed by Leesman, 77 per cent state that natural light is important to them, yet only 58 per cent are satisfied with the offering in their workplaces. Meanwhile research over the past few years from the World Green Building Council, the International Well Building Institute and Human Spaces has all demonstrated the importance of natural light in employee engagement and productivity.

Yet think of an office building, and you’ll likely picture windows covered with blinds, obscuring any view to the outside world and obstructing natural daylight. Up until the 1970s it was widely believed that artificial office light was superior to natural light. Research by software firms in the US in the 1980s looking to solve a lack of engagement and productivity among software developers discovered that the single most detrimental factor was poor office design and a lack of natural daylight.

All living things need dark and quality daylight to function properly. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s review of the effects of natural light on building occupants showed that it reduces the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder, increases visual clarity and colour perception, boosts Vitamin D absorption, stimulates the Pineal Gland which helps to regulate sleep patterns, increases mental alertness and improves mood. Natural daylight supports the regulation of Vitamin D, serotonin and melatonin which can prevent colds and flu, and brittle bone disease thereby boosting employee engagement through reducing absenteeism. One workplace study revealed that view quality and daylight resulted in a 6.5 per cent difference in absenteeism ¬– those employees sitting closer to windows were less likely to be absent from work.

A workplace infused with daylight also provides a view of the outside which can act as a buffer against the negative impact of job stress and positively impact general wellbeing. The research from Human Spaces, for example, demonstrated that proximity to natural elements such as greenery and sunlight was associated with a 15 per cent increase in improved wellbeing and creativity and 6 per cent higher productivity.

Other research has shown the strong economic impact of natural light.
Daylight has a role to play in increasing retail sales per square foot in the retail environment, boosting exam performance by 20% in schools, increasing recovery times in hospitals, and resulting in a 2-16% productivity gain in office environments. Facilities with good daylight levels make economic sense to both owner and occupier. In addition, they use up to a third less energy than conventional buildings.

To achieve strong daylight levels within a workplace requires thought from the outset with daylight built into the original design through site selection, building orientation, window design, configuration and glazing, strategic use of overhangs and interior design and furnishings. However, bringing daylight into the office can also be ‘retrofitted’ into existing facilities by simple acts such as removing blinds and moving desks around. For example, many companies now place meeting rooms and cellular offices towards the middle of a floorplate to allow natural light to flood the main office space where the majority of people work.

This democratisation of daylight is not without its risks. While the recommended lux level for a desk is between 300 and 500 lux, direct sunlight can be as much as 100,000 lux. This glare causes severe discomfort and can be as negative as no light at all and needs to be carefully managed whether it be through solar shading, window film or other methods. But the ultimate prize of a room with a view is worth the effort for all involved.

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