When it comes to making a workplace function at peak productivity, it isn’t about the meals and snacks, coffee bars, ping pong tables, or treadmill desks. The amenity that employees are clamoring for most is something simpler and more readily abundant: Natural light.
In study after study, office workers say natural light in the workplace is a top perk that helps with overall happiness and productivity levels. In fact, in a survey we conducted of over 1,000+ U.S. respondents, we found that 83% of employees say natural light is important to have at their workspace. Despite this, only 50% have access to it.
To further illuminate the subject, we talked to two experts on workplace ergonomics and lighting, Dr. Arnold Wilkins, Professor of Psychology at the University of Essex, whose research focuses on lighting, and Dr. Alan Hedge, a Professor at Cornell University who specializes in Ergonomic Design. Both pointed to the importance of natural light — and the ill effects poor fluorescent and LED lighting can bring to people in the workplace.
So, what exactly is wrong with innovative LED bulbs that help cut energy costs, or the fluorescent lights that have been the mainstay in offices for generations?
In short, flicker. Fluorescent and LED lights pulsate, creating a constant flicker that irritates human eyes. Their alternate current power source, which makes the lights continuously dim and brighten at a quick speed, causes this irritation. LED lights, in fact, go beyond dimming, turning all the way on and off again at a rapid rate.
Though long thought to be unnoticeable to humans, research has shown this flickering can cause eyestrain and headaches. And for people who suffer from migraines or photosensitivity, exposure to these lights can exacerbate symptoms.
In addition to physical symptoms, all this rapid flashing can tank productivity. “I don’t think people appreciate how important this issue is. I’ve done work that has found our reading speeds can be impacted by the flicker from fluorescent and LED lighting,” Dr. Wilkins tells us.
Similar to the way ergonomics and workplace design can make employees feel better, thoughtful lighting design can mitigate common problems caused by artificial lighting. "Nowadays with LED lighting, whether or not you have perceptible flickering depends entirely on the power source and circuitry powering the lights themselves," Dr. Wilkins says. "There are no standards in place that propel manufacturers and building designers to limit the amount of flicker an LED light produces." But through thoughtful workplace design, you can create a more comfortable lighting arrangement with LED lights.
The Key Takeaway
All fluorescent lights — and most LED lights — flicker, which can cause headaches and eyestrain and contribute to decreased productivity, leaving workers feeling exhausted at the end of the workday. But conscientious workplace designers can limit the amount of flickering with LED lights by being thoughtful about what lights and power sources they use.
Natural sunlight, on the other hand, can have an outsized impact in the workplace when used well. “There is no artificial light that beats natural sunlight. It helps set our circadian clocks, it gives us a sense of what time of day it is — it surpasses artificial light,” Dr. Hedge tells us.
This circadian rhythm — our internal clock — can dramatically affect our sleep patterns and moods. What’s more, natural light boosts vitamin D levels, which, among other benefits, aids in absorbing calcium and combating disease, helps lessen the impact of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and improves sleep.
That’s why the presence of natural light in the workplace leaves workers happier and more productive. According to a Future Workplace study included in a recent Harvard Business Review article, 78% of workers say having access to natural light and views improves their well-being, and 70% self-reported increase in workplace performance.
And the results of one of Dr. Hedge’s studies demonstrated that natural light in the workplace can lead to a 56% reduction in drowsiness, a 51% drop in the incidence of eyestrain and a 63% drop in the incidence of headaches.
The Key Takeaway
Natural light in workspaces can have a whole host of positive impacts, including better overall health and wellness (eyestrain reduction, happiness increase), increased productivity levels and improved employee satisfaction. The best workplaces are finding ways to increase natural light for all their employees — not just those at the top.
Designing workplaces to include more elements that mirror nature can make a big difference when it comes to employee productivity and happiness.
“We’ve done work that shows that if you depart from natural design, it can make people uncomfortable,” says Dr. Wilkins, who argues that unnatural design (shapes not found in nature) and artificial lighting can create additional strains on our brains as we process them. “Areas of high contrast in design are not well received by the human eye in large quantities — they create extra work for the brain.”
Dr. Hedge agrees. When it comes to light in particular, most lighting designs in offices feature lights that point down from the ceiling, making the floors and desks brightly lit and the ceilings darker — the exact opposite of what our brains experience outdoors.
In an experiment, Dr. Hedge discovered that by pointing light fixtures toward the ceiling instead of the floor, it would disperse more naturally. “We found that simply changing how the light was being distributed and pointing lighting fixtures up towards the ceiling had a significant and positive impact on productivity of people,” Dr. Hedge tells us.
The Key Takeaway
The brain has more work to do when processing new and unnatural settings. Incorporating natural elements into the workplace — especially natural light and artificial lighting arrays that mimic some of the effects of natural light — can help lessen the brain’s processing needs, freeing up employees to better focus on the task at hand.
Natural light isn’t the only benefit of including windows in the workplace. “Another thing we’ve found people in the workplace value is being able to look through a window, preferably at a natural scene, while they work. Studies have actually shown people are more productive when they’re able to look through a window while they work,” says Dr. Hedge.
The Future Workplace study backs this up: “…[The] absence of natural light and outdoor views hurts the employee experience. Over a third of employees feel that they don’t get enough natural light in their workspace. 47% of employees admit they feel tired or very tired from the absence of natural light or a window at their office, and 43% report feeling gloomy because of the lack of light.”
According to Dr. Hedge, this has a lot to do with the time we spend on screens. “It’s hard to do sustained work on a screen without your productivity beginning to decline,” he tells us. Buildings that bring in natural light and provide views that allow people to rest their eyes periodically “are going to be much more successful at encouraging productivity and helping people accomplish more in their workdays.”
Of course, bringing natural light into the workplace isn’t as simple as installing giant windows. “The challenge with large windows is two-fold: You get an increase in heat and an increase in glare if it’s a bright sunny day,” says Dr. Hedge.
Given that workplace temperature can be a top pain point for employees, Dr. Hedge and his team have been studying new kinds of glass that can take on a slight tint under high amounts of daylight, similar to transition glasses.
“Newer types of electrochromic glass have an electrical current running through them, allowing you to manually control the level of tint the glass takes on,” he tells us. This “smart glass” can help regulate temperature regardless of the sun’s intensity.
The Key Takeaway
The benefit of windows in the workplace is two-fold: they provide both a source of natural light and a place for employees to look during important off-screen moments. While spaces with large windows can make regulating temperature difficult, advancements in glass technology are helping mitigate this challenge.
Productivity at work is closely tied to how employees feel, and one of the best ways to boost employee health and happiness is to create a work environment that incorporates natural elements that limit the amount of processing work our brains have to do.
As Dr. Wilkins says, “In terms of productivity, you want to do right by your workforce. You want lighting that won’t give people a headache. You also want an office setting that won’t give someone a headache either.”
The bottom line:
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As the Content Strategist at Hana, my job involves digging deep into the present and future of flexible workspaces and coworking. When I'm not working my way through industry trends, you can find me working my way through a book or looking for the perfect taco stand in Austin, Texas.