Feel better at the flick of a switch

One reason for employees' dissatisfaction at the office is their lack of control over their environment. Next week's forum on workplace comfort will address such issues, writes David Nicholson-Lord
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The Independent Culture
H omo sapiens is probably the world's most adaptable species, but even humans can be pushed too far. In the past two decades, millions of us have undergone an enormous but largely discounted change in habitat. We have moved indoors - specifically, into big air-conditioned office blocks. And many of us, it seems, do not like it.

Next week the Royal Institute of British Architects will play host to the first workplace comfort forum, which will look at modern places of work - which by and large means offices - from an unusual and neglected perspective, that of the occupant. The forum is backed by RIBA's London region as well as the Building Research Establishment, the Building Centre Trust, the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment at University College, London and the Department of Trade and Industry. The agenda is refreshingly diverse - from the causes of "thermal discomfort" to the use of plants for cooling or cleansing - but has a common, if unspoken, theme: sick buildings.

Many modern offices are sick: they are badly designed and operated and make their occupants feel rotten. The biggest UK survey of building- related sickness found that 80 per cent of workers suffered symptoms, including lethargy, stuffy nose, dry throat or eyes and headaches, all of which vanished on leaving the building. Some buildings, such as the Public Records Office in London, had to be closed down; others became unlettable. Thus was born one of the stranger illnesses of the Eighties - sick building sydrome.

The condition has much in common with ME or attention deficit disorder or even repetitive strain injury: it is new and mystifying and some people refuse to believe it exists. It was "discovered" in the Eighties, but the Nineties have shown less interest in it. Part of the reason is the new work climate - staff are less likely to complain about their conditions (and employers more likely to ignore them) if jobs are at risk. And research findings are suspiciously fluid: as one investigator puts it, the answer you get often depends on the question you ask.

There is little doubt, however, that the phenomenon is real and that it carries a cost. Studies have shown sick buildings can lower productivity by 40 per cent and raise absenteeism by up to 30 per cent. A 4C temperature rise above a comfortable 20C can cause a 50 per cent drop in productivity. None of this is surprising if you take what might be called a gestalt view of a modern office block - a place that deliberately seals its occupants off from the outside world, fills the space thus created with a heady and potentially toxic cocktail of solvents, vapours and recycled air, and then proceeds to manage this small, artificial universe through petty autocracy and incompetence.

Early explanations of sick building syndrome tended to emphasise physical explanations: dirty air from malfunctioning air-conditioning systems, "offgassing" from new synthetic carpets and furniture, vapours from photocopiers. Add to this the bungling of building services managers who can't even control temperature or humidity - Danish researchers have identified "office eye syndrome", linked to a dry atmosphere and capable of permanently damaging the cornea - and the potential for discomfort is great.

Yet objective conditions are not a particularly good guide to how well a building is rated by its occupants. Naturally ventilated buildings are often preferred to air-conditioned ones even though they perform worse according to "scientific" measures of heat and humidity and air-cleanliness. The reason for this is that in most naturally ventilated buildings you can open the windows - you have control over your surroundings. As next week's forum will hear, human psychology - and, in particular, issues of power and autonomy - is emerging as a chief clue to the "mystery" of sick buildings.

The white-collar revolution of the past 15 years - the move to a service economy, the great human migration to an indoor office habitat, the new relationship between humans and computers - offers a sharp contrast with the past. For most of history, humans have been an outdoor species, in regular contact with nature. But, you do not need to be a biophiliac - one who believes human beings need contact with nature - to appreciate the enormity of the change. We spend more than 90 per cent of our lives indoors, a proportion that is increasing as our hours of work increase. Nature may be wet, cold and windy, but at least it is free. Offices, by contrast, are controlled - often badly by someone else.

Adrian Leaman, a speaker at the forum and co-author of a new research report from the BRE on comfort in offices, says research into sick building syndrome in the late Eighties constantly threw up "control" as a key variable, correlating closely with most measures of occupant satisfaction. At its simplest, many people are unhappy because they cannot switch on a light or turn off the heating.

Most buildings do not give people this control. The BRE study was based on an analysis of 16 buildings by social scientists and building services engineers and identified "virtuous clusters" in some buildings, in which comfort, control, health, productivity and energy efficiency went together. But Mr Leaman says only 10 per cent of buildings fall into this category. Most exhibit a "vicious circle" of staff dissatisfaction and low productivity, representing what the report calls a "substantial hidden cost to many organisations".

Yet control is in part a metaphor for power and hierarchy. Staff unhappiness is largely ignored, says Mr. Leaman, because "the people with the most power tend to have the most control. They sit next to windows, they have cellular offices and comfortable working conditions. Control also goes with things like being male. Women tend to sit in the middle of buildings, away from the window seats. So they are more sensitive to poorer conditions."

In some offices, skilled and committed building services managers can make up for the lack of personal control by responding quickly to complaints. That this is a rarity points to another feature which may be crucial to understanding what makes buildings sick.

Next week, Mr Leaman will join with Bill Bordass, a leading consultant, in advancing the thesis that we are creating buildings that are too complex to manage. Faced with the task of herding ever larger numbers of people (and their computers and faxes), into ever bigger spaces, building designers have opted for central, automated control systems, aimed at removing control from occupants and keeping offices within broad bands of comfort in the 19-25C temperature and 25-60 per cent humidity range. Such complex environments have greater "carrying capacity", but are harder to manage. For some organisations, say Leaman and Bordass, the management task is impossible.

The solutions are as simple in theory as they are elusive in practice. Simplify the hardware. Restore human control. Consult users - a rubric, say Leaman and Bordass, that has attracted much lip service but meagre observance. Above all, perhaps, put people first and technology second. Technology allowed us to create these artificial worlds, but it is no guarantee that we can actually run them.