Office Lighting and Productivity

I run a creative agency and lighting is a frequent topic. In short, we have the people who want to live in the dark and never talk to anyone. And the people who want to “let the light shine in!”. The bottom line is if you employ both you must side with the people who believe in light because their case is more dire.

shadows-on-the-walkHere is a mix of facts and opinions on the topic of lighting in the workplace. Some is research, and some based on running this company for the last 11 years. You may also want to see this post on Scobleizer about office lighting.

From the book Using Office Design to Increase Productivity,   Michael Brill

Lighting is an essential component of the office environment. People must perceive and attend to a variety of information in order to perform the tasks associated with office work. Approximately 85% of the information needed to perform these tasks is received through the eyes (Hughes, 1976). Therefore a luminous environment is not only desirable, but a necessity. – pg 175

Quantity of light:

Within a reasonable range of lighting levels, increasing the amount of light in a setting may lead to improvements in worker performance. Weston (1945) found that performance improved on a laboratory task when more lighting was provided but increases in performance became smaller with each incremental increase in lighting level. – pg 176


In general, increased lighting levels produce greater satisfaction (Boyce, 1973), but after lighting levels are sufficient for the tasks, adding more light provides smaller increases in satisfaction (Saunders, 1969). – pg 176

Quality of light:

Lighting quality appears to be a more important determinant of satisfaction than the quantity of light. Langdon and Keighley (1964) found that office workers who were dissatisfied with lighting did not like the distribution of the lighting in the office. … complained about the lack of “task lighting” (Conway, 1976).

And finally, problems with glare caused by very bright lighting may have decreased employee satisfaction in a study by Nemecek and Granjean (1973). – pg 176

Concerns regarding lighting in an office environment

  1. Providing enough light for a variety of work (desk, versus light for a file cabinet, tools, tasks..)
  2. Energy efficient (windows!)
  3. Lighting problems associated with computers, specifically glare (much less an issue with flat panel monitors thankfully!)

The Hawthorne Effect

Because we are human, you can’t believe what we say. Sad, but true. From Wikipedia on the Hawthorne Effect

The term gets its name from a factory called the Hawthorne Works, where a series of experiments on factory workers were carried out between 1924 and 1932.

Many types of experiments were conducted, but the initial purpose was to study the effects of lighting on worker productivity. Researchers found that productivity almost always increased after a change in illumination but later returned to normal levels. This effect was observed for minute increases in illumination.

Or to put this another way, any change in the lighting resulted in increased productivity. The assumption being that asking and testing different lighting levels means management is “watching” and people temporarily work harder.

Measure without Informing if Possible

From a management perspective, being familiar with the Hawthorne Effect from college, when the employees finally convinced me to try out “casual dress” for the company I agreed. What I didn’t tell everyone is that I would look at billable time, total time worked, sales increases or decreases, job satisfaction, etc in relation. No change.

So while I have no doubt our employees at the time HONESTLY BELIEVED casual dress code would increase productivity, in fact it did not. Casual dress did not improve productivity by one iota.

Managers in Particular Need Well Lit Approachable Areas

From a google search I found these comments on what employees seek in managers. This one on Approachability directly relates to lighting:

Another key personality trait is approachability. This quality is related to your human dimension and to how comfortable that people feel around you. Remember, approachability can be crucial in many situations.

Consider scenarios when employees have problems in their work lives or personal lives, when they make mistakes on the job, when they want to discuss their salary and when they want to express concerns about you.

Employees also want to approach you with positive feedback and new ideas that can help the organization to improve. If you are not approachable, employees often feel too much distance and discomfort.

Direct Connection Between Lack of Lighting and Depression

Low light and lack of light is a cause of depression. So much so that light is actually used as a TREATMENT for depression. Particularly full spectrum natural light. From wikipedia on darkness:

Darkness can have a strong psychological impact. It can cause depression in people with seasonal affective disorder, fear in nyctophobics, comfort in lygophilics, or attraction as in gothic fashion.

This comes into play in the office environment when a vocal minority want all of the lights turned down low. Everyone agrees and, briefly, productivity goes up. Then it drops back to previous levels and nobody can find their keys in the dark. And depression and sarcasm go up. Joy.

An additional concern in an office environment is people who have offices benefit from the windows.  But are they leaving the door open and the blinds open to share that natural light with their coworkers? Or is this collective good (light is a collective good!) being hoarded by the few?

As a creative agency we frequently get the requests to turn the lights off. To have everyone live in a cave. And it looks very cool. Images of glowing monitors and hipsters hunkered down with blue LED lights outlining their computers come to mind!

But to be clear, it is a minority that benefit from working in the dark, if even they benefit at all. Don’t listen to hipsters who want to work in the dark, they are telling the truth, but they speak only for themselves and not the majority of their coworkers (and certainly not clients).

One positive item about lighting changes  is if an employee suddenly starts wanting to live in the dark, this may be a cue to you to meet with them to find out what has changed. Why are they no longer approachable? Is there something you can help with from a work perspective?

The Bottom Line on Lighting in the Office Environment

  1. Quality of lighting matters more than quantity of lighting
  2. Provide adequate task lighting
  3. Share natural light from the windows as much as possible
  4. Pay extra for interior windows to exterior offices so the light is a shared good
  5. Turn the lights on to increase productivity if that is your one variable

PS – And on a side note – yea! Our office expansion is complete!

Hall’s 10 elements of culture

From The Silent Language by Edward T. Hall culture can be discerned by reviewing 10 elements of a culture. In his words:

The criteria, from an anthropological point of view, are firm. There are ten separate kinds of human activity which I have labeled Primary Message Systems (PMS) (editors note: how unfortunate?!) Only the first PMS involves language (editors note again: really?) – pg 37, The Silent Language, Hall

and here is the list from page 37+

  1. Interaction – irritable interaction and speech, to not be dead.
  2. Association – pecking order and joining cells, patterns
  3. Subsistence – food to the economy of a country
  4. Bisexuality – sex and reproduction (no, not the “bi” you are thinking)
  5. Territoriality – the taking, maintenance and defense of territory
  6. Temporality – cycles, rhythms, the passage of time
  7. Learning and Aquisition – study or “acquire” knowledge
  8. Play – humor, joy, competition
  9. Defense – warfare, religion, medicine, and all ways we cleverly defend ourselves
  10. Exploitation – use of materials, adapt to environment

Other gems from this amazing book include:

… humans experience on three different levels, how they communicate to their children in three ways while in the process of rearing them, how they alternate between three different types of awareness or consciousness and embue each experience with three different types of emotional overtones. I have called this crucial trio:

  1. the formal,
  2. the informal, and
  3. the technical

He continues

One of the most effective ways to learn about oneself is by taking seriously the cultures of others. It forces you to pay attention to those details of live which differentiate them from you.

This is one of those blog posts that you post mostly for yourself, as a record, so you will find it later. Nothing replaces reading the book. It may have been written in 1959, but not much has changed. Really.

The Myth of Innovation

Great lecture on the Myth of Innovation by Scott Berkun.

“As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility and to encourage men and women to exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance. Those men and women, to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way.

Mistakes will be made. But if a person is essentially right, the mistakes he or she makes are not as serious in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it undertakes to tell those in authority exactly how they must do their jobs.

Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.“

– William McKnight, 3M Chairman, 1948 (45:34 in the video above)

Time of your life, huh kid?

Part of blogging, for me, it contextual in regards to “the times”. The current events are relevant to the medium. And this is our current reality in the United States of America.

  1. Unemployment hits 25-year high – jobless rate hits 8.1% in February as a record-high 12.5 million people are unemployed (3/6/2009)
  2. Merrill Lynch uncovers trading ‘irregularity’ – London forex trader reported to be at centre of probe (3/6/2009)
  3. Agreement Sets Stage for Madoff Plea Bargain – massive worldwide Ponzi scheme
  4. Obama’s speech to the nation – Determined Obama vows to renew US
  5. Jindal’s response to Obama
  6. 90 minute wait, 3 minute interview – job fairs
  7. Big bank stocks get dumped again – Citigroup stock below $1
  8. Saskatchewan a jobs ‘hot spot’ in Canada
  9. Republican Bailout Bill Fails
  10. overhaul of U.S. health care system?
  11. GM going bankrupt “substantial doubt” it will remain a “going concern”

So things are kind of crappy right now. Yet we miss the most basic truth. Business is about making something and selling it. Or performing a service and being paid for it. It isn’t about derivatives that you can’t understand. And those fancy Harvard MBAs, unfortunately, are lying to you.   Find a way to humbly serve the customer profitably.

Like Joel Goodson says near the end of the Academy Award Winning memorable (seminal?) movie Risky Business:

My name is Joel Goodson. I deal in human fulfillment. I grossed over eight thousand dollars in one night. Time of your life, huh kid?

No I’m not suggesting we become Joel. I am suggesting that he is more of a business man than GM, Citibank, Merrill Lynch, Madoff, Stanford, or the lot of them.