True or False: Saving Energy in the Workplace Automatically Drives Productivity

October 21, 2014 By Bob Best

Bob Best

Short answer: False.

Corporate sustainability programs often have a halo effect, perpetuating the myth that green initiatives inherently improve employee engagement. But not all sustainability measures are created equal when it comes to employee impact. Energy savings drawn from reduced heating or cooling requirements can be offset, for example, when employees are too hot or cold and their productivity declines. Likewise, resource savings from a smaller, open office footprint can cost the company if employees feel distracted by too much noise, and their outputs falter.

The longstanding challenge for companies is to determine which energy-saving, sustainable practices actually do boost employee morale, wellness, engagement and productivity. Historically, this link has been measured more by conjecture than with tangible numbers. Investments in automated LED lighting and high-efficiency HVAC, for example, are typically quantified in terms of bottom-line energy savings—while productivity impact is often a perceived benefit with no hard value assigned.

Now, it’s time to separate the green AND productive from the merely green.

New “green and productive workplace” software available today enables corporate energy, facilities and real estate leaders to assign scores to green facility practices in tandem with employee productivity gains or losses. These metrics can be calculated for one or multiple buildings and benchmarked against other companies’ scores to pinpoint areas in which sustainability and productivity gains could realistically be achieved.

Are you using the 3-30-300 rule?

Why not simply accept that sustainability programs are inherently valuable? Because there’s good reason to quantify productivity impact. While sustainability improvements on their own have value—from energy efficiency to recognition as a socially responsible company—programs that can contribute to both financial savings and productivity improvement can have an even bigger impact when made in tandem and quantified.

The “3-30-300” rule of thumb illustrates this potential. A typical organization spends $3 per square foot on annual utilities, $30 on rent and $300 on payroll. Improving energy efficiency by 2 percent will yield annual savings of $.06 per square foot. This is definitely a win—but consider the even greater impact when a 2 percent productivity improvement results in a $6 financial gain per square foot. Given this 10-fold improvement, maybe we should call it the 6-cent versus the $6 dollar rule.

Which green investments should be prioritized? The secret’s in the metrics.

Clear benefits and tradeoffs emerge when you analyze sustainability and productivity metrics in tandem. For instance, how might investing in smart building technologies affect thermal comfort and indoor air quality and, ultimately, employee productivity? What is the net result of saving resources with a smaller office footprint that may expose employees to more productivity-undermining noise? Or, what office layout will both save resources and provide a highly productive workplace for employees?

Today’s new software enables deep understanding of the impact of an energy-saving tactic on productivity. The software can assess and assign scores across a wide range of activities in the key categories of energy, water, waste and use of resources; space use efficiency and layout; and employee wellness and productivity. Metrics can be applied to characteristics of lighting, heating and cooling, plug loads and server rooms, recycling programs, commuting, green tenant programs, workplace configuration, acoustic and visual comfort, thermal and indoor air quality, amenities and more.

For example, the energy category includes scoring for facility features, such as lighting efficiency, as well as employee practices, such as switching off lights and coffee pots. Similarly, availability of energy-efficient devices and plug load controls are scored—as are employees’ propensity for turning off unused devices. The key is to define both resource availability and how employees will realistically interact with it.

More nuanced data for better decisions

Analyzing energy programs in this way can yield significant savings in multiple categories. One client’s analysis revealed that potential improvements in heating and cooling could yield direct energy savings of $183,000—an estimated 5 percent of overall energy costs—and thus improve green scores. Meanwhile, the analysis also found that improving indoor air quality and office acoustics could produce productivity gains valued at upwards of $4 million—roughly 1.2 percent of the organization’s payroll costs.

So, while it is false that energy savings automatically beget productivity, it is absolutely true that some do—with significant results. And these productivity gains from green investments multiply when you have the data to make informed decisions that support both energy efficiency and employee productivity goals.

A new report from the World Green Building Council and JLL, Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices: The Next Chapter for Green Building, provides compelling evidence that green offices can make employees more productive with an analysis of more than a decade’s worth of research on the impact of green office practices on employee health, wellbeing and overall productivity.

Bob Best directs energy and sustainability business operations – with responsibilities that include new business development, energy reduction programs, client sustainability efforts, performance metrics, operating standards and training. He is a LEED® Accredited Professional through the U.S. Green Building Council and a Green Globes Professional through the Green Building Initiative. Best co-authored Green + Productive Workplace: The Office of the Future…Today.

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