Design for comfort in the workplace: The benefits of post occupancy research

A post occupancy evaluation (POE) can reveal a lot about how a building’s design performs in the real world. This is particularly important when it comes to assessing whether a design successfully addresses the needs of building occupants. While design teams work diligently to predict and address various needs as part of the design process, the real world is full of variation and change, especially when it comes to the way people think a space will be used versus the way it’s actually used once built.

Occupant comfort in the workplace is one area that highlights the importance of providing ways for users to control the conditions of their environment. There’s plenty of research about the benefits to employee health, well-being, and productivity when they’re able to work in an optimal environment, but what exactly does this look like and what role can occupants play? Let’s take a look at two important elements: temperature and lighting.

Hot, Cold, and Just Right

What’s the real story with thermostats in the workplace?

If you’re like me, you keep a blanket at your desk for those long, cold days in the office. So it probably won’t come as a surprise that temperature is one of the most prominent factors contributing to occupant comfort. It’s also an area where opinion can vary greatly on what’s ideal. Being able to adjust the temperature as needed affords greater control of the environment, but building owners and managers often need to choose a “happy medium” and target energy savings while they’re at it. For these reasons, workplaces may not have accessible thermostats for employees to adjust, and in workplaces where they do, POEs have shown that occupants don’t always have the information they need to achieve a more comfortable environment.

Contributing to the temperature dilemma are mechanical systems that automatically switch to lower settings when people aren’t normally in the building, which is a great way to save energy. However, in POEs of office spaces, we’ve discovered employees who work after hours or on the weekends are not always aware of how to override the automatic settings for heating, cooling, and ventilation. Situations like this can lead to less-than-ideal comfort and productivity for employees putting in extra time.

Another scenario related to thermal comfort that we’ve uncovered in our post occupancy research is simply the perception employees have about their ability to control the temperature. In one study, the space contained thermostats with limited manual overrides that employees could adjust, but only 7% of those who participated in the survey indicated they had control of a thermostat in their workplace. Several comments expressed skepticism that the thermostats were accurate or even functioned properly.

Thoughts on solutions

What can be done to address perception versus reality, as well as create greater understanding about thermal conditions and control? Education, education, education.

Consideration of flexible work schedules and how/when people will occupy the spaces in the initial design discussions is always a great first step and can help shape the design solutions. Providing training and employee manuals that describe where thermostats are located and how they can be adjusted is a way post occupancy to help ensure people take advantage of this method of controlling their thermal conditions, particularly for people working outside of normal business hours.

To build trust with occupants, it’s important to be transparent about whether changing the thermostat will truly affect the temperature in a space. For example, thermostats are often set to be adjustable within a certain range to avoid wide swings in temperature. Some ways to achieve transparency are to share real-time building temperature and energy information and provide tutorials on how mechanical systems function and why certain systems and settings were chosen. Looping employees into the reasons why, such as a goal to reduce energy consumption and achieve environmental benefits, can enhance company culture and values. Supplementing this information with a thoughtful gesture such as gifting employees with branded jackets and lap blankets can go a long way in gaining buy-in for the options chosen.

Going to the far end of the spectrum in terms of solutions, some companies go into the design process knowing they want different environments for different work styles and comfort levels. These solutions can vary from incorporating spaces that feel more like living rooms and libraries to creating unique ecosystems within a building that not only reflect a certain aesthetic, but also temperature and lighting variations.

Imagine designing spaces for employees that suit differing needs — with regard to temperature, lighting, and comfort.

Design solutions for comfort can include incorporating spaces that feel more like living rooms and libraries.

Mood Lighting 101

What does it take for people to be satisfied with their lighting conditions?

One of the strengths of a POE is the multi-pronged approach to data collection. Quantitative metrics can be collected by testing things such as light levels in different parts of a space. This information is valuable in assessing whether the lighting — both natural and artificial — meets design standards for the project. By supporting this type of data with qualitative observations and survey responses from people who use the space, we can gain a more nuanced understanding of what makes people satisfied with the lighting conditions.

In one post occupancy study, our team performed testing that revealed one area of an office had light levels in the 11-16 foot-candle (FC) range, which is quite dark in comparison to the 30-50 FC recommended for office spaces. While these results on their own may indicate an issue with the lighting in that part of the office, observations and survey responses showed another side to the story. Some of the window shades near this darkened portion of the workspace were pulled down, which suggested that the dimmed conditions may have been intentional. Survey results further confirmed this observation as some occupants with desks in that area noted they prefer lower lighting levels for their computer-based work. There were others, however, who felt it is was too dark for paper-based work.

Thoughts on solutions

The results of this evaluation emphasize the importance of providing occupants with opportunities to control their own lighting conditions. Allowing control in various ways such as operable window shades, overhead lighting controls, and task lighting and lamps at individual workstations can help people adjust their lighting as needed throughout the day and for different tasks.

In addition to ensuring flexibility via lamps and window shades, understanding how different groups of people work and the tasks they’re responsible for can help in determining where people should be seated and/or do their work within a space. Surveys can provide occupants with a way to express what makes them the most comfortable and productive, and the data gathered can provide an opportunity to locate people based on this information.

Lighting considerations have a huge impact on a successful project outcome, from the occupant perspective as well as energy efficiency goals. The best designs will take full advantage of building orientation, natural daylight, innovations in electric lighting, and accessory lighting to achieve a flexible ideal within the space.

Finally, employee manuals should include information on how to override/adjust lighting controls with thought given to people working alternative schedules. For example, motion-based lighting may not work best in places where people are stationary and working after dark. Asking your design and/or construction team to help create these manuals and give tutorials is a great way to get everyone involved in thinking about the user experience. Let there be light!

Lighting considerations have a huge impact on a successful project outcome, from the occupant perspective as well as energy efficiency goals.

Combining daylighting, automated and/or adjustable overhead lighting, and adjustable task lighting can help give occupants an optimal mix.

Conclusion

There’s no one-size-fits-all scenario, which is precisely why a POE comes in handy. Each project has a unique set of circumstances that will impact how it is designed, built, and occupied. POEs can help highlight aspects of a project that are performing successfully and those that need improvement so we can develop a better understanding of how to make specific spaces perform more effectively.

With a focus on research-based design and a multidisciplinary team of architects, interior designers, and engineers with expertise in HVAC and electrical design, we love digging into the details. Providing important learning opportunities for users, owners, and designers, POEs are a useful research and assessment tool, ultimately leading to more comfortable, productive spaces.

Want to learn more? Download our POE brochure.

Kaitlin McCoy
Kaitlin McCoy

Kaitlin is a design professional with a focus on sustainability in architectural design primarily for commercial and government projects. She looks for ways to incorporate design elements and solutions that support sustainable built environments and communities and lead to resilient, healthy, equitable spaces.


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