I recently visited a Fortune 100 company whose headquarters was designed in the 1970s. The flagship office of a corporation worth hundreds of billions of dollars, it looked like it was put together by an architect with a fetish for taupe fabric and prisons.
It lacked the aesthetic of more modern offices—glassy, open, and gleaming—but more than anything else, it was the absolute extermination of outside light that gave the place its drab feel.
Research has long addressed whether low lighting can, in addition to dampening the office vibe, affect how people work. In 1924, researchers varied the lighting levels inside a factory to examine its impact on productivity. More recent studies have demonstrated that indoor brightness, among other factors, has an impact on outcomes.
Those findings have begun to influence office design at a time when corporations have grown more interested in sustainability, so it’s helpful that flooding offices with natural light saves on energy costs in addition to making desks sunnier. The most immediate effect, however, is a profound change in how people work. My company, Sociometric, measured employee interactions in a major U.S. manufacturing company. Some of its rooms were naturally lighted, and some were illuminated with old-fashioned fluorescent lights, which allowed us to study what difference light made in how people socialized and got things done.
We were curious: Did daylight encourage people to hang around longer? Indeed, our data showed that employees spent 30 percent of their time in sunny rooms and only 26 percent under the glare of electric lights. So people like daylight. Thanks, science. Looking only at utilization doesn’t tell us enough, though. The real question: Does this actually change what people do? Since the most important thing people do at work is talk to one another, let’s see if daylight changes those conversations. We looked at the volume level of employees talking in each type of room and found they tended to have more energetic interactions in daylight.
Taken with research showing the negative impact people suffer from seasonal affective disorder and related conditions, this makes sense. Humans evolved outside, and psychologically we are drawn to that environment. This is a good thing, since the data show that daylight energizes us physically and emotionally.
Having a seat in a daylit area has the added benefit that people will spend time near you, opening up the opportunity for more conversations. Of course, this can have negative side effects if a particularly annoying person occupies a prime seat. See Rob Schneider as the “Copy Machine Guy” on Saturday Night Live for an illustrative example:
Copy Machine Guy always talked with co-workers, but he never left his seat. Everybody hated the Copy Machine Guy. But everyone knew him because he sat beside a place they all wanted, or needed, to go. Imagine if he had used his power for good instead of to annoy?
This leaves us with an important lesson. Naturally lighted rooms (and possibly copy machines) are great places to sit and socialize, but they can encourage loud conversations or disrupt work that requires concentration. Most of the time we should default to locations with daylight for interaction, but if we really need to bang out a report in a few hours, finding a secluded, artificially lighted location is better. Just as long as we’re not sitting with the Copy Machine Guy.