Featured in today's briefing:
- How office air quality affects performance.
- How employers are being harmed by their own layoffs.
- Reframing impostor syndrome.
The Macro Context
- The US gross domestic product grew at a 2.9% annual rate last quarter, the Commerce Department announced, while consumer spending rose at a 2.1% annual rate.
- Organizations let go of more than 110,000 temporary workers from July through December last year, which some experts take as a sign of more job losses to come. As a tight labor market continues to loosen, a growing number of laid-off employees are staying unemployed for longer stretches.
Focus on the Business Case for Making Buildings Healthier
The average person in the US spends roughly 90% of their life indoors, according to Harvard researchers Joseph Allen and John Macomber, authors of Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Can Make You Sick―or Keep You Well. It’s a statistic that took on new weight over the past few years of Covid, as we collectively reconsidered the mental and physical health implications of our built environment—and one that feels especially salient right now, as more employees are returning to office buildings and employers are rethinking what those buildings look like.
To better understand what workplaces can do to make their physical spaces more conducive to worker health, we reached out to Allen, an associate professor of exposure-assessment science at the Harvard School of Public Health. Here are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for space and clarity:
What is a healthy building?
It's thinking about places that we spend all of our time in—offices, homes, schools—and how they can be designed and operated in such a way that they are optimized for human health and performance. For the past 40 years, we've done the opposite. We've designed our buildings without a health-first mindset, and that's the reason we've been in what's known as the ‘sick building’ era for the past 40 years. We’re in buildings that underperform. You walk into them and you don't feel alert, it's not comfortable, you can't think straight. You get a headache and sometimes worse. That's largely because public health hasn't had a seat at that table when we think about the design standards around buildings. The idea of the healthy building is, let's flip that script. Let's move from the sick building era into the era where buildings are designed for people.
A lot of times we think of health in these different domains: I’m thinking about Covid and that's infectious disease, or I'm thinking about productivity, or I'm thinking about mental health and wellbeing. It's all related. Health is not just the absence and disease. It's about thriving, flourishing. My interest is demonstrating that the building plays a central role in all of that, because we spend so much time in these places and we haven't leveraged all the great science that's out there in terms of how to do better with our buildings.
We did a series of studies we call the CogFX effects study that looks at how indoor air quality influences cognitive function, the influence of air quality on decision-making and performance, things like strategic thinking. How do you respond during a crisis? How do you search out and utilize information? What we find is that controlling for all other factors—Did you just have coffee? What's your baseline cognitive function?—the air quality matters as well. The results are really striking, because when we model this out in terms of the economic impacts, we estimate that the cost to achieve these healthier building ventilation standards is in the order of tens of dollars per person per year. And the benefits are in the order of $6,000 to $7,000 per person per year.
In your book, you wrote about the building as a human-resources tool. What does that mean in practice?
I'll say it this way. When I got my appointment at Harvard, one of the things I negotiated on was my office. I know the place where I work is going to influence my health. I have a great office. I'm looking out over a tree line. I selected this. I ‘interviewed’ my building.
People interview their office for all sorts of things: Where am I going to work? Does it look good? Is it interesting? Is it a cubicle? These healthy buildings become a strategy for recruitment and retention. And then when you have the people there, you're ensuring their performance is optimized. We talk about this in the book, where we look at Glassdoor and people are talking about the building. ‘It’s too hot in here. I can't concentrate. The air quality's bad. This feels like being on a virus-infected cruise ship.’ Great talent you're trying to recruit is going to see that. But if your building's performing, then you would see the positive attributes. The pandemic has made it so that healthy buildings are table stakes. You do have people asking about it, and if you don't have an answer, you're going to get caught.
What does it mean for employees to ‘interview’ their building?
During the interview, people are interested in the values of the organization: ‘What do you do on sustainability? What are you doing for climate? What are you doing for equity, diversity, inclusion?’ You could ask, ‘What do you do on healthy building strategies? Have you enhanced ventilation?’ And without having to be technical, you'll learn a lot just from that answer. If they stare at you blankly, there's your answer. A good organization's going to say, ‘Yeah, we have a great diversity, equity, and inclusion plan. We are committed to green buildings and energy efficiency. Here's what we do on climate. We've enhanced all the ventilation. We have great filtration. We have green cleaning products. We're really integrated in this healthy buildings, green buildings space.’ You don't need to know anything more than that to know that the organization has prioritized your health in the right way. You don't have to ask, ‘Are you hitting 30 cfm per person?’ or ‘What grade filter do you have?’ Just ask the question and see the answer you get back.
What should workplaces be doing and thinking about at this point regarding Covid, especially as a lot of organizations are rethinking their office designs?
First and foremost, you have to recognize how this virus and other respiratory viruses spread. They're spread through the air. Respiratory air cells travel beyond six feet. That means the building matters. So if you start from that, how it’s spread, then the rest flows naturally. If you want to prevent the buildup of respiratory particles, you have to pull it out of the building with good ventilation or clean it out of the air with filtration. So organizations should be thinking about beyond the current minimums, because the current minimums of ventilation filtration are not designed for health.
The standard for ventilation right now is called the standard for acceptable indoor air quality. The problem with the name ‘acceptable’ is, it's a minimum. The typical filter that's used is designed to protect equipment, not people. We need filters that are designed to protect people. We need ventilation standards that are designed for the health of people, and that hasn't been the case. This isn't hard, it's not expensive. It's not the case that only shiny new buildings can do this work. Any building can be a healthy building. So I'd focus right there, because the strategies are going to be good for influenza, coronavirus, whatever hits us next, RSV. It's going to be good for managing outdoor air pollution. It's good for filtration against pollen and other allergens, protection against wildfire smoke. So you shouldn't think of these strategies as Covid strategies. They're just general public-health strategies that keep your employees healthy, keep them from getting sick, and also help them perform their best in your space.
When you take the CogFX study—which we've done in a lab, we've done in buildings across the US, and we've done replicated in buildings around the world with the same results—you see that indoor air quality becomes a worker productivity issue. Think about the business case for healthy buildings. On an individual level, breathing better air is better for cognitive function and performance, and in our book, we roll that up into what that means for business. What we find is if you make these improvements, it leads to reductions in absenteeism, better cognitive function, and leads to 10% gains to the bottom line. Our colleagues down the road at MIT did a study showing that healthy buildings commanded higher rents per square foot. You could take that to another level. There have been studies looking at the macroeconomic benefits: over $20 billion in benefits to the US economy with improvements to indoor air quality. So whether you look at an individual level, a business level, an investor level, owner level, a societal level, there's a business case to be made.
I'm a public-health professor, so I'm interested in people's health as the ultimate goal, but it's also just good business.
Read a full transcript of our conversation, including Allen’s thoughts on setting ventilation targets and how the healthy-buildings movement and the green-buildings movement align.
What Else You Need to Know
Wages increased by 7.4% on average for all US workers in 2022, with the largest increases for Black workers, young people, and low-wage workers. Median weekly earnings rose throughout the year across demographic groups, though those gains were not distributed evenly, according to newly released Labor Department data on full-time salaried and hourly workers.
- Pay increases narrowed the racial wage gap for Black Americans, as Black workers’ weekly wages grew an average 11.3% to $896, while white workers’ wages grew 7.9% over the same period to $1,111.
- Workers aged 16-24 saw the largest wage growth of any age group, with a 10.8% rise in weekly wages. Workers aged 55-64 had the lowest wage gains, at just 2.8%.
- Low-income workers—those in the bottom 10% of wages—saw a wage increase of 9.8%, while those in the top 10% saw an increase of 5.7%.
Disengagement at work is ticking upwards. Just 32% of employees were “actively engaged” at work last year, Gallup found, down from 34% in 2021 and 36% in 2020.
- Increases in disengagement were especially pronounced among younger workers, those under 35, and women.
- Among components of engagement that decreased the most from pre-pandemic levels are clarity of expectations, connection to the mission or purpose of the company, opportunities to learn and grow, and feeling cared about at work, according to Gallup’s report, which compiled data from its quarterly engagement surveys of 15,000 employees.
Employers and employees alike are feeling the pain of layoffs. Research has shown that layoffs have a net negative effect on organizations, with morale, retention, work quality, and profits all suffering.
- Writer Anne Helen Petersen recently captured the effects of layoffs on remaining employees, describing a phenomenon she dubbed “layoff brain”: “It’s hard to be productive when you spend days at a time backchanneling, hodgepodging your department back together, accustoming yourself to new org charts and workflows and desk locations, and just generally internalizing the demonstrated logic of your organization: that layoffs can happen without warning, in seemingly irrational and surprising and untargeted ways, and there is no way to protect yourself from the next wave. Might as well start quietly building your life raft.”
- As many companies bungle their layoff announcements, in some cases cutting off access to company systems without warning, some laid-off workers are finding more support from their former colleagues than their former employers in navigating next steps.
- Diversity, equity, and inclusion programs are taking a hit in the current wave of tech layoffs, as organizations significantly downsize or gut their DEI teams. Postings for DEI focused roles dropped 19% in 2022, the third-steepest decline behind data science and software engineering, according to the job-ad platform Textio.
- Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata declared in a recent investor call that the company would not be conducting layoffs despite its recent struggles. “I sincerely doubt employees who fear that they may be laid off will be able to develop software titles that could impress people around the world,” he said. “At Nintendo, employees make valuable contributions in their respective fields, so I believe that laying off a group of employees will not help to strengthen Nintendo's business in the long run.”
Return to workplace speed round:
- TikTok this week informed employees whose home address did not match the city of their assigned office that they would have to relocate or face disciplinary action, following the company’s rollout of a mandatory hybrid work schedule at the start of this year.
- Citadel CEO Ken Griffin credited employees being back in the office full time with contributing to his hedge fund’s success.
- US workers saved some 55 minutes per day on commuting by working remotely, according to a recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Globally, workers saved an average of 72 minutes in commuting time, using the extra hour for additional work, leisure activities, and caregiving.
- After a cold snap hit the UK, a fifth of the 1,700 workers surveyed by CV-Library chose to return to the office rather than work remotely. Of those that changed their work location, a majority reported saving on heating costs as the primary reason.
- The number of postings for remote jobs is shrinking, representing 13.2% of available jobs on LinkedIn in December, compared to 20.6% last March. A new survey from the American Staffing Association shows the persistence of proximity bias, with more that half of employees saying they believe fully in-person workers are likelier to receive raises and promotions than those who work fully remotely.
Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:
- Do a “rituals reset.” To cut out unnecessary meetings and tasks, periodically bring your team together to audit your standing meetings and tasks, discussing what’s working, what could be improved, and what should be done away with.
- Ask how employees are rewarded. To determine how corporate values show up in practice, ask about the organization’s employee evaluation and incentive structure. If an organization really lives its values, employees will receive promotions and recognition for demonstrating its values.
- Protect focus time on your team calendar. Encourage your team to preserve meetings-free time for heads–down work by agreeing on team-wide focus blocks to black out on your calendars.
- Give impostor syndrome a less potent framing. The simple act of changing how you describe the feeling can be enough to diminish its hold. By swapping “syndrome” for “thoughts,” you can remind yourself that those thoughts are fleeting rather than ever-present, and come up with an action plan for what to do when they appear.
The new gourmet destination is…. your office dining hall. Employers are moving away from the traditional corporate cafeteria as they become more creative—and more high-end—with their food offerings, providing amenities such as cocktail bars, pasta-making classes, and full-blown public restaurants with employee discounts.
- Those fretting over the demise of the water cooler may be right: There’s a decent chance it’s been replaced by a premium coffee counter.