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I like it when things are simple. Also, 7 other things.

Sometimes, things are simple. I like simple.

So this is a story about a simple solution to an obvious problem. It comes from researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who wanted to find out if there's a connection between air quality in offices and the cognitive function of the people who work there.

Short answer? Yes.

Not only is there such a connection, but there are some easy ways to improve air quality and, as a result, measurably improve the focus and response times that people demonstrate at work.

Lead author Jose Guillermo Cedeno Laurent and colleagues say they recruited 302 office workers between ages 18 and 65 for their experiment, who lived and worked in six countries including the United States.

They outfitted the subjects with sensors to record the temperature and humidity in their offices, along with the amount of carbon dioxide and fine particulate matter in the air.

Then they followed them for a full year, from 2019 until just before the pandemic in March of last year.

The researchers also gave the subjects an app that ran on their phones, which offered two types of cognitive tests when the carbon dioxide or fine particulate matter numbers breached certain thresholds.

The first type of test included something called the Stroop color-word test, which asked the workers to identify the color of the text of a word when the word itself literally spelled a different color.

(Example: The word "pink," written here, displays in a black font, even though the word itself spells a different color. The point of the test is to measure attention and the ability to disregard irrelevant data.)

The second type of test simply asked subjects to add and subtract two-digit numbers, measuring their cognitive speed and working memory.

Overall: Small differences in the levels of carbon dioxide and fine particulate matter in the air led to a measurably varied performance on the cognitive tests.

As an example, an increase of about 500 parts per million of CO2—which the study suggests is roughly the difference between inside office air and the air outside (which has about half as much CO2, in general)—was associated with between 1% and nearly 8% less efficient cognitive responses on the tests, depending on which cognitive attribute we're focusing on.

"We have a huge body of research on the exposure to outdoor pollution," Cedeno Laurent told the news site France24, which reported on the study this week, "but we spend 90% of our time indoors."

The data from this study, which can be found in the most recent edition of the journal Environmental Research Letters, came from just before the pandemic. But with COVID-19 still raging, along with mask and vaccine debates and the question of whether employees should go back to the office or not, it's even more relevant now.

So, let's go to the practical takeaways and advice.

First, air filtration and ventilation are worth paying attention to, and perhaps spending a bit of money to fix. Upgrading a building's systems might be a worthwhile investment, along with good quality portable air filters.

But, there's also a less expensive solution—frankly, the simple one that got me excited about this whole thing to begin with. It’s also one you can implement even if you don't have the ability to overhaul your building's ventilation system.

Given the lower rates of CO2 and fine particulate matter outside, just get used to working with the windows open.

Problem solved. Or at least, improved.

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7 other things


Thanks for reading, as always. Photo credit: Pixabay. I wrote about some of this before at Inc.com. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.