PENDANT LIGHTING could solve a perennial problem in the workplace that affects productivity and wellbeing. In addition to constant jarring by emails and phone calls, knowledge workers in typical office set-ups endure a barrage of visual and aural distractions throughout the day. The total time lost as a result can amount to more than a quarter of their working day, creating a huge hidden cost to employers and causing workplace stress. Recent research, though, at a school in Denmark suggests that creating islands of light could help mitigate these effects and might enable adults to get more done. Surprisingly, this includes reducing office noise.
To be fully productive people have to experience what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called flow: ‘a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.’ But this is almost impossible to achieve in most workplaces, where, as design process expert William Belk put it ‘everyone is distracted by everything.’
Belk conducted an anonymous survey of 700 self-styled 'high-performance employees’ in jobs such as architecture and financial services and found that nearly 60 percent regarded their workplace as distracting.
In an oft-quoted paper called The Cost of Not Paying Attention published in 2005, Basex IT analysts Jonathan Spira and Joshua Feintuch reckoned that ‘interruptions consume a little over two hours day, or 28 percent of the workday,’ of the knowledge workers they surveyed. This was because even a minor distraction could break a chain of thought and on average it took just over 25 minutes to resume each task. They estimated the annual cost to the US economy of these distractions at close to a trillion dollars.
In the USA, particularly, workplaces have been dominated by the cubicle, despite it being described by the architect Frank Duffy as ‘a disease, a pathology in the office,’ which provides neither privacy nor control, and all under a grim grid of uniform ceiling lighting.
Alexi Marmot, the head of The Bartlett School of Graduate Studies at University College London says known problems with open plan offices such as ‘noise, alienation, inability to adjust light and temperature, feeling like a small cog in a large machine – need to be overcome,’ but suggests that ‘this can be achieved through attention to design.’
One solution is to create what she calls ‘places for retreat for confidential discussions and concentrated work.’ And research by the office furniture manufacturer Haworth, among others, identifies the need for clearly defined spaces both for collaboration and focus work, as part of making the workplace legible.
CLUES TO HOW THIS can be achieved simply and effectively with lighting emerged from a recent study at a school in Denmark. Henning Larsen architect and lighting designer Imke Wies van Mil found that a relatively simple intervention could affect students’ behaviour, enabling even easily distracted pupils to carry out tasks such as individual reading, and altering the social dynamics of the classroom.
Research into the links between lighting and learning has mainly focussed on students’ alertness in relation to general light levels or colour temperature. But van Mil wondered whether creating varied light zones would be better for some classroom activities than conventional, ‘industrial style’ homogenous illumination. Her hypothesis was that creating dark and light areas at certain times of day would focus pupils’ attention on individual tasks such as reading.
When she installed pendant lights in four classrooms at Frederiksbjerg School in Aarhus and recorded their effect over eight months, the results confirmed that creating islands of light had a significant impact on children’s ability to focus and concentrate.
Surprisingly, the new lighting had a noticeable effect on noise levels in the classroom. In three quarters of learning situations, they dropped by up to six decibels. ‘A difference of just three decibels is perceptible; six or seven was regarded by the acoustic engineers who assisted us as significant,’ she says. ‘And this particularly benefits the children who struggle to concentrate the most.’
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