July 26, 2021

Why is it important to monitor air quality in office buildings?

Indoor Air Quality

We spend one-third of our lives in the workplace, and most of the time it’s in an office environment.

Before COVID, employees usually cared only about maintaining a comfortable temperature and lighting in the office. Now, with the proven connection between air quality and transmission of viral diseases, office buildings are rushing to improve their HVAC systems to ensure their tenants have a safe working environment.

Monitoring and maintaining good air quality is more than a temporary practice. There are a whole variety of reasons why it should be routine. Air quality is an important factor in the improvement of the workspace, as it directly affects the health of employees, as well as their work productivity and mood.

​​There is a growing interest among tech startups and major tech companies in indoor air quality monitoring devices as part of their wellness programs. A number of companies, including Revolut, Miro, and Gett, have started testing Atmocube, ATMO's indoor air quality monitor, in their offices to reach their goal of securing healthy work environments for their employees.

The average person takes up to 23 thousand breaths and exhalations every day. According to studies, the air quality inside buildings can be up to 5-10 times worse than outside.

Photo by Agencia INNN

What pollutants are encountered in the office?

  • Fine particles PM2.5, ultrafine particles PM1: dust, smoke, fumes, pollen, mold, industrial emissions, crumb rubber from shredded tires over asphalt. They usually enter the office from outside;
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOC) are hazardous chemicals emitted from paints, adhesives, household chemicals, including air fresheners, disinfectants, construction and finishing materials, such as plywood, floor coverings, petroleum products, etc.;
  • Formaldehyde (CH2O) is a toxic gas that can be found both outdoors and indoors. Indoor, sources are building and finishing materials, fiberboard, particleboard, MDF (why new furniture emits an unpleasant odor), laminate, paints and varnishes, detergents;
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a product of respiration, and its high level indicates insufficient operation of ventilation systems;
  • Carbon monoxide (CO) is a toxic, odorless, and colorless gas. The main sources are gas stoves, tobacco smoke, exhaust gases, kerosene, and gas heaters;
  • Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is a product of fuel combustion and is contained in vehicle exhaust gases, especially diesel ones. If the office is located next to heavy traffic, NO2 levels might be high there.

Does clean air improve our productivity?

The connection between indoor environments and people’s mental health has become a hot topic among leading academics. Several years ago, Harvard and Stanford launched new academic programs focused on “Healthy Buildings”. These programs study the intersection between buildings and health sciences and conduct various studies on the relationship between air quality and our cognitive abilities.

A study conducted by a group of researchers led by Joseph Allan, a Harvard University professor and director of the “Healthy Buildings” program, showed that working in well-ventilated offices with low levels of indoor air pollution and CO2 leads to significantly higher cognitive functioning scores among employees. In 2015, for six days, 24 participants – designers, architects, engineers, marketing professionals, and programmers – worked in controlled office environments and passed cognitive tests.

Photo by Nirmal Rajendharkumar

Every day the conditions changed, but the participants weren’t aware of it. First, the researchers tested people's response to normal ventilation and doubled it, which is in line with the increased “green” standards of buildings. On other days, they artificially increased the carbon dioxide and VOC levels. The VOC sources were common office items such as markers, building materials, cleaning products, and clothes after dry cleaning.

The results of the experiment were impressive. Volunteers performed 61% better on tests when air quality met “green” standards, and at higher standards, the so-called Green+, cognitive performance showed a 101% increase. Measuring different cognitive functions, the researchers observed the greatest effect on the areas of strategy, new information usage, and crisis response.

But to feel the negative impact of polluted air, there is no need to arrange experiments. These conditions often occur naturally. In meeting rooms and conference rooms, carbon dioxide levels skyrocket, as employees usually don’t open windows and doors so that noise from the street or nearby offices doesn’t interrupt work processes. As a result, people leave meeting rooms tired and with headaches.

Photo by Rafael De Nadai

In general, poor air quality is associated with increased fatigue and decreased concentration.

Does clean air in the office increase a company's profitability?

Higher productivity

Maintaining clean air has a direct economic effect on a company’s performance first of all due to its impact on employees’ productivity. The study found an increase in decision-making performance when the ventilation rate in offices was increased from 20 cfm/person to 40 cfm/person which would result in annual costs of less than $40 per person per year. This change in cognitive performance corresponded to a $6500 change in a typical office worker’s productivity: basic activity, information usage, breadth of approach, strategy, and crisis response.

Fewer sick leaves

Low levels of pollutants are associated with fewer triggers for people with asthma, allergies, and other respiratory conditions.

In the past, there were a number of studies regarding the effects of air pollution on influenza-like infections. Some of the studies pointed out that despite adults aged 25-59 being the most affected, all age groups are susceptible to flu during peak concentrations of PM2.5. In poorly ventilated buildings, the rate of respiratory diseases such as flu, influenza, and pneumonia leads to an increased number of sick leaves.

To address this issue, Atmocube, a device for monitoring indoor air quality and microclimates, has an app that calculates a special index for the spread of airborne viruses – AVTI, Airborne Viral Transmission Index. The index is based on carbon dioxide, fine particulate matter, and humidity.


The costs associated with implementing green building strategies at the workplace might become a potential barrier for employers. However, the School of Public Health at Harvard University discovered that medical costs fall by about $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs and that absenteeism costs fall by about $2.73 for every dollar spent.

Companies that focus on employee well-being increase job satisfaction

Caring for air quality has a positive effect on employee retention, as it increases job satisfaction and improves the employer's image.

Photo by Brooke Cagle

The World Green Building Council conducted a study on improving occupants’ satisfaction through realizing green practices such as working on acoustics, air quality, office materials, and lighting, which all affect economic performance.

For example, engineering and consulting company Cundall, with 170 employees in London, has focused on improving air quality, including regular monitoring of carbon dioxide and VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Together with other measures to reduce noise, it reduced absenteeism by 4 days per year per employee, reduced staff turnover by 27%, and, according to the company report, saved £ 200,000.

What is needed to maintain good air quality in the office?

  • Installation of air filters in the ventilation system and adoption of enhanced ventilation;
  • Timely diagnostics of the ventilation system and replacement of filters;
  • Regular air quality monitoring with optional public display of the data to employees;
  • Using eco-friendly construction materials such as low-VOC paints, coatings, sealers, and floor coverings, and low formaldehyde engineered wood products, furniture with zero-VOC emissions, etc.
Atmocube, an indoor air quality monitor for office buildings
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