One of the most frequently held debates over the office environment revolves around the pros and cons of cubicles and open plan offices. Proponents of the open plan office state that the open spaces give the chance for collaborations and breakthroughs to occur; those who prefer cubicles, which were invented in 1967 by Robert Propst, prefer the low-key solitude and privacy that these spaces offer.
While each side of the divide makes a convincing case, citing metrics such as worker productivity and employee happiness, new research from the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine brings another assessment of office space to the table: the presence or lack of windows in an office.
The study found that workers who saw less natural sunlight during the workday got less sleep and physical activity than those who were seated near windows.
Although there have been studies that looked at the relationship between daylight, psychological well-being, and productivity at work, the authors of the study state that “few have addressed the impact of daylight at the workplace on sleep, quality of life, and overall health.”
The study compared results from 49 day shift employees, 27 of whom worked in offices with windows and 22 who had no windows in their building or nearby. The workers self-reported their data on a subjective sleep-quality questionnaire.
Overall, they found that employees with access to natural light at work slept 46 minutes longer — and more soundly — than those who worked in windowless offices. “Windowed” workers also rated higher than “windowless” workers on a standard health survey in two categories, one being vitality.
In addition to self-reporting, 21 participants (10 windowless workers and 11 windowed workers) wore wristbands to measure their activity during their sleeping and waking hours. This monitoring revealed the extra 46 minutes of sleep for windowed workers and also found that they were four times more active during the workday.
The explanation for these differences? Daylight serves an environmental cue for the body’s circadian rhythm, which lets us know when to sleep and wake up. The workers who worked in windowless environments had this pattern disrupted by the lack of exposure to natural light.
The effects of insufficient sleep, says the study, can have an impact in the short-term by leading to memory loss, slower psychomotor reflexes and diminished attention. These have a chance of leading to more accidents and errors on the job and lower levels of productivity.
The quality of sleep can also affect mood, cognitive performance and a worker’s general health. The researchers also discovered a link to sleep quality and diabetes.
Even on days off, workers who had windows in their offices got more rest and slept better and longer.
One way to help workers get more sunlight has to do with building design. Mohamed Boubekri, the lead researcher on the sleep study, said that architects should create open-plan offices that are no more than 50 or 60 feet deep, so more employees can benefit from the daylight and views outside the window.
For workers who are stuck in windowed environments, however, the researchers recommend taking walks and eating lunch outdoors, which they say can benefit those windowed workers, too.