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The right type of office light can make you more productive. This is a concept we’ve been hearing more and more in recent years, albeit mainly from lighting vendors and those promoting their smart buildings that feature “human-centric” lighting. So is this all just bogus science being used to reinvent the light bulb or is there actually a proven scientific basis and evidence for these theories?

“We know it is going to have a significant benefit for many people,” says James Benya, an engineer and lighting consultant based in Davis, California. “But without guiding science, and with the lack of protocols and standards, right now it is the Wild West.”

Like snake oil in the old Wild West, those promoting human-centric lighting can essentially say what they want about its benefits, and even more suspicious is that while the basic concepts are the same, there is no strict rule on how lighting should be used to bring about productivity. It is all well and good to say that more blue wavelengths of light make you more alert but how blue is best for productivity? How much is too much exposure? Are there any side effects from too much blue light? If there is a scientific basis for these theories then we should have a clearer guidelines, otherwise it is easy to disregard them as marketing talk.

“We don’t want to overstate the benefits. But we shouldn’t dismiss them either,” said Mariana Figueiro, director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “We have the technology now. It’s a shame that more people aren’t harnessing it.”

More adoption might offer more insight on the effect of lighting on productivity but it is quite a complicated thing to measure. People are different from one another and from one day to the next. Many other factors impact productivity and the installation of human-centric lighting is often accompanied by a range of other workplace changes within a holistic productivity makeover. The office is a dynamic place and not one that lends itself to demonstrating scientific theories with certainty. Schools, however, may promise some advantages in this regard.

An LED-based human-centric lighting been installed in some elementary and middle school classrooms in Carrollton, a northern suburb of Dallas, Texas. A Department of Education (DOE) report on the school said had improved the overall learning environment. In Washington, entire schools have recently adopted human-centric lighting, and the initial data out of one seemed to reinforce the results in Texas. Lindbergh High School reported a double-digit rise in SAT test scores following installation of the tunable LEDs. While positive, these kinds of studies only go so far.

“It’s thrilling for a basic biologist to see stuff translating into practical applications,” said Brown University’s Berson. “But we need to be careful not to get too far ahead of ourselves and assume we really know what a particular color of light is doing to an actual child in an actual school environment without appropriate controlled studies.”

One circadian lighting expert at Harvard Medical School, Steven Lockley, attempted to measure effects of blue light against warmer colors. His research showed that people exposed to bluer light reacted faster and had fewer lapses in attention than people exposed to hues on the red end of the spectrum supporting the case for lighting to boost productivity but lacking real-world settings.

Sports is one area that has been applying these lighting concepts to improve performance for some time. In 2013, the Seattle Mariners became the first major league baseball team to install human-centric lighting in locker room. Facilities manager, Scott Jenkins hoped the LED-based would provide performance enhancing pre-game bluerlight and recovery boosting post-game warmer light but impacts again were difficult to gauge. Many things are impacting the players, not least the different opponents each game.

“When you’re in sports, you’re looking for every advantage you can get to improve performance,” said Jenkins, now with the Atlanta Falcons of the NFL, where he installed a similar lighting system. In fact, human-centric lighting for performance enhancement can now be found at the Portland Trailblazers, Denver Nuggets, and New York Yankees. “No matter what sport you’re in, or whether you’re in a learning environment or in a health care environment, we all know that blue sky and sunshine mean everyone is more energetic and their mood is better,” Jenkins said. “When you live in Seattle and you suffer through months at a time without any real sunshine — well, there’s a reason Starbucks does so well.”

Building on this idea and Lockley’s work at Harvard, researchers Martyn Beaven and Johan Ekström tested blue light against coffee and found blue light significantly superior to caffeine in boosting cognitive function and alertness in their test of 21 people. They also highlight that light does not affect sleep in the same way as a cup of coffee. “Caffeine at 10am will still affect your sleep at night,” said Lockley, noting the chemical’s five-to-six-hour half-life.

Back in the coffee-rich office environment, sales of human-centric lighting are increasing on the basis of productivity increases despite the lack of real evidence. Memoori, in our recent report: The Future Workplace: Smart Office Design in the IoT Era, conducted a survey of office workers across the US in hope of understanding their assessment of workplace lighting and its effect on productivity.

As many as 65% of respondents in our survey believe that the lighting in their office does not affect their ability to concentrate. Those who do believe it does have an effect are fairly evenly split on whether their lighting increases or reduces their ability to concentrate; 17.8% say it helps – 17.2% say it hinders. The ability to concentrate has an obvious and crucial role in increasing productivity. However, and once again, productivity is impacted, positively and negatively, by a number of factors for an employee at any given time.

At Seattle-based Vulcan Inc., the investment and philanthropic firm headed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, they have installed human-centric lighting to boost the productivity of employees. “Your people are where most of the cost is,” says Cody Crawford, the head of facilities and operations at Vulcan, who also underlined the importance of educating his employees about the new lighting system. “People in general don’t like change. They may not realize that the lack of light is making them tired and groggy,” he adds. “You almost have to force them to try it for more than an hour.”

It’s hard to measure productivity, however, “unless you’re a manufacturing facility,” Crawford says. His team had considered assessing absenteeism, but complicating factors such as high staff turnover and variations in annual flu bugs dissuaded them. “People are happy about it,” says Crawford says of the new lighting. “How much more effort do you want to put into [measuring] it? Time is money.”

And that is where we stand on the impact of office lighting on productivity. There definitely seems to be something going on but unless we can create a truly unbiased scientific study, using control groups while considering real world factors, we will be left with a little bit of doubt over the human-centric workplace lighting investments being made.