We’ve all felt the pain of sitting through a long meeting, listening to some random colleague drone on, painfully aware that we are trapped in a windowless cell masquerading as a meeting room. And that scenario is, by itself, enough to dull our wits.
But it gets worse. While our minds are numbed by the metaphorical hot air wafting through the room, the literal air is increasingly polluted by ever-higher levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) . And when those CO2 levels hit 1,000 or even 2,000 parts per million (ppm), our cognitive skills actually decline.
For reference, the air outside could have CO2 levels somewhere between 300-400 ppm. But when you stick a bunch of people in a meeting room with mediocre ventilation, and they’re all exhaling carbon dioxide, the CO2 levels frequently reach 1,000 ppm and could even get as high as 5,000 ppm.
So researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and SUNY Upstate Medical University stuck subjects in a room for 2.5 hours, exposed them to 600, 1,000 and 2,500 ppm levels of carbon dioxide, and made them take tests of decision making performance.
On seven of the nine tests, decision-making decreased at 1,000 ppm, with performance declining from 11-23%. And at 2,500 ppm, the declines in decision-making were a staggering 44-94%.
In a subsequent study, researchers from Harvard University and SUNY Upstate Medical University exposed subjects to air quality conditions resembling the typical office building (they called this the “conventional” group) as well as to “green” office conditions and “green+” (a “green” office environment with a high outdoor air ventilation rate).
As with the previous study, when subjects were tested on their cognitive functioning, scores declined 15% with carbon dioxide at 945 parts per million and 50% at 1,400 ppm.
When indoor levels of CO2 are high, people tend to be less satisfied with indoor air quality, report more acute health symptoms, work slightly slower, and are more often absent from work or school. But what these studies show is the problem might be even more acute when we stick a whole bunch of people into a meeting room, close the door, and talk for hours.
So what can you do about this? I have a suggestion and it involves me being the bad guy. Make everyone on your team read this article. And if they’re feeling in the mood, have them read the original studies. The point is to get them a little freaked out about the high levels of CO2 they’re experiencing on a daily basis. Hopefully, that prompts them to take a few breaks during the day to walk around outside. Ideally, it inspires some greening of the entire office building. But for the moment, if all it does is make people anxious about sitting in meetings all day, and inspires them to make their meetings more efficient, I will accept that as progress.
Check out my related post: Two pizzas at a meeting anyone?