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Can Natural Light Make Employees More Productive?

That doesn’t mean just putting in more windows. A new, super high-tech ceiling makes it seem as though workers are outside. And it’s having impressive results.

My what lovely fluorescent lights you have. Will the office of the future have simulated skies above its worker drones?

Fraunhofer

You may not love your job, but wouldn’t it be nice if you could at least fill out your TPS reports under a natural sky rather than fluorescent lights?

That’s the idea behind a new lighting system from the German high-tech research firm Fraunhofer that it says "[conveys] the impression that you are sitting outdoors."

The "virtual sky" consists of 50-centimeter-square panels, each with 288 LED lights. Each panel has red, blue, green, and white LEDs, allowing the system to produce the full light spectrum and more than 16 million hues. A matte film diffuses the light, so the individual LEDs aren’t visible. As these programmed LEDs turn on and off they simulate the shifting light you’d experience sitting outside during a moderately cloudy day.

The picture above is of a prototype of the system that contains 34,560 LEDs spanning 34 square meters.

Apparently the effect is subtle, but pleasant. According to Dr. Matthias Bues, the head of Fraunhofer’s Institute for Industrial Engineering in Stuttgart, "The LEDs allow us to simulate … dynamic changes in lighting in a way that is not directly obvious to the naked eye. Otherwise the lighting might distract people from their work. But it does need to fluctuate enough to promote concentration and heighten alertness."

In an initial study, 10 volunteers conducted their daily work under one of these systems. For the first day, the light remained static. For the second day, the light fluctuated slowly. And for the third day, the light fluctuated more rapidly. On the fourth day, participants could choose which condition to work in and 80% chose the rapidly fluctuating light.

This isn’t the most energy efficient way of lighting a room, of course, and it isn’t cheap either. The current price is about 1,000 euros per square meter. But that said, it could point the way to better office environments. Natural light has been shown to raise students’ test scores (by 27%!), improve worker productivity, and promote healing in hospitals.

And that shouldn’t be surprising. After all, evolution didn’t optimize us for drab office parks.

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