Property Australia

AI sheds light on workplace productivity killers


A world-leading study by Arup and RMIT University harnesses artificial intelligence to uncover some surprising office productivity killers and offer clues to future workplace design. 


  Three key points: 

  • Advanced machine learning quantifies the relationship between physical environments and workers’ perceived focus  
  • Availability of preferred seating is one of the biggest concentration crushers  
  • Working from home presents more productivity variables, so employers should think carefully about employees’ home office setups. 


A combined team of AI specialists, psychologists and engineers from Arup and RMIT examined the effects of work environments on productivity indicators such as concentration, comfort and activity.  

Pioneering an AI sensor-based system, the team monitored noise levels, indoor temperature, air quality, humidity, air pressure and electromagnetic fields. They also surveyed people’s views on disruptive influences, including meetings, over the course of several months. 

The study, published in the IEEE Internet of Things Journal, examined two large open-plan workplaces with different designs and layouts. 

“The research team used the data and survey information to train machine learning algorithms that could identify patterns in perceived concentration and activity,” says RMIT’s research fellow, Dr Mohammad Saiedur Rahaman. 

“Analysis of the patterns then led to development of solutions for making these workspaces function best for people.” 

Some findings were surprising.  

“While we anticipated noise and lack of privacy as downsides for some people, one of the key factors causing a negative work experience was the availability of preferred seating,” explains Arup engineer Shaw Kudo. 

“Regardless of their demographic profile, many people had concentration difficulties if they couldn’t sit in their favourite spot, which might be characterised by proximity to teammates, natural light, facilities, temperature comfort and so on.”  

Office temperature was also a major factor in comfort and focus. Most found temperatures below 22.5C too cold to fully concentrate and became increasingly sensitive as the day progressed. 

High levels of carbon dioxide were also a barrier in people’s ability to concentrate.  

“The results for CO2 and thermal comfort underline just how important a high-quality heating, cooling and ventilation system is in office design, as well as indoor plants to reduce CO2,” Rahaman says. 

The research also found a clear correlation between the number of meetings a person attended, their levels of stress and the impact of their tiredness. 260820 - Story 4 - Arup office 2

Overall, better perceived concentration levels were recorded in the morning for the trial group in Melbourne. A major influence on this was, unsurprisingly, sleep quality the night before. 

Interestingly, the team expects that “increased ambient and physical influencing factors” when working from home pose a greater threat to concentration and productivity levels.  

These variables include sleep patterns, small children and noisy neighbours. But the physical factors explored in an office context, such as thermal comfort, carbon dioxide and natural light levels, are just as relevant, but harder to control.  

“People should deliberately notice their environment and what they need to be productive, and then address those potential barriers to their productivity, concentration, health and wellbeing,” Rawling says. 

Kudo says the research also encourages employers should think about employees’ work from home set-ups. 

“Extended working from home experiences are likely to make people even more aware of what does, and doesn’t, work for them when they return to an office environment,” Kudo says. 

“Physical distancing and hygiene rules mean different workplace designs, layouts and available facilities – all of which could exaggerate the productivity downsides of not accessing preferred seating.”