Beware of stuffy meeting rooms!

We all know that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a problem for the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect. But did you know that too much CO2 in your office or home impairs your ability to make sound decisions?

Outdoor CO2 levels are usually about 380 parts per million (ppm); in buildings, the level can reach several thousand ppm, particularly in meeting rooms, where people gather for extended periods of time. (Poorly ventilated classrooms are another concern in this regard.)

Scientists at The Berkeley Lab, part of the US Department of Energy, using a sophisticated test developed by the State University of New York Upstate Medical University, have found that even moderately high indoor concentrations of CO2 significantly reduce peoples’ decision-making performance.

Using nine scales of decision-making performance, test subjects showed significant reductions on six of the scales at CO2 levels of 1000 ppm and large reductions on seven of the scales at 2500 ppm. The abilities to take initiative and think strategically fared the worst.

Although the scientists studied only 24 people, they say the results are ‘unambiguous’. According to one of the scientists, William Fisk, the stronger the effect, the fewer subjects you need to see it; “our effect was so big, even with a small number of people, it was a very clear effect.”

The implication for decision-making is that the more people there are in a workspace, the more CO2 levels rise and the more careful you need to be to dose up with fresh air when making important decisions. Maybe the idea of ‘walking meetings’ outdoors is as good for decisions as it is for your health.

The implication for sustainable buildings is that we need to think carefully about making buildings ‘tighter’ to make them more energy-efficient and less expensive to run. Not thinking clearly is expensive, too.

Discussion questions

How is the air quality in your workspace? How much fresh air do you breath during an average work day? (“Smokos” outside definitely don’t count!) When you’re running a lengthy meeting, do you give people the opportunity to take short breaks in the fresh air and open windows in the meeting room when possible?