Keep The Air In Your Office Fresh

Keep The Air In Your Office Fresh

Note: This article was originally published in the March, 2024 issue of HR Future magazine. To read the original, click here


Most people don’t think about air quality all that often. Hey, we need air to breathe, but we usually take it for granted. Air is just there, moving through our lungs, whether we’re outdoors, at home or work.

Recent events, however, have challenged this status quo. The pandemic forced us to understand how much more healthful outdoor air is than indoor air, as outdoor transmission of the virus was often a fraction of indoor transmission. And then the Canadian wildfires forced us to confront the fact that we can’t rely on outdoor air as much as we’d like, as the resulting smoke caused numerous health complications, such as reduced lung function, bronchitis, exacerbation of asthma, and even heart failure.

Now, air quality is top of mind. Poor indoor air quality (IAQ) in particular is linked to the risk of stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. But even before such conditions might set in, poor IAQ can lead to absenteeism, lessened cognition and productivity and decreased work satisfaction.

All those negative correlations have an understandable impact on businesses. Naturally, your business will suffer if your employees are laboring under unclean air. That’s why, in my opinion, focusing on cleaning up indoor air should be a top priority for HR, especially if they want to incentivize employees to come back to the office.


It’s easy to look at a bunch of scientific papers and know, hypothetically, that poor IAQ is problematic. It’s another thing to understand exactly what is happening to your employees’ lungs when they breathe in polluted air.

When humans breathe, they inhale a mixture of gasses that should ideally contain a balanced amount of oxygen and trace elements of other gasses like carbon dioxide. However, poor indoor air quality can introduce a variety of harmful pollutants into this mixture. This can be due to inadequate ventilation, contaminated HVAC systems, older building materials or furnishings, even outdoor air pollution sneaking in.

These pollutants can include particulate matter (PM), which are tiny particles suspended in the air, such as dust, pollen, smoke, and other pollutants. PM can vary in size – PM 2.5, for example, refers to particulate matter with a diameter equal to or less than 2.5 micrometers. PM 2.5 is typically a legal standard used to measure air quality, but even the smaller particles, around PM 0.1, can penetrate deep into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream, causing respiratory and cardiovascular issues.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are another common pollutant in the workplace. These come from paints, cleaning products, and furnishings. Prolonged exposure to VOCs can lead to eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, dizziness, and even more severe health effects like damage to the liver, kidneys, or central nervous system.

Most people are familiar with carbon monoxide (CO), but many people don’t know how this colorless, odorless gas can be produced by malfunctioning heating systems, stoves, and car exhaust. High levels of CO can lead to headaches, dizziness, nausea, and in extreme cases can be fatal.

Damp and poorly ventilated indoor spaces can also foster the growth of mold and mildew, which can trigger allergies and respiratory issues. My friend Tina Ballard, the SVP of Human Resources at First Onsite with whom I worked in my previous role, says that these fungi are the unsung anti-heroes in the workplace. “Many folks are allergic to mildew and mold, even if they don’t know it,” says Ballard. “This alone causes so much absenteeism.”

When employees are exposed to these pollutants regularly, they suffer from irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, as well as headaches, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. Long-term exposure to poor indoor air quality has been linked to the chronic health conditions I mentioned earlier, leading to increased sick leaves, reduced productivity, and decreased job satisfaction.


This laundry list of contaminants and side effects can feel daunting to the average HR manager. This isn’t going to be a simple fix. But hopefully, I’ve also impressed upon you the necessity of tackling the problem. Let’s discuss some simple strategies to improve IAQ to boost our employees’ health, reduce absenteeism, and improve productivity at work.


I recommend every workplace invest in comprehensive IAQ testing. This will help identify the existing pollutants, their levels, and potential sources. You can either hire a professional consultant to conduct an IAQ assessment, or you can go the DIY route and purchase sensors yourself.

You can also look into tools like VOC sensors, which measure the level of volatile organic compounds. Carbon monoxide detectors can help you understand if your CO levels are within an acceptable range. You can also place mold strips on surfaces, walls, and furniture to see what’s growing there. Implement a regular cleaning protocol: I can’t even tell you how many companies confessed to me that they’ve never looked at their HVAC filters, let alone thoroughly cleaned them. Clogged filters can reduce airflow and lead to the recirculation of pollutants. Schedule professional HVAC maintenance at least twice a year.

Even just regularly vacuuming carpets, rugs, and upholstery can make a big difference. To capture particles effectively, use microfiber cloths to dust office surfaces, including desks, shelves, and other work areas. I also suggest a regular disinfection routine, especially in high-touch areas like doorknobs, light switches, shared equipment, and communal spaces. Deep cleaning carpets and upholstery periodically will remove accumulated dirt, dust, and allergens that regular vacuuming may not eliminate.

Make sure that as you start your new cleaning regime, you choose environmentally friendly and low-VOC cleaning products to minimize the release of harmful chemicals into the air. Maintain your standards

Finally, I recommend looking into tools that can continue keeping IAQ high even between cleaning sessions. For example, consider investing in high-quality air purifiers with HEPA filters. These remove harmful airborne particles, such as dust, pollen, and even some bacteria and viruses.

Another option to maintain IAQ is to use humidity control devices. Keeping the indoor humidity within an optimal range – usually between 30 and 50 percent – can help prevent mold growth and reduce the proliferation of dust mites, both of which can negatively affect IAQ.

Even the low-tech suggestion of keeping windows open as often as possible can have a real impact. Remember, outdoor air quality is almost always at least two to five times better than indoor air quality, according to the EPA (At least when wildfires aren’t making the air dangerous to breathe). You can also encourage employees to get more outdoor time by creating a dedicated outdoor break area or organizing outdoor team-building activities.


Maintaining IAQ is not a one-and-done task, but an ongoing process that requires continuous attention and improvement. Luckily, these simple mitigation measures are possible for every HR team to implement. I believe HR is ultimately responsible for employee wellness, and there’s no possible excuse to ignore air quality anymore. Especially for companies that are pushing employees to return to the office, it’s critical to improve IAQ.


Adrian Fulle is the Global Chief Marketing Officer for ByoPlanet and a dedicated advocate for the well-being of animals, plants, and humans alike. Adrian has a passion for health and sustainability and champions initiatives that promote the harmonious coexistence between these interconnected ecosystems. He is a frequent speaker and panelist on the topics of storytelling, marketing science and technology. 

Back to blog