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THE INC. LIFE

Why Paying Attention to This Overlooked Office Feature Might Have a Huge Productivity Payoff

Lighting Science Group wants you to consider your employees’ circadian rhythms.

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BY Kevin J. Ryan - 30 Aug 2018

fluorescent lights office

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Fluorescent light bulbs aren't exactly doing much to beautify your office. They also could be costing your company productivity.

That's according to Fred Maxik. A physicist by training, Maxik began his career in lighting designing the colorful displays on audio equipment in the late 1980s. That led him into the world of LED lighting, where he eventually created what he refers to as "biological" lights.

Maxik's startup, the Rhode Island-based Lighting Science Group, creates light bulbs meant to help your body maintain its 24-hour internal clock, also known as its circadian rhythm. The company is based on an idea that increasingly is accepted as scientific fact: Light's hue can affect how how well you sleep and how alert you feel--and thus how well you work.

You might have read one of the many headlines in recent years that staring at your smartphone or tablet screen too close to bedtime can disrupt your sleep. One explanation is that the light emanating from these devices tends to have a blue--or, more specifically, cyan--hue. Several studies around the turn of the millennium found that exposure to blue light decreased humans' levels of melatonin, the hormone that helps you fall asleep. It's the same science that led Apple to introduce the red-tinted Night Shift mode on iPhones and iPads in 2016.

"When we discovered how to make electric light, we dramatically changed the human condition and our productivity," Maxik says. "We didn't understand for the next 125 years was that this wonderful invention brought negative biological consequences."

The entrepreneur decided to create a company that uses light to work with human's biology instead of against it. He founded Lighting Science in 2000 and soon developed two types of bulbs: ones with a cyan glow meant to imitate natural light and help people stay awake during the day, and other bulb with a cyan-depleted reddish glow to help melatonin production at night. The Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas became the company's first corporate customer in 2003. The company has since outfitted companies like Merrill Lynch, Nestle, and Pegasus Capital, which is also an investor.

A conference room at The Nature Conservancy in Maine, which uses Lighting Science's bulbs meant to mimic natural light.

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In addition to its cyan (GoodDay) and red (GoodNight) lights, the company makes smart bulbs that change from one to another throughout the day and can be controlled by timers or an app. That's proved useful in places like nursing homes, hospitals, convents, and hotels; international resort chain Six Senses has installed the bulbs at about 15 of its locations.

Markon Solutions, a management consulting firm, installed Lighting Science light bulbs and desk lamps in its Virginia office earlier this year. Employees were a bit taken aback at first by the bright glow, says company VP Raymond Carney, but soon they were fighting over the portable lamps that had been placed throughout the office. Markon ended up ordering more.

"Once people feel like they're giving themselves a small edge, everybody wants it. It's infectious," says Carney, who has become a believer. "People want to make sure they're doing everything they can for themselves."

Have there been measurable results? "I've been asked that question a bunch of times--can you prove it?" Carney says. "I can't necessarily. I know there's a lot of science behind it. But I'll say this: Two of our conference rooms have the lights in them and the rest don't, and people always want to use the rooms that have them."

Still, that gets at a point working against Lighting Science and other so-called human-centric lighting companies: There's little hard data to support that their products improve employees' productivity. Most evidence is anecdotal, like teachers at schools where the lights have been installed testifying that their students seem more "with it."

A 2016 study published by the journal Sleep, however, found that exposure to 30 minutes of blue light improved subject's reaction times. Extrapolated across an entire company, even a slight uptick in employee efficiency could mean huge benefits.

Meanwhile, the science community's understanding of circadian lighting continues to grow. A study conducted by researchers from Harvard and Oxford found that blind subjects experienced decreases in melatonin when exposed to blue light. The findings helped establish that additional light-sensing receptors in the eye, besides the rods and cones that allow us to see, play a role in regulating our circadian rhythm. That goes to show just how in tune the human body is to the light that surrounds it: Light's impact on internal clocks goes beyond just what people can visually perceive.

Steven Lockley, the lead author on the study, has been studying circadian rhythms for 25 years. "Light can help you reset your clock as quickly as possible," he says. "It's a time cue for the body's clock--yet most of the time we take it for granted."

Still, blue light can have unintended negative consequences: Scientists at the University of Toledo published a paper in July concluding that close or prolonged exposure to blue light--like that which emanates from device screens--can have irreversible damage in eye cells. (The study focused on light with a wavelength of 445 nanometers; Lighting Science's fall in the 465 to 485 nm range.)

As interest in the science of circadian rhythms grows, Lighting Science faces some new competitors. Austin-based Ketra has supplied companies like Vice and Buzzfeed with circadian LED bulbs for their headquarters since launching to the public three years ago. Incumbents like GE and Philips, which earlier this year renamed its lighting division Signify, offer a growing number of smart and circadian bulbs. Overall, the industry is expected to expand rapidly: Human-centric lighting was a $446 million market in 2017 and is expected to reach $3.91 billion by 2024, according to research firm BIS Research.

For its part, Lighting Science pulled in more than $50 million in revenue last year. To date, the company has raised more than $100 million in funding.

Maxik hopes the public continues to educate itself. "Light a very powerful stimulant. If you give yourself a powerful stimulant before you're supposed to be going to sleep, you're disrupting a natural process." With circadian light, he says, "we can still derive all the benefits we associate with light--without doing the biological harm."

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