Brain Power, Not Foot-Candles: The Biggest Payback From Smart Lighting

Service/Maintenance 0419 Photo Credit: Shutterstock / Everett Historical
Photo Credit: Shutterstock / Everett Historical
Published On
Apr 15, 2019

Elton Mayo was dumbfounded. The research results in the reports he was reading were exactly opposite of what he had expected to see. It was 1927. He was still new to his job as the first professor of industrial research at Harvard Business School. The business school itself was still barely 20 years old.

It was an era in which the mainstream of business management theory was on the verge of a major upheaval. It would migrate from the province of stopwatch-wielding “efficiency experts” toward a “humanist movement” focusing on the psychology of business organizations. Mayo was about to make a critical contribution to that conversion.

Mayo was in Cicero, Ill., standing on the sprawling 100-acre site of the Hawthorne Works, where Western Electric produced telecommunications equipment and products on behalf of the network of Bell Telephone companies across the United States.

Hoping to scientifically measure the relationship between lighting levels in the plant and productivity levels of the workforce, company engineers were continually stumped by their findings in the mounds of statistics. When they methodically lowered lighting levels within the plant—expecting the productivity level to drop—they were astounded to discover productivity levels often went up. Conversely, raising lighting levels did not always lead to corresponding improvements in productivity.

Mayo and his colleagues eventually realized that their constant engagement with the plant workers was iitself the cause of all the unexpected upticks in productivity gains. Their explanation for this phenomenon came to be known as the Hawthorne Effect: namely, the quality of the lighting did not matter. It was the “experimenter effect” that made the difference.

People familiar with the Hawthorne Effect might mistakenly believe the net effect of poor lighting in a workplace is less significant than it really is. Science that has evolved over the last 90 years verifies the quality of lighting in a work area does indeed matter in ways that go beyond “productivity.” Improved lighting can have a huge impact on the physical and mental well-being of the people working within its span.

When it comes to retrofitting lighting systems in commercial and institutional facilities, however, the primary concern in the minds of decision-makers invariably is cost-reduction. They want to cut their per-square-foot cost of energy, a large portion of which is always electricity.

But there’s a better reason to upgrade lighting systems and their controls. Better lighting will create a better workspace. It will make people happier, healthier and more productive to boot.

A few years ago, global real estate giant Jones Lang Lasalle rolled out its “3/30/300 principle” to illustrate the relationship between per-square-foot costs of energy (nominally $3), office rent ($30), and all-in “people costs” ($300). The 3/30/300 principle—which Jones Lang Lasalle later trademarked—in representative terms shows that any effort to cut energy costs in a facility is only 1 percent as consequential as other kinds of improvements that will “humanly” affect the people who regularly occupy the space.

The 3/30/300 principle supports our belief that the clearest benefits from newly installed smart lighting will center more on brain power than electric power.

Today, many electrical contractors believe lighting retrofit work has lost its luster. They are quick to cite instances where competitors are doing it with low-paid workers who are not even trained electricians. But a value-added approach to retrofit work proposing both new lighting and new lighting controls will quickly differentiate the capabilities of a qualified contractor from the limitations of a cut-rate competitor.

Elton Mayo led Harvard Business School away from focusing on productivity rates and more toward human relations in the workplace. We believe that, by analogy, ECs should give greater emphasis in their marketing efforts toward the impact that new lighting fixtures and controls can have on the all-around well-being of employees.

Lighting retrofit work most often falls under the purview of an EC’s service and maintenance team. New lighting systems combined with better controls can equip an EC’s service and maintenance team with the keys to long-term customer relationships through which they can provide additional offerings for continuous improvements that go on and on.

About the Author

Andrew McCoy

Service and Maintenance Contributor

Andrew McCoy is professor in the Dept. of Building Construction, associate director of the Myers-Lawson School of Construction and director of the Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech. Contact him at

About the Author

Fred Sargent

Service and Maintenance Contributor

Fred Sargent is president of Great Service Forums, a network of electrical contractors focused on business development and profitable growth of their service & maintenance business.

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