If you go hunting for ideas and options on how a workplace should be lit, you are going to find a lot of recommendations. Some experts will recommend a nice low warm light like a warm summer’s day. They say the warm lighting is to help get your staff into a comfortable and friendly mood. Other sources will say, “warm lighting, that’s a no no” it makes the staff sleepy and doesn’t promote focus. Members of this other camp will recommend a nice cold white light, similar to a crisp, cold winter’s night. They will proudly declare that the cool white light’s crispness promotes focus. There will be others that swear fluorescent bulbs flicker too much. While still others sing praises of fluorescent bulbs and their hum.
There are genuine scientific investigations into exactly how an office should be lit, as well as long investigations and research into making your staff feel more productive or at home by lighting alone. All of them imply that the office should be, in fact, lit. That seems like a reasonable assumption. People would be crazy to want to work in an unlit office.
And then … …
Our engineering staff enters into the picture. Our engineers have turned one or two days a week into what have been called “Cave Days.” If it is past 10AM and the lights are not on yet, it is expected that they remain off the rest of the day. This ruling at times can be enforced via the Nerf guns bombardment. There were, for a time, standing orders that if you turn on the lights after 10AM, you are going to have to go full Neo and dodge darts on the way to your desk. The Nerf darts are necessary because Cave Days are not universally loved. There are a few non-engineers that seem to dislike Cave Days and spend their Cave Days in meeting rooms with the lights on. Some of the non engineers try to sneak over and flip the switch when no one is expecting it. There is one and only one engineer that is, very vocally, in the “turn on the lights camp.” When he comes in on Cave Days he makes sure to end them by turning on the lights.
Cave days seem like a strange thing at first. Who would want to work with the lights off? It sounds like no lighting would be something that hinders work. You wouldn’t be able to easily track down some tool you’re looking for. There is an ever present risk of tripping. S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a real thing that affects people that do not get enough light. With all these risks and downsides it is a bit surprising that Cave Days cross the line into “popular.” People must be getting some positive effects out of setting the office to dark mode.
For this piece I spent some time trying to think of similar things that the engineers enjoy/prefer, and what benefits Cave Days offer. I found myself comparing it to dark mode. Dark mode is where a computer or phone application changes to a darker background and lighter colored fonts to allow for easier use in darker places. Superficially, it appeared the same engineers that are very fond of dark modes on apps are fond of cave days in the office. Looking at bright white screens with small black fonts can and does wear out your eyes. Is the only benefit to cave days just easier on your eyes? Is there more to it? So I decided to ask around.
Here are some of the thoughts people gave me when asked about the benefit of cave days.
My assumption was partially correct: it is easier on the eyes when working at a screen all day. Several engineers informed me that it removes glare from screens and desk surfaces, making it easier to see and read what’s on the screen. The darkness seemed to help draw their eyes to the lit screen without straining the eyes.
If you put on your headphones and remove noise it gets easier still to ignore distractions. The darkness helps build a cone of focus around your work. If the office is lit up and a coworker gets up to pace around and think, that might be distracting to the working unblocked engineer. If it is a cave day, then the glowing screen likely blocks out the peripheral vision of the pacing coworker. If someone needs a co-worker badly, then they are going to break through the cone of silence set up by headphones and cave day darkness.
The pro-light side made the comment that in the dark, it’s too much isolation. That the team misses out on binding together and solving problems as a team. In a lot of ways, the pro dark side agreed and that might be why it’s only at most a few days a week. The same can be said for remote work. You really miss out on being able to take advantage of the smart people you work with if you are completely isolated.
The pro darkness side seemed to think anything more than one or two cave days in a week and it would start to become a negative rather than a positive action.
If limited to one or two days a week, the pro dark side didn’t seem to think the light side was really losing too much. Especially since the light side can go and occupy a meeting room with the lights. Some of the pro light side said they find it annoying and get tangled up and focus on the fact that it’s dark, rather than the software issues at hand.
I personally am fine with either light days or Cave days. I can think of a few occasions where my normally extroverted self felt like I wanted some isolation, and then walking in and finding out it’s a random Cave Day. When I saw the lights were out I instantly felt better. Not everyone can be “on” all the time and I guess the same can be said about the office’s lights.