How Nature in the Office Makes Us More Productive—and Happier
Employers in the U.S. loose billions of dollars every year to absenteeism and loss of productivity, so doing everything they can to improve morale, health, and efficiency is a smart business move. Office workers (employers included!) spend an average of 40 hours a week, sometimes much more, in an office environment, so what their surroundings look like has a big impact on their state of mind, their development, their health, and performance.
Multiple studies have shown throughout the years that having some contact with nature in the office, however limited, makes employees happier and more productive, without having to go for a long hike or leaving the city. And that’s something both employees and employers can happily get behind.
We are naturally drawn to nature
After studying the issue for 10 years, psychologists from Exeter University foundemployees were 15 percent more productive when even just a couple of house plants were brought in the office. They found that looking at some greenery boosts brainpower, improves mood and makes employees more attentive. And in another study, students who took tests in outside-facing windows with a natural view did better than students in windowless classrooms.
There are many reasons this makes sense. One of them is the theory that humans have evolved an instinctual, genetic attraction to life and nature, also known as “biophilia,” so that looking at or hearing sounds of nature reduces stress, allowing us to think more clearly, be more resilient, and come up with creative solutions for problems.
So how much nature is the right amount of nature? In one study, after researchers brought in one plant per square meter into a London office, memory performance and other basic tests improved considerably. According to Craig Knight, the lead researcher of that study, “what was important was that everybody could see a plant from their desk.”
The most effective, it seems, is a room with a view, since dynamic landscapes (like trees swaying in the wind or running water) offer an energizing yet relaxing stimulus. But heck, just looking at a green rectangle for a couple of seconds makes people perform better on creative tasks, as opposed to looking at a white, blue, or grey rectangle, as this German study showed, when people were asked to come up with as many uses for a tin can as they could.
No room for plants? There are other ways to incorporate nature in the office
It’s not just looking at nature—hearing natural sounds can also have these positive effects. In close quarters, even our officemate’s harmless chatter can veer us off track from what we’re working on. Sometimes companies (or annoyed, resourceful employees) resort to having some kind of mechanical noise do the trick—the hum of a printer, an AC unit or a fan. In one study, six out of seven participants preferred natural sounds to white noise, and researchers found that natural sounds, like flowing water, not only masked distracting noises, but also had a “restorative effect on people’s cognitive abilities.”
Nature’s restorative effects aren’t limited to memory and attention, though, so what scientists have found in areas outside the office can give us a glimpse of how clear this effect is.
As one example, an analysis of a university building in Oregon showed that workers who could see out a window facing a natural scene took 19% fewer sick days. And patients treated for bipolar disorder at a hospital were discharged several days sooner on average when their rooms had natural sunlight. Being in contact with nature apparently improves people’s health, reducing absenteeism rates and further boosting mood and morale.
It’s undeniable that humans have been evolving for millions of years alongside nature, so it makes sense that putting them in concrete-and-cubicle cages will simply not yield the best results. In fact, it can make people, as researchers in one study said, “as miserable as ants in an empty jam jar.” Bringing in a potted plant, adding a photo of a natural landscape to the office decor, or simply switching your computer’s desktop background to something greener, will be sure to improve your productivity at work, your mood, your health, and your overall well-being.