Connecting People to Nature Within the Corporate Office

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How can leaders create the positive effects of nature within the urban environments in which reside many of the leading global businesses?

The average worker spends 90 percent of their time inside, especially in urban cities around the world. It’s obvious, then, that workers crave natural light and views of the outdoors, which are now the number one rated office perk, according to Harvard Business Review. The United Nations also predicts that by 2030, 60 percent of the world’s population will live in urban environments, which means that access to parks and nature within cities will continue to dwindle and the desire for light and views will only increase.

Not only is there a dearth in parks, public spaces and landscaped areas in the booming metropolises of the world, terrace opportunities within a commercial building are extremely limited as well as a huge rent increase for employers.

The World Health Organization expects stress related illness, such as mental health disorders and cardio-vascular disease, to be the two largest contributors to disease by 2020.

Understanding that the vast amount of research shows that access to nature, plants, and sunlight decrease stress and have an impact on mental health, leaders need to establish priorities for change.

But, in light of these challenges, how can leaders create the positive effects of nature within the urban environments in which reside many of the leading global businesses?

Re-designing an office or moving to a new building with glass facades are probably not within every businesses reach. Economical and cost-efficient changes can be made, though, to boost productivity and create an environment that draws staff to the office such as:

Maximize access to natural light.

Studies show more than one-third of employees don’t feel they get enough natural light, despite overwhelming evidence that access to sunlight affects our mood and overall mental health. Winter or summer, our brains rely on the release of hormones like serotonin, which is triggered by exposure to the sun. A lack of these hormones is widely believed to cause seasonal depression.

If windows are reserved for individual offices along the perimeter of your floor plan, install glass walls that will allow light through to the rest of your space. Alternatively, convert one or more of these offices into communal areas where employees can take a break or camp out with their laptop.

Some modern offices have even gone a step further by using circadian lighting systems that change throughout the day, reflecting the natural movement of the sun during the day. Doing so aligns the lighting to people’s circadian rhythm, which regulates our sleep-wake cycle and can lead to reduced fatigue during the day and improved quality of sleep. Organizations should install similar lighting systems to bring elements of natural light into their employees’ daily work experience.

Incorporate plants and living walls.

Plants improve air quality and add color to an interior space, and incorporating biophilia – the tendency of humans to focus on and affiliate with nature — to the office helps to relieve stress, improve cognitive health and increase job satisfaction in office workers. In one study, a group of employees with plants and greenery around the workplace demonstrated a 30-60 percent reduction in stress levels, and research suggests that office plants greatly reduce the number of sick days employees take.

Incorporating plants into an office design is a no-brainer. However, if space is limited, it may be a challenge to achieve the desired aesthetic with only potted plants. Modern offices are getting around this by creating “living walls” or “vertical gardens,” which feature an array of plants planted vertically against a wall or another structure. Your office should too.

Living walls don’t have to be a fixed element, with many mobile products existing –  allowing employees to bring the outdoors to wherever they may be working just by relocating green walls within the office.

Monitor air quality.

Contaminants in the air can cause fatigue, headaches, asthma, allergies and other upper respiratory illnesses. Not surprisingly, it also has a profound effect on our ability to do our best work. According to a Harvard study, working in a well-ventilated office with below-average levels of indoor pollutants and carbon dioxide (CO2) significantly increases cognitive functioning scores.

Plants help in purifying the air, however, employers must also filter the air with HVAC systems and select healthy materials to eliminate off-gassing of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Air quality should be monitored to determine if additional ventilation, filtration management, moisture and humidity control, or other measures are needed to preserve optimal air quality.

Incorporate natural colors and elements within the office.

Employees who work in environments with natural elements reported a 13 percent higher level of wellbeing and are eight percent more productive overall, according to a report of 3,600 workers in eight countries in Europe, Middle and East and Africa. Mimicking the outdoors through use of natural elements in the workplace can have a similar effect of walking in the park to staff. Live wood tables, stone floors, or bringing in textures that are reminiscent or seen in nature (such as a mossy style of carpet, etc.) can have a positive impact on the people in a corporate space where access to natural light or plants is not an option.

Take your office from cold and corporate to warm and natural. Swap plastics for natural materials wherever possible.

Choose colors wisely.

Even the use of colors within the office palette can improve productivity and lower stress. Low-wavelength colors like restful green and calming blue — two of the most common colors in Mother Nature’s palette — improve efficiency and focus. They also lend an overall sense of well-being. Use these colors and calmer tones to reinforce the natural world inside your physical workplace.

Have a dedicated relaxation room.

Work today is fast-paced and we’re all bombarded with information, notifications and new tasks. It’s important to have spaces within the office where workers can go to recharge during the day. Incorporating natural elements within these spaces can help rejuvenate and refresh workers, who can then return to their work energized and refreshed.

Be pet-friendly!

Many prominent companies allow dogs in the workplace, and for good reason. Pet owners report an improved sense of well-being from having their dog alongside them at work, particularly if they rely on that animal for emotional support. Additionally, studies show that talking to and petting a dog are accompanied by lower blood pressure. Dogs are also a great conversation-starter and have the tendency to increase positive social interactions, improve collaboration, reduce stress and boost productivity.

Bringing the outdoors and the natural world into the office can have a profound impact on an employee’s well-being, which in turn results in an increase in production and efficiency for the employer and the business. In short, wellness impacts the bottom line. The office environments we design prioritize human health and wellness by integrating human-focused design to bring the positive effects of the outdoors to people in companies around the world. Yours should too.

All images are courtesy of Eric Laignel, M Moser Associates.

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