Creating the 21st Century Office Environment: Bring Nature Inside

Last Friday, I made the first post in a series about creating a new office environment. Promoting standing and physical activity is unquestionably the most important aspect of creating a healthy employee base.

This time, movement isn’t the objective: reconnecting employees with the natural world is.

I understand that for some companies, some of these measures might be difficult to implement. However, you should endeavor to go as far as possible on each one. The benefit to your employees will be immense, and they’ll thank you profusely. Perhaps not in direct words, but their actions and attitudes will do more talking than any words can.

See, the standard whites, grays, blacks, tans, and kinda-sorta-blues of the modern office aren’t at all similar to what humans adapted to seeing in this world. Take a look at the following two pictures, then answer these questions: What differences do you see? Which one holds your attention longer? 

nature_landscape

office_environment

What differences do you see?

  • Much more color in the first image.
  • Much more color variation in the first image.
  • Much more object variety in the first image.
  • Much more perspective difference in the first image.
  • Natural light in the first image; artificial light in the second image.

Which picture held your attention longer? (I’m guessing the first one.)

I could find more, but that gives us a pretty good start on things. Now, what on earth does this have to do with corporate wellness programs and your employees? Easy: their mental health.

See, going to work for 40 hours a week, indoors, requires quite a bit of mental energy. It’s what scientists call direct attention. You have to consciously focus your mind on what you’re doing. You lose attention when you’re tired, or when you’ve been doing the same thing for hours on end. Involuntary attention, on the other hand, doesn’t require any mental effort. None. Zilch. Zero.

It’s the second type of attention that nature inspires. We’re drawn to nature without needing to be drawn to it. The lighting is pleasing and natural – it’s not harsh (unless you’re looking right into the sun… not healthy). It doesn’t tax our mental reserves through over-stimulation, and in fact has been shown to restore mental energy (pdf).

Restoring one’s mental abilities enables better concentration – better direct attention. Employer benefit #1: better productivity. It gives your employees’ minds a break, much like taking a walk or doing exercises gives their bodies a break from sitting. They can re-take to tasks with more energy.

Nature also has a pretty neat ability to reduce mental (and physical!) stress. Employer benefit #2: less stress. You’ll see on Monday how workplace stress can be a problem for your business. Off the cuff, though, you can think up a few reasons why less stress is a good thing: higher morale, fewer physical issues, less likelihood of resorting to eating to cope, less fatigue… the list goes on.

Bringing the outdoors inside isn’t that difficult. You don’t have to plant an indoor flower garden or anything… though that certainly would brighten up the place. Even when people look at a picture of a natural landscape, they get the same types of restorative effects. If you can only do one thing to bring nature indoors, throw up landscape pictures all over the office. As big as possible. Or have a Bob Ross-ian artist come in and paint landscapes along the walls.

Other measures:

  • Reduce the harshness of office lighting. Much office lighting puts strain on the eyes, in addition to the strain already faced by staring into computer screens.
  • Use as much natural light as possible. This has the double benefit of allowing employees to look outdoors.
  • Plant an indoor garden. I’m serious. There are a number of plants that thrive in low light. Think about it.
  • Create an “indoor oasis” by dedicating a room to low-light plants, soft flooring, landscapes on the wall, and ambient nature sounds. Bonus points for making it a room that faces the outdoors, with ceiling-to-floor glass.
  • If in a more suburban/rural setting, encourage employees to take breaks outdoors or take “walking meetings”.

What measures does your company employ to help workers stay connected to nature during the work day?

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