We spend about 92% of our lives indoors, on average.1 That was true even before COVID-19 prompted people to hunker down and observe social-distancing protocols. Without intervention, it’s a trend that’s likely to continue long after the pandemic abates.
Excessive time inside is problematic in light of what’s called the biophilia hypothesis — the widely held idea that because humans evolved in close connection to nature, we still harbor a strong innate desire to be in contact with natural elements and processes.2 When we fulfill that desire, research suggests, we tend to experience greater vitality and willpower, feel a sense of mental clarity, and engage in increased helping behavior;3 when we don’t, findings indicate that we are more susceptible to stress, depression, and aggression.4 Imagine the impact that’s likely to have on work performance.
Of course, many jobs require people to be indoors, whether the work is done remotely or onsite. Employers, recognizing that they can help alleviate associated problems for onsite workers, have begun to incorporate aspects of nature into employees’ day-to-day activities and workspaces through biophilic work design. These efforts are wide ranging. At one end of the spectrum, we have direct immersion in natural elements — say, providing employees with an appealing outdoor space where they can conduct meetings or phone calls. At the other, we have indirect exposure — through large windows with sweeping views, for instance. Although changes to physical facilities won’t affect remote workers, they can be supported in other ways. Managers can encourage people to take walks to recharge, and to bring their laptops outside when weather permits. Virtual meeting “rooms” with natural backdrops can serve as digital proxies for windows.
Some organizations are embracing biophilic work design mainly for the sake of employee well-being and sustainability. But the benefits may go even further than that. In our recent theoretical work, my colleague Mark Bolino at the University of Oklahoma and I have identified four key ways that helping employees interact more frequently and closely with the natural world has the potential to boost their energy and thus their performance.5 We’ll consider those here. But first, let’s look at some of the changes that employers have begun to make — probably without fully realizing what’s at stake.
Steps Employers Are Taking
Jobs and workspaces that allow employees to engage with the natural world through most or all of their senses (that is, those that offer direct exposure) can most thoroughly satisfy employees’ biophilic desires. A common example: providing workers with spaces like green rooftop terraces to take outdoor breaks. Samsung has taken this concept further than most: In its new 10-story R&D headquarters in San Jose, California, every third floor is an open-air “garden floor,” which ensures that employees are never more than one story away from an outdoor space. Other organizations are encouraging workers to get outdoors through HR perks. For instance, every worker at REI is entitled to two “Yay Days” per year — vacation days that are explicitly meant to be spent outside. Oakley, the sunglasses maker, gives its employees ski passes.
Although not as deeply engaging as being outdoors, bringing natural elements indoors can still give employees direct contact with nature. The Amazon Spheres building in Seattle blurs the line between indoor rainforest and office space. A less extreme approach is the use of living walls — soil-based walls with plants growing on them — in the design of many workspaces, such as those on all nine floors of Etsy’s new headquarters in Brooklyn, New York.
When direct exposure to nature isn’t realistic, employers can provide indirect exposure not just through windows but also via human-made representations of natural elements or building materials that use those elements. In the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed offices of the SC Johnson Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin, tree-shaped columns in its Great Workroom mimic (in form and function) shade trees found on an open savanna. More conventional examples of indirect contact include wallpaper or murals that depict natural elements or floor coverings made of natural materials.
In some cases, digital tools are being used to simulate or promote interaction with nature. Upon entering the main offices of Salesforce in San Francisco, employees pass through a 108-foot video wall that streams footage of rivers, forests, and cascading water in high definition. Digital air monitors in the Manhattan offices of the architectural firm Cookfox direct fresh air into workspaces where high levels of carbon dioxide or pollutants are detected. And recorded nature sounds are increasingly being played in open-office settings.
What Organizations Stand to Gain
Wherever they fall along the direct-to-indirect spectrum, companies often state that they are embracing biophilic design to increase employee well-being and promote sustainability, which jibes with existing research on the benefits of providing access to green spaces at work.6 When Clif Bar opened its Idaho bakery, which was designed using biophilic principles, CEO Kevin Cleary said, “We wanted it to be a healthy, welcoming place for people to work — a workplace that sustains our people, the community, and the planet.”7 When asked about the most important element of Apple’s new headquarters, lead designer Norman Foster focused on the “strong connection with nature and the landscape surrounding the building,” adding that when employees can “breathe fresh air and see the outdoors and the sky, you’re more productive, more alert, and better able to respond to crises.”8
Field studies have only begun to empirically demonstrate that biophilic design has improved employee performance in these ways. But it’s not a stretch to expect such outcomes, given the findings of initial studies linking a lack of exposure to nature at work to consequences such as job dissatisfaction and burnout,9 which are robust predictors of poor performance and counterproductive behavior. And in a digital world, contact with nature may play a particularly important role in counterbalancing the effects of hyperconnectivity, multiteaming, remote work, agile methods, and other job characteristics that can pull employees’ bodies and minds deeper into the realm of the artificial.
Indeed, the gains of increasing employees’ exposure to nature may be even richer than organizations currently realize. Interactions with nature have the potential to boost employees’ energy reserves in four ways: cognitively, emotionally, prosocially, and physically. However, to reap these benefits, it is not enough to simply place employees in contact with nature; leaders must do it thoughtfully and avoid countering the potential gains with other choices they make about job and workspace design.
Cognitive energy. Contact with nature can enhance employees’ ability to concentrate on work tasks. Partly, that’s because it has a recharging effect — it restores people’s willpower, much like breaks for exercise or meditation during the workday.10 But there’s another reason as well: Contact with nature that gently holds one’s attention has the potential to enhance cognitive functioning in a way that is not taxing.11 When taking a break on a rooftop terrace, employees can enjoy the mentally energizing effects of fresh air and sun without having to focus their attention on those elements.
However, not all forms of exposure to nature are likely to have equivalent effects on cognitive energy. My theoretical work with Mark Bolino suggests that natural elements are more apt to hold people’s attention (even gently) if they are novel rather than unchanged over time, because we tend to tune out the latter with repeated or ongoing exposure. So in settings that include both dynamic and static biophilic features — such as SAP’s offices in Gurgaon, India, which include a large aquarium, a plant wall, and reclaimed-wood floors — dynamic features like the aquarium and the plant wall will probably contribute more to employees’ mental energy than the static reclaimed wood.
Emotional energy. Contact with nature that elicits a sense of being away from the workplace — and in a more desirable, natural setting — can be emotionally energizing.12 It’s like taking a psychological vacation, and it may allow people to gain at least some of the benefits associated with real vacations, such as improved mood and reduced emotional exhaustion.13
Some companies have gone to great lengths to give workers a nature-based psychological escape from the office. Indeed’s new Tokyo offices include biophilic oasis spaces, small areas for both relaxation and work that are surrounded by trees, moss, and rocks. However, if other work conditions are deficient, that can thwart employees’ ability to “get away.” For example, if an employee has an abusive manager or is given demeaning job tasks, no amount of biophilic work design will allow him or her to emotionally escape that reality.
Prosocial energy. Biophilic work elements that provide people with a sense of connection to the larger world have the potential to boost employees’ prosocial energy — the desire to help others and build positive relationships. Given the connectedness among elements in the natural world — the air we all breathe, the sun we all see, and so on — exposure to nature may prompt feelings of oneness with the world and with others. Such feelings, in turn, can increase generosity and cooperation.14 Indeed, to the extent that people feel one with the natural world, they are more likely to be open to others’ perspectives.15
Biophilic work elements can be designed with those benefits in mind. For instance, at the new headquarters of Morgan Sindall Group in London, the central feature is a massive engineered tree whose branches reach out across the entire building. Importantly, though, the prosocial impact of such work design elements may be undermined by a barrage of unnatural and unpleasant intrusions — such as constant pinging through email and Slack. After all, such intrusions tend to focus our attention on the “micro” aspects of work rather than the broader world.
Physical energy. Being outdoors boosts levels of hormones associated with physiological health and vitality.16 But research shows that the physically energizing effects of nature differ based on the degree to which individuals yearn to connect with the natural world.17 Although the biophilia hypothesis predicts that all individuals have an innate desire to connect with nature, the strength of this desire differs from person to person. What’s more, not all employees will feel equally vitalized by a given form of contact with nature at work. So nature-based work design should strive for compatibility between employees’ biophilic desires and the physical work environment.
Consider this example: Whereas natural features in offices are often stationary, the offices of web hosting company OVH in Quebec City use large but movable planters to allow employees to customize their proximity to nature while at work. Organizations that engage employees in the design of their workplaces can tailor contact with nature to individuals’ distinctive desires. At REI’s new headquarters in Bellevue, Washington, an “everything outdoors” infrastructure was designed and built, complete with hallways open to the outside and roll-up doors in conference rooms to allow year-round open-air meetings. The final 20% of the design, which involves space configuration details, was left unfinished. This way, REI’s employees can not only customize their own workspaces but also, as a group, customize common areas, such as the rooftop green space, to align with collective biophilic desires.
For centuries, philosophers have extolled the virtues of connecting with the natural world — but organizational leaders have just begun to embrace this wisdom in recent years. To make smart investments in updating their workspaces, HR practices, and cultural norms, leaders should understand that the effects of biophilic work design can depend on a number of factors: whether the exposure to nature is direct or indirect, the types of natural elements incorporated, the psychological climate and organizational culture of the work setting, and the ability to tailor workspaces to suit individual differences in biophilic desires. When these factors are thoughtfully considered, the benefits can be maximized.
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This content was originally published by MIT Sloan Management Review. Original publishers retain all rights. It appears here for a limited time before automated archiving. By MIT Sloan Management Review