For most employees, going to work means being indoors for most of the day, isolated for the most part from the outdoors and nature. Yet, increasingly organizations are adopting new structural designs for their facilities that enhance their employees’ contact with natural settings. For example, while 20% of Apple’s former headquarters consisted of landscaped areas, 80% of its new headquarters is composed of woodlands and meadows. Further, Facebook’s main office possesses a roughly four-acre rooftop garden with a walking trail that runs through it, while Amazon employees work in three enormous, glass-enclosed pods that house thousands of different species of plants.
Moreover, beyond altering physical characteristics of employees’ work environments, employers are also providing employees greater opportunities to access and interact with nature. REI, for example, provides workers two “yay” days each year in which they are paid to spend time outdoors in nature, while some Silicon Valley firms are providing employees opportunities to spend a day “forest bathing.”
Green living walls in Facebook Headquarters in Tel Aviv (Photo Credit: Re:public)
Why are employers so interested in “bringing the outdoors” into their employees’ work lives? As it turns out, there is an interesting and surprising science behind these initiatives – the heart of which resides in what is known as the biophilia hypothesis. According to this theory, nature is a part of who we are as human beings...quite literally. For example, although Americans spend roughly 92% of their time indoors and only 2% of their time outdoors, with 6% spent in transit between the two domains, things were at lot different in humans’ ancestral past. Indeed, most of our evolution as a species has taken place in the natural world, and the shift to living indoors is only recent (i.e., within the last 5,000 years). As such, the biophilia hypothesis maintains that because the evolution of the human body and its complex systems took place in natural settings, involving exposure to weather, plants, animals, sunlight, landscapes, bodies of water, etc., human beings’ thoughts, emotions, learning, and behavior remain uniquely tied to nature. This ancestral connection to nature that we have as humans, in turn, manifests as an inherent and potent desire to interact with it; thus, it is perhaps not surprising that people who spend more time in nature display greater health and wellbeing.
"Nature is a part of who we are as human beings...quite literally. People who spend more time in nature display greater health and wellbeing."
Accordingly, building “biophilic” workplace structures not only serves to promote environmentally sustainable building practices, it may be an additional lever for employers to foster the health, wellbeing, and flourishing of their workforces. Moreover, what remains to be determined is how far the benefits of “nature contact” in the workplace stretch. Do workers who are exposed to natural settings at work demonstrate higher levels of organizational citizenship behavior, such as helping their coworkers and speaking positively about the organization to outsiders? Do they demonstrate lower levels of counterproductive work behavior, such as theft, sabotage, and aggression? What are the implications of nature contact for employee engagement, task performance, and turnover? And who are the people who benefit most from nature contact at work? These are all questions that organizational scientists are beginning to ask and which are likely to pose interesting implications for HR practitioners thinking about the utility of “bringing the greater outdoors” into their organizations.
Hanging plants on the Villanova HRD office walls
But you do not need to build a rooftop garden or woodland walking path to gain some of the benefits of bringing nature into your work environment. A few plants inside, an open window, or encouraging an afternoon walk outside are a great start to help your employees foster the health benefits of nature. Right now, most of us are operating in a remote work environment due to COVID-19. Encourage your employees to bring nature into their home office, work outside on the patio or by the pool when possible, or take a walk in the afternoon. These small changes to encourage more interaction with nature will have benefits to the health and wellbeing of your staff during a time when we all could use a focus on wellness.
Christian Thoroughgood, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Learn more about him here!