Updated: Sep 21, 2021
by Melanie Harbert
Thanks to advancements in workplace furniture design, today’s employees are more comfortable in the office than ever before. Yet, they have a strong need to spend time outdoors, in the fresh air, surrounded by nature. One explanation is the concept of Biophilia, which Edward O. Wilson popularized in the mid-1980s.
The concept of biophilia suggests that we have an innate biological connection with nature. It influences our productivity, mental well-being, and even social interactions. Whether you are sitting in a park, staring at the blue sky, or even interacting with animals, biophilia explains those stimulating, stress-free moments you experience.
As our world transitions back to work, looking to the outdoors will become key to staying safe in our new expectations of the modern workplace. Outdoor workplace design is becoming more important. It is championing the idea of moving work into the open air and light.
Is There Any Benefit to Working Outdoors?
Outdoor workspaces “improve ventilation and slow the transmission of COVID”, says the Center for Disease Control (CDC). And studies show that working in nature increases employee retention, productivity, and creativity.
From Groove to PayPal to LinkedIn, more companies are providing flexible outdoor work environments for their employees. We now have access to a wide range of outdoor furnishings and layout designs. The transition from indoors to outdoors has never been easier.
Most furniture manufacturers offer durable outdoor furniture that can survive harsh weather. For example, Wilkhahn's Aline chairs are not only durable but can also be used outdoors throughout the year.
Also, there are a variety of outdoor textiles that can protect upholstered furnishings and help prolong their life. They are made out of 100% solution-dyed fibers that offer lightfastness and mildew resistance. Among the industry's leading textile manufacturers, Mayer Fabrics offers a wide selection of colors and patterns woven into their solution-dyed outdoor textiles.
The Psychological Impact of Biophilia
Nature is the soul’s fuel. Observing natural scenes makes us feel calmer and less stressed—even if we're just gazing out of a window. In fact, by spending only 20 minutes outside, you can significantly boost your vitality levels.
Researchers at the University of Rochester conducted a study in which they tracked the mood and energy levels of 537 participants using diary entries. All-day they encouraged participants to imagine themselves being indoors and outdoors or to take part in a variety of activities both indoors and outdoors.
As a result, participants consistently felt more vitalized when spending time outside or imagining themselves in such environments. If you have worked in a closed environment without natural light or fresh air, you clearly understand why the concept of biophilia is so important. When surrounded by plants and natural materials, the workplace becomes more inviting, enjoyable, and fulfilling.
Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) and Employee Productivity
There is an enormous difference between indoor air and fresh air. The majority of offices in the United States were constructed after 1980 when airtight and enclosed spaces became the rage. So it takes more than just opening your windows to improve IAQ.
In a Harvard study, researchers found that office environments can affect workers’ well-being and productivity. Employees working in green-conditioned environments performed 61% better in terms of cognitive performance than when they worked in standard office conditions.
High temperatures and humidity make it difficult for employees to produce high-quality work on time. Since carbon dioxide levels increase with temperature, they can adversely affect mental function and productivity.
As Dr. Eva M. Selhub from the Harvard School of Medicine writes in her book, “fresh air stimulates neurons in the brain. It turns off the stress responses and lowers cortisol levels. The benefits also include lowering the heart rate and blood pressure and improving the immune response”.
Capital One's Workplace Environment Survey found that 53% of employees agree that sunlight plays a key role in supporting their mental health at work. Truth be told, the days of employees being stuck and isolated to their desks are over.
As we return to the office after being forced to be remote, work environments must evolve to accommodate the safety and health needs of employees. Research shows that employees want to switch between indoor and outdoor work environments.
On most days, it’s possible for employees to feel more relaxed under natural light than under artificial fluorescent lighting. When office workers are exposed to enough sunlight, fresh air, and natural scenery, they re-energized rather than being stuck at a desk all day.
Sunlight triggers the production of serotonin inside our bodies, which augments our feeling of well-being and helps us concentrate better. In this way, spending many hours without natural light can affect our mental health, which influences our productivity.
One Step Closer to Nature
For the last 100 years, people have documented their profound experiences in nature—from Henry Thoreau to Edward Wilson to John Muir, the extraordinary nature poet. Muir writes in one of his most captivating nature poems: “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”
Working under the shade of cottony clouds, while surrounded by greenery swaying in the breeze, creates a canvas for productivity that cannot be matched. Being outside not only gives us energy and makes us happier, but also enables us to indulge our creative side.
Fresh air strategies offer a solution that will rejuvenate employees and reinforce a positive workplace culture. As we gather with co-workers in the post-Covid world, we can re-establish a sense of community by utilizing creative workplace design options.
Designing the Outdoor Work Experience
In the past few decades, the way we structure our offices has changed significantly. And there are even more creative ways to plan for both functional and beautiful outdoor workspaces nowadays. Non-glare monitors, cordless power chargers or wireless charging significantly contribute to our ability to work outdoors.
Benchmark Contract, a leader in indoor/outdoor commercial furniture, offers flexible furniture pieces that can be easily reconfigured to accommodate group gatherings or meetings. Consider choosing furniture with lighter colors to minimize heat absorption. This will help keep your furniture cooler during the warmer seasons.
Offering a variety of chair types, such as single lounge and upright seating, will provide employees with different options depending on the type of work they are doing. Longer “picnic” tables can be utilized if colleagues sit at a diagonal angle to one another.
Outdoor areas must also provide a comfortable working environment for employees regardless of the weather conditions throughout the year. While we can use umbrellas and retractable overhead shades to provide comfort in the summer months, commercial heaters are available when the temperatures drop.
Also, adding potted plants offers additional greenery and oxygen. “Plants can boost concentration and focus”, says Forbes Magazine. By adding greenery, you help filter the air, reduce noise, and block excessive sunlight. Employee engagement will improve as we redesign the workplace to fit employee productivity needs.
As we come back together, fresh air strategies offer solutions that will rejuvenate employees and reinforce a positive workplace culture. The creative options for working in nature can help re-establish a sense of community while gathering safely with co-workers in the post-Covid world.
About the Author
Melanie Harbert is one of the Bay Area's most well-respected senior associates in premium built environments. She holds degrees in Interior and Environmental Design/BA and an MA from California State University, Long Beach. She is an IIDA Northern California Chapter Honoree 2017-2018 (https://iidanc.org/) and a member of IIDA (International Association of Interior Design) since 2000 (http://iida.org/).
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