Plants, Performance And The Work Environment

Sometimes we have to learn what we don’t want before we know what we do want. For me, my work environment is key. Working in a windowless, airless office for nearly 2 years was enough to convince me that being able to work outdoors on sunny days was to be top on my list of priorities. When I finally took the plunge and started working for myself, having such a work environment turned out not to be as easy as I first thought. For a start the sunny days were rather few and far between, and when they did come, the glare on the laptop screen made it impossible to see. Finally last month, it all came together nicely. I put up the gazebo with my table and chair underneath and, and spent the day working very happily in my garden ‘office’. Not only did I feel more relaxed, I finally managed to complete a task I’d been putting off for months. Actually it was much easier than I expected and I’m sure that the surrounding greenery somehow helped.

An Outside Work Environment

But whilst outdoor classrooms have been around for a while, outdoor workstations are still to catch on. So what can we do to bring the outside in to our work environment and get at least some of the benefits of nature into our offices? An obvious way is to get yourself some houseplants. We know that ‘nature deficit’ has a significant impact on our health and reconnecting with nature improves it. Experiments in hospitals have even found that patients who’ve had heart surgery need less pain relief afterwards when they look at nature scenes (1) so there’s a move now for new hospitals to be built with more gardens and green areas included. As well as helping to reduce stress, anxiety, and improve cognitive function, there are lots of other health benefits to using houseplants too. They include:

  • Keeping air humidity at optimum levels for humans, making us less likely to develop coughs and colds. That means less time off work and a more robust workforce.
  • Improvement in air quality. During the NASA Clean Air Study, certain plants were found to reduce levels of toxic fumes in their environment. These included Spider Plants which clear formaldehyde, and English Ivy which clears benzene. These are commonly found in office furniture, carpets and soft furnishings.
  • Improvement in productivity. An 18 month long international study has found a 15% improvement in productivity amongst workers who could see a plant from their desk (2).

So if this is such a simple and inexpensive way to make a real difference to our productivity, why isn’t everyone doing it? There are probably a few reasons. Firstly, most employers simply aren’t aware of the benefits. Also, if resources are already stretched to the max, there may be concerns over who’s going to be buying and caring for all these plants. Obviously there are companies who’ll take care of all of that for you, but caring for houseplants isn’t too labour intensive really. If everybody had one on their desk they’d also get the satisfaction of caring for and nurturing their plant. Enjoying the fruits of your labour is all part of the fun if you’re a keen gardener, and I was certainly over the moon when my Peace Lily produced 20 flowers at a time and we had to give it its own desk.

I was a strong advocate for indoor planting some years ago when I worked for a large facilities management company. After explaining the benefits plants on a work environment to my Senior Manager I was given a small budget to go plant shopping with. I also managed to muster some volunteer ‘planters’ to pot up and distribute plants around the office during our lunch breaks. The ultimate aim was to get one on every desk, many of which were spider plants whose babies were plentiful. Soon, each new Spider Plant was being given a name by its ‘owner’ and Spider Plant family trees were appearing in the office newsletter! We never expected that putting a few plants around the office would inadvertently bring staff together who were spread across 3 floors, chatting in the staff room about how their Spider Plants were related.

Plants In Our Work Environment Fostered A Stronger Sense of Community.

We shouldn’t be too surprised that we have an innate need to be surrounded by nature. It’s how we’ve lived throughout our evolution, and in only a few generations some of us have become entirely separated from it. Most of us feel more at peace when we sit in front of an open fire, because we intuitively associate it with warmth, comfort, light, and protection from predators. In the same way, most of us feel more relaxed after a walk in the park or open countryside because it reconnects us with the ecosystem we come from. It’s more surprising that more of our work environments: offices, schools, hospitals and other institutions aren’t taking advantage of the benefits of indoor planting for health and wellbeing, but maybe that will change from now on.

Improve Your Work Environment Right Now – Get Some Spider Babies For Your Desk! 


(1) Health Benefits of Gardens in Hospitals Roger S. Ulrich, Ph.D
(2)The relative benefits of green versus lean office space: Three field experiments.
Nieuwenhuis, Marlon; Knight, Craig; Postmes, Tom; Haslam, S. Alexander
Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Vol 20(3), Sep 2014, 199-214.

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