Getting Back to Nature

The outdoor workspace provides many benefits toward a healthy work environment.

Architects and designers have been bringing nature into the workplace, incorporating wood, stone, and plants. Now, companies are inviting employees to actually go outside for a taste of the real thing.

Developers and owners of urban office buildings are adding terraces and transforming once-barren rooftops into park-like settings, where workers can plant vegetables, unfurl yoga mats, or swing hammocks. Employers competing for the best workers are using these outdoor amenities to show they care about their employees’ well-being.

The trend of outdoor spaces is very much inspired by the workplaces of our beloved technology giants:

  • Facebook has a nine-acre park with meandering paths atop its flagship building in Menlo Park, California
  • Amazon created a 65,000 square foot biosphere housing over 400 different plant species at its Seattle, Washington headquarters
  • Microsoft built treehouse workspaces among the Douglas fir trees on it’s Redmond, Washington campus

At Samsung’s new North American headquarters in San Jose, designed by the architecture firm NBBJ, every third floor of the 10-story building offers outdoor space. Some terraces are devoted to quiet contemplation and yoga, while others have active features such as a putting green where employees can practice their golf swing. On the ground level, the landscape architecture firm SWA laid out a series of spaces as varied as tennis courts and a “reflection garden."

Companies that hire SWA want to know what the competition is doing, in part because they are all angling for the same workforce. Gerdo P. Aquino, the firm’s chief executive, explains:

“Every time I start a program, they say, ‘Check out what Apple did, what Facebook did, what Google did.'”

Space Matters — Mashore Perspective

The U.S. labor market remains uncharacteristically tight with a 4.0% unemployment rate in January 2019, while the strong demand for skilled workforce talent persists. Building owners are working to create a workspace—often with a focus on health and social connectivity—that enhances appeal during recruiting efforts.

Fueling this trend is growing awareness of the health and wellness benefits from contact with nature, a concept known as biophilia. Exposure to nature has been shown to lower levels of cortisol, the human stress hormone, as well as stimulate creativity.

Like many “sustainable” benefits, the first hurdle to acceptance is providing the proof and crunching the numbers. Biophilia’s already impressive underpinning of hard facts is rapidly accumulating; peer reviewed science, national reports, and academic studies on healthy buildings support arguments in its favor. Moreover, economic assessments suggest $2,000 a year can be saved per office employee (Health, Wellbeing & Productivity in Offices, a major study published in 2014 by the World Green Building Council).

“Stressful workplace conditions can have as much of an impact on your well-being as second-hand smoke”," says Jeffrey Pfeffer, Ph.D., Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. His book, Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance—and What We Can Do About It, makes a strong case against today’s typical office and suggests paying more attention to human sustainability at work.

There has been an increase in the number of companies offering health and wellness programs, in order to cut down on health insurance costs. However, the focus is misplaced, as it’s solely concerned with individual behavior, rather than the work environment that helps produce that individual behavior in the first place.

A review of some 113 published studies concluded that there is good evidence of the relationship between health and productivity. Seven percent of people in one survey were hospitalized—yes, hospitalized!—because of workplace stress; 50% had missed time at work because of stress. People are quitting their jobs because of stress. There are 2 million workplace violence incidents reported a year. The American Institute of Stress claims that stress is costing employers $300 billion a year.

Wellness benefits aside, outdoor work areas also are a logical next step in the evolution of flexible offices. Many companies already offer lounge areas and communal tables for employees to work without feeling chained to their desks. A terrace or rooftop, equipped with Wi-Fi and electrical outlets, can be another option.

Access to outdoor workspace has a financial upside:

  • Up to a 75% reduction in air conditioning use during peak summer weeks
  • Increased amenity space for a workforce that is reducing personal square footage and in need of common workspace and communal areas
  • Recreational space for corporate events at a low cost compared to renting separate facilities

And can be important to recruitment and retention:

  • An increasingly environmentally aware workforce wants to utilize the additional space and amenity
  • The workplace sends a signal that a company’s values and culture are aligned with the workforce
  • It offers a competitive advantage signal that suggests a company is willing to make high-quality investments for employee health and wellness

If it’s a bit too chilly today where you live to really enjoy being outdoors at work, the good news is that weather conditions may change very soon. For only the 19th time in the past 133 years, Punxsutawney Phil did not see his own shadow, which means he’s predicting an early spring.

Forget Valentines Day! Happy Groundhog Day!

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