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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.
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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.
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1. N.E. Klepeis, W.C. Nelson, W.R. Ott, et al., “The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): A Resource for Assessing Exposure to Environmental Pollutants,” Journal of Exposure Analysis and Environmental Epidemiology 11, no. 3 (May-June 2001): 231-252.
2. E.O. Wilson, “Biophilia” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984).
3. R.M. Ryan, N. Weinstein, J. Bernstein, et al., “Vitalizing Effects of Being Outdoors and in Nature,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 30, no. 2 (June 2010): 159-168; F. Beute and Y.A.W. de Kort, “Natural Resistance: Exposure to Nature and Self-Regulation, Mood, and Physiology After Ego-Depletion,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 40 (December 2014): 167-178; M.G. Berman, J. Jonides, and S. Kaplan, “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature,” Psychological Science 19, no. 12 (December 2008): 1207-1212; and J.W. Zhang, P.K. Piff, R. Iyer, et al., “An Occasion for Unselfing: Beautiful Nature Leads to Prosociality,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 37 (March 2014): 61-72.
4. T. Hartig, R. Mitchell, S. de Vries, et al., “Nature and Health,” Annual Review of Public Health 35 (March 2014): 207-228; D.F. Shanahan, R. Bush, K.J. Gaston, et al., “Health Benefits From Nature Experiences Depend on Dose,” Scientific Reports 6 (June 2016); and F.E. Kuo and W.C. Sullivan, “Environment and Crime in the Inner City: Does Vegetation Reduce Crime?” Environment and Behavior 33, no. 3 (May 2001): 343-367.
5. A.C. Klotz and M.C. Bolino, “Bringing the Great Outdoors Into the Workplace: The Energizing Effect of Biophilic Work Design,” Academy of Management Review, forthcoming.
6. E. Seppälä and J. Berlin, “Why You Should Tell Your Team to Take a Break and Go Outside,” Harvard Business Review, June 26, 2017, www.hbr.org.
7. “Clif Bar Celebrates Opening of Its One-of-a-Kind Sustainable Bakery,” Clif Bar, Aug. 30, 2016.
8. K.J. Ryan, “The Designer of Apple’s New Headquarters Explains How He Brought Steve Jobs’s Vision to Life,” Inc., June 8, 2017, www.inc.com.
9. A. Thompson and V. Bruk-Lee, “Naturally! Examining Nature’s Role in Workplace Strain Reduction,” Occupational Health Science 3, no. 1 (March 2019): 23-43.
10. J.T. Chow and S. Lau, “Nature Gives Us Strength: Exposure to Nature Counteracts Ego-Depletion,” Journal of Social Psychology 155, no. 1 (October 2014): 70-85.
11. R.K. Raanaas, K.H. Evensen, D. Rich, et al., “Benefits of Indoor Plants on Attention Capacity in an Office Setting,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 31, no. 1 (March 2011): 99-105.
12. T.R. Herzog, P. Maguire, and M.B. Nebel, “Assessing the Restorative Components of Environments,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 23, no. 2 (June 2003): 159-170.
13. J. Kühnel and S. Sonnentag, “How Long Do You Benefit From Vacation? A Closer Look at the Fade-Out of Vacation Effects,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 32, no. 1 (January 2011): 125-143.
14. N. Weinstein, A.K. Przybylski, and R.M. Ryan, “Can Nature Make Us More Caring? Effects of Immersion in Nature on Intrinsic Aspirations and Generosity,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 35, no. 10 (October 2009): 1315-1329; and J.M. Zelenski, R.L. Dopko, and C.A. Capaldi, “Cooperation Is in Our Nature: Nature Exposure May Promote Cooperative and Environmentally Sustainable Behavior,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 42 (June 2015): 24-31.
15. F.S. Mayer and C.M. Frantz, “The Connectedness to Nature Scale: A Measure of Individuals’ Feeling in Community With Nature,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 24, no. 4 (December 2004): 503-515.
16. D. Haluza, R. Schönbauer, and R. Cervinka, “Green Perspectives for Public Health: A Narrative Review on the Physiological Effects of Experiencing Outdoor Nature,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 11, no. 5 (May 2014): 5445-5461.
17. E.K. Nisbet, J.M. Zelenski, and S.A. Murphy, “Happiness Is in Our Nature: Exploring Nature Relatedness as a Contributor to Subjective Well-Being,” Journal of Happiness Studies 12, no. 2 (April 2011): 303-322.