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23 February 2019
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Green versus lean

Kenneth Freeman, head of innovation at Ambius, discusses new research that demonstrates the tangible benefits of greenery in the office.

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12 September 2014 

In the past few years we have seen a growing trend towards minimal decoration and David Cameron’s ‘less is more’ focus – enforced particularly during the recession – is clearly based on a belief that money spent on office plants is wasted. 

The long-standing lean philosophy, by which it is argued that clean work surfaces create a better working environment, is dispelled unambiguously in a new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, and authored by leading academics from the Universities of Exeter, Cardiff, Queensland (Australia) and Groningen (Netherlands). 

The study, which looks at both short and long-term effects of plants in offices, clearly shows that plants offer more than aesthetic decoration and are actually an important driver of wellbeing, productivity and concentration. A series of three experiments undertaken as part of the study demonstrate that plants in office spaces increase employee productivity by as much as 15 per cent and improve workplace satisfaction by up to 40 per cent. In my opinion these are impressive statistics that cannot be ignored.

The biophilia theory

The benefits of interior landscaping and the true cost of installing plants into a business environment have always sparked debate. Wellbeing is a difficult idea to define and although we probably all have an instinctive idea of what it feels like, can we actually quantify it? 

Martin Seligman, a well-known psychologist, broke the idea of wellbeing into five distinct components: emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement. It is clear to see that the management of office space can affect at least the first three, if not all of these elements.

American biologist Edward O Wilson identified our need for nature and the developed a hypothesis called biophilia, which he defined as “the innate affiliation people seek with other organisms and especially the natural world.” 

Wilson’s ideas have been adopted by architects and designers for some time and many have used the principles of biophilia to make their buildings more humane and connected with nature. Combinations of plants, art, lighting and sound effects as well as a more naturalistic style of design make it possible to create significant improvements to wellbeing and employee engagement with minimal outlay.

Previous studies have found that outside the workplace, exposure to plants and natural settings can improve a positive mood and reduce negative ones. Furthermore, increases in wellbeing have been shown to coincide with less mental distress among people living in urban areas interspersed with green spaces.

Plants, as living organisms, exert a beneficial influence on the environment. Perceptions of significantly improved air quality are frequently reported in workplaces where plants are used – the air is often reported as feeling fresher and cleaner. A green environment reflects the natural world and thereby supports Wilson’s biophilia theory.

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An original study

This new paper entitled The Relative Benefits Of Green Versus Lean Office Space, published this month in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, supports the biophilia theory and directly contradicts the trend for ‘lean’ offices. It analyses the impact of lean (no decoration) and green offices (those with plants) on perceptions of air quality, concentration, workplace satisfaction and productivity.

Three individual experiments were conducted, each with a different focus. The first used an open-plan office design and examined the short-term benefits of a green office on perceived air quality, concentration, workplace satisfaction and various measures of productivity. The second focused on the long-term effects of the same variables. Finally, the third study, which took place at a global consultancy firm in London, examined the effects of office design on levels of productivity.

This study differs from others conducted in the past because it provides a direct, quantitative assessment of the benefits of a lean approach to office space relative to those of a green alternative. The particular advantage of this new research is that it uses an experimental approach in a live environment over both a short and long period of time.

Dispelling the lean philosophy
Despite a push for lean offices, the findings from this research identify a consistent pattern whereby workers in ‘green’ workspaces have a more positive attitude to their work environment. 

Enriching previously lean offices with plants served to significantly increase workplace satisfaction and reported levels of concentration. The data reveals that a green working environment is consistently more enjoyable for employees, which can be strongly linked to the productivity of the business. According to attention restoration theory, natural environments exert less demand on directed attention and therefore encourage more effortless thinking, thereby allowing the capacity of attention to be restored. It makes sense then, that through introducing plants into a man-made space, such as an office building, you should be able to enhance employees’ directed-attention capacity and, consequently, concentration levels.

Although some less forward-thinking companies adopt this ‘lean’ approach (which, it is worth noting, can trace its origins to theories developed over a century ago, and which have never stood up to proper scientific scrutiny), more innovative companies are using installations such as live pictures and green walls/dividers inside the office to create a more natural environment. 

Although the lean approach is seen to have particular appeal in a time of general economic recession because it fits with an emphasis on austerity, it appears that making that small investment in plants can have a long-term impact on the wellbeing of your employees and the productivity of your business. 

The time when we saw plants purely as decoration has passed. We need to be open-minded and understand the reality that incorporating more of a natural environment into your workplace can have its rewards. 

The Relative Benefits of Green Versus Lean Office Space: Three Field Experiments is published in the Journal of Experimental 
Psychology: Applied

For more information click here.

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Clearing the air: Why plants in the office help us work
In the first field study of its kind researchers found enriching a ‘lean’ office with plants could increase productivity by 15 per cent.

The study was funded by Productschap Tuinbouw, a Dutch producers’ board that focuses on horticultural and green industry.

The team examined the impact of ‘lean’ and ‘green’ offices on perceptions of air quality, concentration, and workplace satisfaction, and monitored productivity levels over subsequent months in two large commercial offices here and in The Netherlands.

Lead researcher Marlon Nieuwenhuis, from Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, said: “Our research suggests that investing in landscaping the office with plants will pay off through an increase in office workers’ quality of life and productivity.

“Although previous laboratory research pointed in this direction, our research is, to our knowledge, the first to examine this in real offices, showing benefits over the long term. It directly challenges the widely accepted business philosophy that a lean office with clean desks is more productive.” 

Research showed plants in the office significantly increased workplace satisfaction, self-reported levels of concentration, and perceived air quality. Analyses into the reasons why plants are beneficial suggests that a green office increases employees’ work engagement by making them more physically, cognitively, and emotionally involved in their work.

Co-author Dr Craig Knight, from the University of Exeter, said: “Psychologically manipulating real workplaces and real jobs adds new depth to our understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong with existing workspace design and management. We are developing a template for a genuinely smart office.” 

Prof Alex Haslam, from the University of Queensland’s School of Psychology, another co-author, said: “The ‘lean’ philosophy has been influential across a wide range of organisational domains. Our research questions this widespread conviction that less is more. Sometimes less is just less.”

Nieuwenhuis added: “Simply enriching a spartan space with plants served to increase productivity by 15 per cent – a figure that aligns closely with findings in previously conducted lab studies. This finding is at odds with the economic and political zeitgeist as well as with modern ‘lean’ management techniques, yet it identifies a path to a more enjoyable, more comfortable and a more profitable form of office working.”

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