By Kenneth Freeman, head of innovation at Ambius
Anyone who has worked in an office is very likely to have experienced that unwanted lull in the afternoon, where your eyes start to close slightly, emails take longer to read and you find yourself drifting off in meetings. Common ways to counteract these feelings may include eating something sweet for a sugar hit, taking a brief walk or even having a large cup of coffee (if you don’t mind being kept awake all night!). However, research has found that by introducing plants into the office, we can reverse these effects, without having to reach for the biscuit tin.
The most common time for this ‘afternoon slump’ is 2.16pm, when workers will experience the greatest lack in concentration and drop in productivity. Some offices, like Red Bull, have set up installations such as ping pong tables that serve as a distraction at moments like this, breaking the potential monotony of being deskbound throughout the working day. After all, if the ‘slump’ is sustained and significant, it will not only be detrimental to the employee’s own work output but have a direct impact on the business’ overall productivity, especially if it’s a small company relying on a small number of employees.
The reason behind these afternoon feelings is a rise in carbon dioxide (CO2) levels throughout the day in the office. The primary source of indoor CO2 is humans. Typical outdoor concentrations are around 380ppm (parts per million) but this can increase to several thousand indoors, over the course of one day. Whilst these levels of CO2 are not dangerous to health, they can have an impact on concentration, as demonstrated by a study conducted by the Berkeley National Laboratory showing a correlation between high CO2 levels and diminished decision making performance.
With the above in mind, it’s time to stop thinking of plants as simply being part of the decor in an office and only adding aesthetic value to a business. There’s growing recognition of the more tangible benefits of having green in your workplace, including the positive effect this can have on concentration and productivity. Indoor air can be as polluted, and in some case even more polluted than outdoor air thanks to external pollutants diffusing into the office environment and combining with levels of exhalation and office dust – all of which work to increase CO2 in the air. Plants have been shown to absorb and degrade all types of urban air pollutants as well as replenish the levels of oxygen (O2) in the air through photosynthesis. The result is two complementary ways of refreshing the air – removing CO2 and boosting O2 levels. Some may argue that ventilation systems act in the same way but whilst the advantage of these systems is to remove excess CO2, they don’t have the capability of actively increasing O2 levels. Using plants also has the added cost benefit of resulting in ventilation systems being used less, thus saving a certain amount of energy and reducing energy related greenhouse gas emissions.
Research conducted in Sydney by Margaret Burchett backs up this theory, and shows that, in offices with plants, CO2 levels were reduced by 10% in air conditioned buildings and by 25% in non-air conditioned ones, compared to the equivalent offices without plants. By reducing CO2 levels in the building, especially in the afternoon when they are known to have naturally risen, concentration, creativity and performance levels are more likely to increase in workers, allowing them to be more productive in the office for longer periods of the day. Seems like a much more cost effective solution for office managers, rather than installing a slide in the middle of the office, and a healthier solution for workers – no more rushes to the biscuit tin or coffee pot!
Working in the city does not mean we lose our innate need for links with nature. As humans, we have an instinctive affiliation with the natural world and if we are granted this, whether this means being located near a window with a landscape view, or having a pot plant on our desk, we tend to feel calmer and happier. Creating a healthy and nature-connected working environment can pay huge dividends in terms of productivity, engagement and wellbeing.