By Kenneth Freeman, head of innovation at Ambius

In the last 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, where 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, in fact, 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% and improve workplace satisfaction by up to 40%. In my opinion these are impressive statistics which 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. Well-being is a difficult concept 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 concept of well-being 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.

Our need for nature was identified by the American biologist, Edward O Wilson, who 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 well-being and employee engagement with minimal outlay.

Previous studies form Ulrich have found that outside the workplace, exposure to plants and natural settings can improve a positive mood and reduce negative ones. Furthermore, increases in well-being 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 described at the beginning.

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, as 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 orientation to their work environment. Enriching previously lean offices with plants, served to significantly increase workplace satisfaction and reported levels of concentration. The data from the report reveal 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.

Whilst 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 more of a natural environment.

Although the lean concept 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 well-being of your employees and productivity of your business. The time has passed when we see plants purely as decoration. We need to be open minded and understand the reality that incorporating more of a natural environment into your workplace can have its rewards.