In this year’s edition of the Handbook, we highlighted how hybrid work could save the world, as it reduces CO2 emissions by limiting the daily commute. It also increases employee productivity, as they can get their work done when and where they’re the happiest … But hope isn’t lost for those who have to be office bound, as air-circulating green walls could offer an effective solution for healthier, happier, more productive workplaces.

I was astounded by a pilot experiment, by the Finnish indoor nature technology company Naava, which revealed that employees make 43% fewer mistakes when performing stress-inducing cognitive tasks in the presence of plants and biophilic design (which emphasises connectivity to the natural environment).

Participants in the presence of green walls also exhibited increased levels of the happiness hormone oxytocin and reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol (compared to others performing the same tasks in a control room with no green walls).

“We are much more creative and smarter outdoors. In nature, we think more clearly, solve problems more efficiently, and are less prone to stress factors. Still, we choose to spend 22 hours a day indoors,” says Aki Soudunsaari, co-founder at Naava.

“On the contrary, most workplaces today are entirely uninspiring at best and, at worst, they are actually detrimental to our health. They bombard our senses with stress-inducing stimuli like unnatural lighting and artificially sterilised air – we’re starved of the therapeutic effects of nature that we as humans are genetically programmed to thrive in.”

The study consisted of a two-day test in which 12 participants performed hand-written, cognitive word association tests. On one day, these were performed in a room with biophilic, air-purifying green walls, and on another day, in a room with no green walls.

The word association task comprised a set of 20 words, from which the subjects had 10 minutes to write up to 30 words they associated with each. Mistakes were defined as clear misspellings, corrections, or words that were crossed out or did not follow the given instructions. It was found that participants made 28 mistakes on average in the control room, which was reduced to only 12 mistakes on average when in the biophilic green-walled environment.

Experimental data was also collected before and after performing the cognitive tasks, including a self-report questionnaire gauging mood, environmental comfort, anxiety, and fear, as well as measurements of heart rate and body temperature. In addition, blood and saliva samples were taken, and hormonal analyses were performed to measure oxytocin and cortisol levels pre- and post-task.

“Biophilia explains that during our evolutionary history, our brains have adapted to seek natural elements from our surroundings. Plants have been a sign of food, water, and shelter, and therefore indicate a safe environment. This allows our minds to rest when we see nature around us: it has an unconscious effect on our attention, enabling us to concentrate on the task instead of being alert to the environment,” Soudunsaari points out.

So, by incorporating biophilic design into the workplace, employers can create a more comfortable, human-friendly working environment that may, in turn, contribute towards a happier, healthier, and more productive workforce. In short, let’s make our office spaces green and great for employees.

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