Green spaces, and the various plants that come together to create them, have a well-known reputation for improving well-being. Their impact cannot be underestimated when it comes to human happiness, but, increasingly, there is a body of work suggesting that plants can benefit business productivity, too. A 2022 paper published by Frontiers studied the impact of urban green spaces on businesses and found that, in general, businesses next to high-quality outdoors areas experienced higher productivity. These businesses also enjoyed greater levels of innovation, something that many businesses will see as a gift to be coveted.
Of course, it’s not quite as simple as putting some greenery down. Landscaped areas require meticulous care and attention to keep them managed well and act as a beneficial factor to the surrounding area. Businesses, meanwhile, need to balance their own time constraints against this need. There is a balance to be struck, however, and it can be found by following the principles of therapeutic landscaping.
Exploring Therapeutic Landscaping
Defining therapeutic landscaping is fairly straightforward, but there has been a lot of study since its inception in the early 1990s to shape exactly how it’s implemented today. A term first coined by health geographer, Wilbert Gesler, therapeutic landscaping is, at its heart, the practice concerned with using landscapes to nurture and benefit human emotion and well-being. A 2018 study in the Journal of Social Science & Medicine offers an even more in-depth description, centering around the study of “why certain landscapes contribute a healing sense of place.” Gesler defined such landscapes as where the physical and built environments, social conditions and human perceptions combine to produce an atmosphere that is conducive to healing.
Understanding what “healing” means in this context is important when translating it into business greenspaces. The idea of greenery and associated plant life is a great way to improve a landscape, but constructing it with thoughtfulness and a clear plan in mind of how the landscape will contribute to well-being is a logical next step. One way to plant that seed clearly in the minds of planners is through using biophilic design.
Understanding biophilic design
Again, it can be easy to see green design as simply using plants. As such, it can be easier to consider what isn’t biophilic design, rather than what is, to avoid the pitfalls associated with poor design. According to Metropolis Mag, it’s important to avoid the following factors to create an effective biophilic space:
- Occasional or transient greenery: The entire space needs to be consistently green to be biophilic and provide sustained engagement to workers.
- Isolated or solitary plants: Having single plants or green areas, not integrated with the wider surroundings, will leave a disconnect in the mind, which hurts biophilic spaces.
- Green spaces are inaccessible: The entire point of biophilic design is accessibility; humans need to be able to get in and around nature for it to be effective.
- Low levels of diversity: The biophilic environment needs to be varied, interesting, and engaging, to properly reflect the natural environment.
You can consider a biophilic environment as being one that makes those within it feel like they are in a natural space. They can consciously or subconsciously forget the urban environment and the modern walls of their work office and instead feel like they’re out in the wilderness. Through this, some basal human instincts and emotions are activated that contribute positively to work.
With that in mind, it’s time to consider how landscaping can be tuned to be truly healing and to create a truly biophilic landscape.
Plants need daylight, to varying degrees – and so do humans. Sunlight is not just something inherently associated with the day and productivity, but it’s something that is physiologically required to stay healthy. A lack of vitamin D has been associated with depression, according to Healthline, and it’s little wonder that workers stuck inside gray, gloomy offices, lit only by fluorescent lamps, start to feel anxious and stressed.
Within the modern workplace, it’s essential to get as much free light in and around the workplace as possible. Enhancing window space, and using blinds that allow light in (as well as having some wiggle room to prevent screen glare) is essential. This will give an immediate bump in morale to the workforce and associate the place with light and health. Furthermore, it opens up views to the outside, where landscaping and greenery will also exist and help to keep the office happy and healthy.
Just as daylight can have unintended and positive impacts on workers, the use of plants indoors can have a similar and profound impact – and in ways not immediately conceived. Of course, plants provide color, interest, and fresh air to the building; but there are studies now showing that they can improve productivity.
According to IFA Magazine, studies have shown that plants can insulate noise within the office. This has a small, unintended, but mighty impact, allowing workers to enjoy small ‘pockets’ of space where they can feel protected and productive. It also stops a busy office from becoming loud and noisy; excess noise and disruption are the enemy of productivity, after all.
Consider keeping the indoor environment varied and exciting through the use of a wide range of plant types. Potted plants are a great start, but consider using hangars. You can even implement low-height indoor beds to create meadow strips or even lawns within the office; somewhere a little bit different to enjoy downtime and relax.
Taking another step
Consider the principles of a biophilic space. Putting indoor plants and other green features in as a first step is a great way to start, but how else might you positively influence the space and make it feel like a cohesive slice of nature? One powerful way to achieve this is through water features.
According to Work Design magazine, studies have shown that moving water imparts a sense of clarity and calm to those around. A small fountain or other water feature can have the same impact on the workplace, helping to provide clarity and coolness to a workplace that might otherwise be experiencing stress. Moving water can also help to filter air quality and act as a gathering point, improving the health of the workplace and acting as a central point on which communities and workplace relationships can be fostered.
The outside landscape
Keeping a green and productive environment indoors will be of huge benefit to your workers. That being said, nothing can be a true replacement for simply getting outdoors. According to the American Psychological Association, simply being around the outdoors brings immediate and appreciable improvements in anxiety, stress, and mental well-being. Sunlight (or rain), air and the smell of plants can take away feelings of entrapment in the workplace.
Not every green space is born equal, however. Indeed, some professional-looking green spaces can be aggressively anti-nature in their implementation, and run the risk of being seen as bland. This is normally how areas covered in mass-lawns or concrete are perceived.
For businesses, baby steps can make a huge difference. Moving away from concrete outdoor areas, introducing lawns and planters, and making the space easily accessible for all staff (for insurance by having widened paths and ramps for wheelchair users) will make it a haven. These areas must exist for the use of employees, too, and not just as an attractive vista for customers and partners. Benches are essential, as is the confidence for your employees to go onto the grass areas, sit in and around planters, and generally enjoy it as if it were a patch of nature.
The urban jungle
Once again, returning to the idea of a biophilic landscape, it can be interesting to consider how a natural landscape might expand out. Neatly ordered planters and well-trimmed lawns are a great way to frame an area, but they run the risk of creating that “disconnect” that can be more harmful towards workers than beneficial. A primary way of tackling this is through introducing greater variety to the space – and flowers are a good first way to achieve this.
According to PsychReg, flowers can have a massively positive impact on happiness and productivity. In one study, workers were sent flowers to arrange and consider during their break times. 90% found that it reduced stress levels. 84% said they felt calmer. 53% said they felt at ease or relaxed. All of these emotions are conducive to innovation and productivity and represent a break in the workday. Having a wide range of flowers out and around the green space, and perhaps going for the scattergun approach of planting wildflowers, will give another area of interest for stressed-out employees and also help the biosphere to flourish. After all, green spaces are nothing without insects, butterflies and other creatures.
For businesses that want to go above and beyond in providing spaces of natural healing and biophilic help to employees, they can consider creating therapeutic gardens. These can be more secluded and off the beaten track, and could be created in a separate area of the premises. These gardens are often used in medical settings, where they can be hugely therapeutic to patients with long-term illnesses, cognitive impairment, or serious mental illness. There are a few key principles to follow that stem from that seclusion, according to the UK National Health Service Forest information service:
- Security and seclusion: It is essential that people can feel safe and confident in the space, knowing they won’t be disturbed.
- Maintenance: If employees won’t have the time to maintain the greenery in the space, it will need to be covered by a contractor or the company to ensure the place stays neat and tidy and any issues are removed.
- Accessibility: It is essential that everyone can access the garden and harness its benefits equally.
Team members with mental health conditions will see the most immediate and obvious benefits from such a project, but there are wider-spread benefits to be seen in productivity and innovation. The idea of security and seclusion, away from the stress and anxiety of the modern working world, is a huge pull for many staff. It will help the business in expressing its commitment to well-being.
Some offices have even started to include biophilic escape rooms in their office design. Primarily there for the use of employees experiencing acute distress and needing a place to take time out, they are also areas of relaxation and seclusion in which breaks can be taken, conversations had in private, and in general, a portal given outside the stress of work.
One of the benefits of these ‘escape rooms’ is that they can help to introduce biophilic principles in a much easier and more cohesive way. With large premises, it can be difficult to keep those principles alive; there’s simply too much space to cover, and sometimes too many people to ensure are covered, too. That’s without considering risks posed to equipment. Having a small but densely foliated and high-quality area in which absolute security and seclusion can be guaranteed is a great way to help employees escape.
There are many reasons for embracing greenery inside the workplace. The main ones are improved air quality, a nicer-looking work environment, and greater engagement from employees. However, for those businesses that spend time understanding the concepts of therapeutic healing and biophilic environments, there are far broader benefits to be gained. Increased productivity, improved worker happiness, enhanced innovation and a better business reputation are just a few among the widespread benefits of creating truly green indoor and outdoor spaces.
Over time, introducing small incremental changes will improve the workplace, such as greater numbers and varieties of plants; secluded areas through which employees can find respite; and greater use of light and air to improve the feel of the workplace. Committing to this process of improvement will, one day, result in a workspace that is committed and achieving a healing aura.