How plants at work can improve wellbeing and efficiency

There are few of us who fail to recognise the calming, restorative effect of a green space. An hour spent in a garden, a lunchtime excursion to a local park or city square can calm the nerves and soothe the soul, before returning to the impersonal, controlled, barren wastes of the office. As the writer Tom Hodgkinson put it, “Stuck in airless offices, every fibre of our being seems to cry out for freedom. We’re reminded of being stuck in double maths while the birds sing outside”. If we value the positive vibe of green space so much outside, then wouldn’t our offices be better greener?

Anyone who has ever been responsible for the slow demise of an unloved, dust-covered rubber plant in the corner of an office should cry for shame in the face of the evidence of the benefits of greenery in the workplace. Plants increase relative humidity, which should be between 40 per cent and 60 per cent for maximum human comfort, and reduce levels of pollutant gases such as formaldehyde, benzene and nitrogen dioxide. There is general agreement in the scientific community that plants also improve the indoor environment, reduce levels of airborne dust, air temperatures and background noise. In other words, they do good and they also make us feel good.

About 25 per cent of the total UK workforce of almost 30m is based in an office. In the US the ratio of workers deemed “white collar” is about 50 per cent from a total of 155m. The way our office spaces look and function may, in some cases, simply be a consequence of history and the incidental development of a building rather than anything thought through, but the science of office design and planning has been around for more than a century.

Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) was a US mechanical engineer and founder of the (frightfully Victorian-sounding) “Efficiency Movement”. He was also one of the first management consultants and a “time and motion” (a business efficiency technique) expert. Taylor studied steel production and noted that when a closely managed worker was tasked with just one function, such as pig iron production, output was raised by as much as 80 per cent.

Green space created for a corporate client in Canary Wharf, London

Now more commonly known as “Taylorism”, the Efficiency Movement sought to “identify and eliminate all forms of waste to maximise efficiency in any and all work places”. In the office environment, that led to the development of the “lean office”. The premise is simple: if you only have the stuff on your desk required to do your job, without the distraction of personal items and paraphernalia, then you will perform your job more diligently and efficiently. Taylorism also prescribes tight managerial control of the workspace and standardisation of managerial practice and workspace design, in the name of creating “low worker autonomy”.

It may sound Orwellian, but it appealed to business bean counters. A large, uncluttered space can accommodate more people and can be easily reconfigured for use by other (and more) workers, enabling ad hoc “hot desking” and (the even more ghastly sounding) “hotelling”, where shared desks are booked in advance.

Taylorism may well have its place in the white heat of industry, but, according to psychologist Craig Knight, “no branch of science supports the idea of the lean office”. Knight used to work in office design, and likens the plight of workers in a lean office to a lion in a sanitised, featureless zoo enclosure. He points out that despite the enormous body of literature around the lean office and low worker autonomy, there is a lack of empirical evidence to support the claims of greater efficiency. Knight and his colleague, S Alexander Haslam of Exeter university, conducted an experimental examination into how workspaces affect wellbeing and productivity, and plants formed an essential component in the study.

A corporate office in the City

The experiment involved 112 participants in a laboratory “office” measuring 3.5m x 2m. At control level it was a lean office, with no windows or natural light, a typical office desk and chair, diffused fluorescent lighting, carpeted floor and air-conditioning. Knight and Haslam then added six enlarged pictures of plants to the walls, and six plants in pots, to create an “enriched” environment. At the next level, participants were empowered to move the plants and pots around as they pleased and told they could remove some or all completely if they wanted – including taking the space right back to a lean office if they wished. The final measure consisted of the experimenter re-entering the “office” and rearranging all the pictures and plants, overriding the participants’ choices, with no explanation given. During their time in the office the participants were given various tasks to carry out: sorting and reading a pile of memos, going through the memos and underlining every lower case letter “b” and so on. What the results showed was that organisational identification, wellbeing and productivity were all enhanced in the enriched and empowered (or identity realised) environments. Productivity in the enriched environment increased by 17 per cent, in the identity-realised office it went up by 32 per cent. The disempowered environment, where the decorations were rearranged without explanation, caused productivity to drop to the same level as the lean office, although Knight believes it could actually be worse. Knight and Haslam used plants in their experiment as they are “an extremely cost-effective way of enhancing the environment”. Knight is now working with London-based interior planting practice Indoor Garden Design to develop and realise the results of these studies, and they exhibited some of these ideas at Chelsea Flower Show this year.

Not all office environments are sterile and lean, of course. When Australian multinational Lend Lease planned their new London HQ at Regent’s Place, they set out to “create a workplace that increased the wellbeing and productivity of employees”. From a business perspective, that makes perfect sense. The UK leads Europe in the number of sick days taken each year, with 225m days lost in 2010 at a cost to the UK economy of more than £17bn. Lend Lease looked at studies by Virginia Lohr and her colleagues at the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture at Washington State University. These showed that when plants were introduced to a windowless interior space the participants were more productive, with a 12 per cent quicker reaction time on computer tasks, and with systolic blood pressure readings lowered by one to four units.

Cactuses for a media client in west London

Lend Lease applied the Australian Green Star code to the project, the only green building code that recognises the values of plants in internal spaces. Green Star recommends two plants per person, but the Regent’s Place scheme has about eight plants per person. My company (Clifton Nurseries) worked with Lend Lease on the scheme, using plants known to be efficient at absorbing high frequency sound – the most irritating and distracting to humans – such as Spathiphyllum wallisii (peace lily), Philodendron scandens (sweetheart plant) and Dracaena marginata (Madagascan dragon tree). As well as enhancing the environment inside the building, plants have been used to solve practical problems; dense planting on the tops of filing systems, say, keeps them clean and clear of dirty coffee cups. And there are dramatic blocks of the sculptural mother-in-laws tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata) planted in stairwells, which look great, but also prevent heads being banged on the underside of stairs. Employees have the opportunity to be gardeners at work too. There are allotments outside where staff can grow vegetables and herbs, or just potter about, like humans are supposed to do.

Matthew Wilson is managing director of Clifton Nurseries in London

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