Most office space includes at least a few weary looking, neglected plants as part of the decor. But using plants in and around your office has benefits that go far beyond aesthetics. Plants can improve air quality, reduce stress and minimise energy loss – and that’s just for starters. Here I explain what peer-reviewed research tells us about plants, and how introducing them to your office space can make a significant impact on the health and productivity of your staff, as well as impacting the profitability of your business. With so many benefits, it’s clear these little green superheroes deserve a bit more love and attention than we normally give them.
Plants improve air quality
‘Polluted indoor air’ is air that is contaminated by Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These are a major cause of headaches, nausea, concentration loss and other ‘building-related illnesses’. However, a study by the University of Technology, Sydney has shown that where the level of VOCs in the air exceeds 100ppb, introducing pot plants reduces the level by 50-70%. The ‘pot plant system’ – a combination of plants and potting mix – can eliminate several times the recommended maximum exposure concentrations of the common VOCs benzene and n-hexane. The main removal agents are the micro-organisms in the potting mix, with the plants contributing to the process by maintaining their root-zone microbial communities.
For the plants effectively cleanse your office space of VOCs, you will need six table-sized pot plants or three larger floor-standing pot plants. Increasing the number of plants doesn’t have any impact – for example, three floor-standing plants were shown to be just as effective as six – and the effect is the same whether you have air conditioning or not.
Plants offer stress relief
There is plenty of research showing a clear link between having natural elements in your environment and a reduction in stress levels. In a study of college students under the stress of an exam, having a view of plants increased their positive feelings and reduced both fear and anger. Looking specifically at the workplace, research has shown that workers with a view of natural elements such as trees and flowers, experience less job pressure, feel more satisfied with their jobs and report fewer ailments and headaches than those who either have no outside view or can only see structural elements from their windows. A different study led by the Norwegian University of Life Sciences has shown that having the humble pot plant in the office reduces fatigue, stress, dry throats, headaches, coughs and dry skin among workers, and in a second study by the same team, results showed that the more plants a worker could see, the less sick leave they took.
Plants minimise energy costs
A good number of studies have demonstrated that proper arrangement of landscape plants around buildings can substantially reduce both heat loss and cold air infiltration through walls and floors during winter months. Carefully positioned plants can reduce your energy consumption for heating and cooling by as much as 25%. Savings are accomplished by using trees and bushes to block the sun from windows and walls, reducing the air temperature outside the building with properly placed shade trees, and planting groundcovers, trees, and shrubs to reduce the heat reflected from the ground to walls and windows. Shrubs and vines planted next to the building provide year-round insulation by creating an air space.
Plants lower carbon dioxide levels
Your workers’ concentration and productivity are negatively effected when elevated levels of carbon dioxide are present indoors. If you have a lot of people in one well-sealed building, you can end up with drowsy employees. However, plants can help reduce this effect – during photosynthesis they naturally extract carbon dioxide and change it for fresh oxygen. Based on fairly modest estimates of the existing and emerging data, it has been calculated that a minimum of 300g (10 oz) of carbon dioxide can be eliminated from the enclosed environment for every square metre of leaf surface in the area per year. Over the course of a year, this amounts to a removal of 6 cubic feet of Co2 gas. In areas where there exists an abundance of natural light, this process is amplified, affording even more absorption.
Plants boost productivity
Providing plants in the office can actually boost the productivity of your workforce. In one study by Washington State University, productivity increased by 12% when people performed a simple task on a computer in a windowless room with plants, in comparison to those workers who performed the same task in the same room without any plants. Another study in the Netherlands using a control group (without plants) and a test group (with plants) found that:
- the test group rated well-being more favourably than the control group;
- the same applied to the ratings for the quality of the working area;
- the differences that were found were more explicit for the group of employees who work more than 4 hours a day in front of a computer screen;
- their productivity improved, especially in terms of efficiency;
- the strongest link was found with those working at computer terminals in the experimental group, particularly for quality of the working environment and wellbeing; and
- concentration improved in the test (with plants) group.
Plants inspire creativity
Plants can boost the creativity and problem solving power of your workforce. In an eight-month study, the Texas A&M University research team studied participants performing creative problem solving tasks in a variety of common office environments or conditions. The conditions included a workplace with flowers and plants, a setting with sculpture and an environment with no decorative embellishments.
During the study, both women and men demonstrated more innovative thinking, and generated more ideas and original solutions to problems in the office environment that included flowers and plants. In these surroundings, men who participated in the study generated 15% more ideas, and while males generated a greater abundance of ideas, females generated more creative, flexible solutions to problems when flowers and plants were present.
Plants increase custom
Plants can actually increase your customer base! In a survey of one southern community in the US, 74% of the public preferred to give their custom to commercial establishments that had structures and parking lots planted with trees and other landscaping. Another survey in Washington state found that the presence of trees and green space appeared to positively influence both consumers’ attitudes about the character of a place and the prices that shoppers were willing to pay in local businesses. So how much does this amount to? Research has shown that when we spend in environments that are planted, we visit more frequently, stay longer, rate the quality of the products 30% higher and are willing to pay about 12% more for goods.
Plants enhance perceptions
If your business is located in an area in need of some improvement, consider that the organisation Partners for Livable Places maintains that plants are the fastest, most cost-effective agents for changing negative perceptions of an area, enhancing the economic and social conditions and improving the psychosocial health.
Plants reduce crime
It sounds like a very bold claim, but in an analysis of the relationship between crime rates and vegetation at inner city public housing developments in Chicago, buildings with high levels of greenery had roughly half as many crimes as buildings with no greenery. The conclusion? Plants help reduce crime.
Plants reduce noise
Inside your office, strategically placed plants quiet things down. A small indoor hedge placed around a workspace will reduce noise by as much as five decibels. On the outside of your office, properly selected and placed plants absorb sound waves, and can significantly reduce unwanted ‘noise pollution’. Additionally, where there is a little breeze, some plants make pleasant sounds of their own and the wildlife attracted to a planted habitat sometimes results in pleasant natural sounds too. These sounds of nature are not only relaxing but they mask and further diminish unnatural noise pollution.
Plants reduce building maintenance costs
Including plants in your office space plan can actually lower your maintenance costs. A study by the Washington State University demonstrated that plant transpiration in an office environment released moisture, creating a humidity level exactly matching the recommended human comfort range of 30-60%. Similarly, the same study concluded that in an absence of plants, the relative humidity in offices ran below this recommended range. When the relative humidity of office air is too low, costly materials such as wood become damaged and crack. When the relative humidity is too high the condensation of windows and exterior walls can result in costly structural damage.
Plants fulfill the human need for affinity with nature
Named ‘biophilia’ (meaning ‘love of life’) by Harvard biologist Dr. Ed Wilson, humans have a natural affinity for nature. The concept implies that humans hold a biological need for connection with nature on physical, mental, and social levels, and that this connection affects our personal well-being, productivity, and societal relationships. You can help to fulfill this need by providing greenery in your office space, and this serves as a positive restorative environment for humans and an effective platform for stress management, health promotion, psychotherapy, and disease deterrence
Plants increase your office resale value
There have been various studies that suggest the positive value of investing in planting outside of your building as part of landscaping. These suggest that you can add anything between 5% and 15% to the resale value of your office building, and speed its sale by as much as 6 weeks.
There is a tonne of research supporting that plants in the office lead to productivity gains, reduced absenteeism, reduced health problems and a better sense of well-being. Ultimately all of this translates to the bottom line. You don’t have to limit yourself to the humble pot plant, either. Nowadays, architects and design teams are creating brilliant walls of live greenery with functions ranging from fully scrubbing the air to simply humanising windowless and ’nature deficient’ indoor spaces.
Image credit: Woolly Pocket