Take It Outside

Working in nature is good for the soul and for business.

Man working outdoors in a park with laptop.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Elvert Barnes/Flickr CC.

Remember back in college when you begged your professor to hold class in the quadrangle under a tree? It turns out, you were onto something.

For most of human history, we spent our days outdoors. We hunted, gathered, scavenged, and farmed in the open air. But around 300 years ago (a tiny blip in our human timeline), we started spending our days working inside, specifically in factories. The industrial revolution introduced long hours, child labor, and some pretty frightening working conditions, sometimes resulting in people actually being trapped inside their workplaces and unable to escape in the midst of disasters. Since then, major labor movements have put limits on the number of hours worked, environmental laws have improved air quality at work, business and building codes now protect most workers’ safety, and some workplaces are even designed to maximize ergonomics and well-being.

Despite major changes in the workplace for the better, including mobile technology that allows us to choose how, when, and where we work, we still continue to spend most of our time indoors. In fact, today, we spend roughly 93 percent of our day inside a building or in a vehicle. We can easily do part or all of our job in trains, planes, coffee shops, or hotels. But somehow working outside is a foreign concept.

It shouldn’t be. The term biophilia (reintroduced by the Harvard entomologist and environmentalist E.O. Wilson) refers to our preference as humans to be in nature. We simply thrive in it. Study after study shows that not only does being outside in nature improve our mental and physical well-being, it improves memory and focus, reduces mental fatigue, and increases creativity. It helps us do our jobs better. The more biodiverse the environment we’re in, the better. Taking time to reconnect in nature establishes our body’s natural balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic responses, both preparing our bodies for mental activity (sympathetic) while reducing our stress and keeping us relaxed (parasympathetic).

Many organizations are trying to bring the outdoors in, designing interiors to include plants, sunlight (or artificial lighting that mimics sunlight), fresh air, and “natural analogues,” or surfaces and materials that mimic the natural environment. Research overwhelmingly shows that exposure to natural elements (even in small doses) while indoors is genuinely good for our mental and physical well-being. A recent Harvard study showed that subjects in offices exposed to real nature (plants and views outside) and those wearing virtual reality headsets with images of nature both showed improved health and productivity outcomes over subjects who sat in environments with no exposure to nature. Another study by the University of Oregon found that simply providing employees with a view of trees and landscape reduced the amount of sick time they took per year.

But is being indoors with a view and a breath of fresh air enough? Research shows it may not be a substitute for actually being outside. In Japan, the practice of “forest bathing” (shinrin-yoku), or taking immersive walks in nature, has been shown to decrease cortisol levels, sympathetic nervous activity, systolic blood pressure, and heart rate. Studies have also discovered that certain forest trees emit organic compounds called phytoncides, and inhaling these compounds has been proven to decrease blood pressure and improve immune system functions. In light of these benefits, the Japanese government has endorsed the practice and developed 48 “forest therapy” trails throughout the country.

So if being outside is so good for us, what’s keeping us from going outdoors more, particularly at work, where we spend an enormous part of our day? I recently partnered with L.L. Bean to send a survey to 1,050 American “indoor” workers to find out. We found that 87 percent of those surveyed really enjoy the outdoors, but most rarely or never take time to work outside. Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed said they spend less than half an hour outside during the workday.

When we asked these indoor workers what kept them from going outdoors more, 65 percent said one of their biggest barriers was their job. Job inhibitors were wide-ranging and included issues with technology (no Wi-Fi or power, plus screen glare), organizational culture (they were afraid their boss would think they were goofing off), or their job required them to be indoors (nurses, retail employees, etc.).

We found most respondents understand the benefits of nature to them personally, but not as many made the connection that being in nature could improve their performance at work. Most said the benefits to them working outdoors were improved mood, lowered stress levels, relaxation, increased health and wellness, and increased happiness. Interestingly, if respondents said they already had an outdoor workspace available to them, they were much more likely to make the connection to productivity. Apparently seeing is believing.

An indoor-outdoor working space amid some trees.
L.L. Bean and Industrious test their outdoor coworking space in Freeport, Maine. L.L. Bean

L.L. Bean partnered with Industrious (a coworking company) to test these findings, and they recently launched the first-ever outdoor coworking space, pop-up style. It started in New York City’s Madison Square Park and will be moving to urban parks in Boston, Philadelphia, and Madison, Wisconsin. This outdoor office includes a mix of work settings including meeting tables, soft seating, even a pedal table—with some spaces covered and some open to the sky. Industrious set up its online room reservation system to allow the public to book space outdoors and reserve a seat ahead of time (and L.L.  Bean made a handbook for people who want to learn more about working outside and the research behind it).

Kathryn Pratt, director of brand engagement at L.L. Bean, says this is about encouraging people to “integrate the outdoors into their workday, not just reserve it for after work or on the weekends.” She adds that, “Many different types of meetings can benefit from being in the outdoors, whether that’s creative brainstorming sessions or interviews (which we’re dubbing the outerview).”

Other companies making the connection between nature and work include Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook, each experimenting with adding different outdoor settings, from botanic gardens to tree houses to green roofs. The public sector is also starting to build in workspace into parks, including the renovation of Harvey Milk Promenade Park in Long Beach, California.

Is this the start of an outdoor working movement? So far, it’s mostly companies competing for top talent and already nurturing the most well-rounded workplaces that are onboard, but the introduction of an outdoor mindset to the coworking world may help spread the idea and make it more commonplace in less newsworthy workplaces. Given how little time most workers get outdoors these days, that would be a welcome breath of fresh air.