“Happy hearts and happy faces,
Happy play in grassy places–
That was how, in ancient ages,
Children grew to kings and sages.”
Excerpt from A Child’s Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson
For generations, experts have stressed green spaces, fresh air, and sunlight for our children. Who said adults don’t need it as well?
Two major organizations are stating that we do. Both LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and WELL (a project of the International Well Building Institute) standards have been instrumental in the shift toward more sustainable buildings, with LEED focusing on the building structures and WELL reinforcing the same principles with the application to human health. Both hope to make green building a focus for today’s property stakeholders via programs for new construction, as well as upgrades for existing buildings. Through their joint efforts, changes are happening worldwide.
While there’s certainly a feel-good reason to consider voluntarily upgrading the workspace with better choices in lighting, air, and overall aesthetics, many companies can be reluctant to invest in “green” unless it can be tied back to the ever-important dollar ROI. Some of the upgrades do save on energy costs, but what about the more innovative approaches (such as air circulations systems that measure and monitor C02)? There’s good news for budgeters on that front, too.
Data have been growing in support of “green” buildings, and a 2016 Harvard report gives numbers that should make any good HR manager do a double-take. Employees working inside green-certified building showed cognitive function scores 26% higher than their peers in non-certified buildings. They also had 30% fewer symptoms associated with “sick building syndrome”—such as “watering eyes; hoarseness; headaches; dry, itchy skin; dizziness; nausea; heart palpitations; miscarriages; shortness of breath; nosebleeds; chronic fatigue; mental fogginess; tremors; swelling of legs or ankles; and cancer.”
The number crunchers have brought the benefits of doubling ventilation, for example, to big business. Recent estimates tie this single environmental change to a $6,500 per person annual productivity return. (This boon doesn’t even take into account money saved from reductions in absenteeism or health care costs tied directly to those sick building symptoms mentioned before).
Biophilic design (when living green plants are integrated into office design) also has scientific backing. Workers exposed to greenery in their daily work lives report a 15% higher level of well-being, are 6% more productive, and are 15% more creative. Strategic placement of certain plant types has also been proven to reduce noise and create a less stressful environment.
Natural light and greenery assist in productivity and reducing worker stress.
The data that the recent studies highlight is hard to ignore, but is it enough to choose an office building solely on what researchers suggest? Can a few experiments on test subjects translate to productivity savings for the average management team? Those we talked to seemed to think so.
Gary Vegh, cofounder of ERA Environmental Management Solutions, shares how moving from a traditional building to one with a state-of-the-art ventilation system—as well as better access to natural light—has proven valuable to their teams. “We have seen a marked difference in employee satisfaction and energy levels,” he shares. While his experience hasn’t been tracked by data markers or blind studies, the employee feedback speaks for itself. “Employees report having more energy by the end of the day, not feeling as tired immediately after eating lunch, and we think that does result in better focus throughout the day.”
Green workspaces can result in a happier, more productive team.
In addition to providing a boost to efficiency, implementing green office upgrades gives employers a chance to involve team members in the decision-making process and give them a level of autonomy over their workspace. Collaboration has already been widely recognized as one of the ideal company perks, so when management responds to requests for better work environments, it makes them feel valued. Vegh, who also happens to be a toxicologist, has seen how using worker input has resulted in more ownership, enjoyment, and dedication to their workplace and the company. “We even have a team of employees who have asked to spearhead sustainability reporting for the building and are taking the first steps to getting LEED certified,” he says. He also concluded that giving employees the workspace they desired was a high-ranking factor in overall employee satisfaction.
There’s more good news for those who integrate biophilic design principals. Nick Haschka, CEO of The Wright Gardener, sees the benefits of indoor green spaces daily in his work. “The delivery of new plants is often met with excitement, appreciation, and relief from those occupying the space. People take pride in the plants nearby their work area. Plants soften. Plants invite. Plants have a calming effect on a space that makes humans more human.”
But even for those who don’t seem to care much about the office “pet” plant, green seems good. Haschka shares that “When we remove plants, people will often comment that they didn’t realize the impact the plants had until they were removed.” While plants causing happiness is mostly anecdotal, there does appear to be a correlation that might not be appreciated until it’s gone.
Convene at Cira Center, a LEED-certified meeting center
These stories—along with the data—of how employees excel under the right conditions seem like reason enough to take steps to create a greener workplace. For many managers, however, it’s an impossibly daunting task. How does one begin the process of making those small changes that produce big results?
The good news is that no one has to shoulder the responsibility alone. Many property managers are already taking steps to bring buildings up to a different kind of code. Organizations such as LEED are seeing a positive response to their voluntary standards, which are shaping the way new construction is handled, as well as how building improvements may be made even better. (Convene’s own Philadelphia-based, Cira Centre location is the nation’s first-ever LEED-certified meeting space).
There’s also potential to make the exterior of the workplace an important player in the green game. Giving workers access to the great outdoors isn’t just novel, it’s smart. Patios, lunch seating with access to native flora, and employee gardens all have a role in nurturing the creativity and focus research has supported.
It’s wise to remember, however, that more of a good thing isn’t always better. Enlisting the help of an expert—whether it be in HVAC, lighting, or greenery—is still recommended. Haschka reminds us that there’s balance involved in any green endeavor. “We don’t try to create an indoor jungle. We try to focus on the high impact pieces that create beauty and functionality in a space, while bringing the benefits of softening and calming the space, enhancing air quality, and mitigating noise.”
Why wouldn’t decision-makers want to push forward with the “greening” of their offices? If cost can be justified, what exactly is holding them back? Fear of the unknown or a lack of understanding may be a significant roadblock. Vegh puts it this way, “We often think of green buildings as some kind of advanced workplace, when really the ‘traditional’ workplace wasn’t built with humans as the priority.” To move ahead, we must be willing to leave the old behind us.