Over the course of the past year, a number of people have found themselves needing to work remotely for the first time in their lives. This kind of change can be jarring to anybody, especially when it happens so suddenly. On top of not having everything you're used to having while at work, you have to deal with a plethora of new details that were never present while at the office. Things like the distractions from children learning remotely and dealing with the noise of neighbors if you're living with a community of people. Things like finding that balance of when to step away from work when the home is your office. And, of course, having to keep in communication with colleagues through primarily digital means.
One aspect that I've found a surprising number of people talk about, however is less of a new obstacle and more of a new benefit: being more readily near a natural environment. When most of us think of our home, we aren't thinking about our closed off rooms with grid-system ceiling tiles and white fluorescent lighting. We typically surround ourselves in windows letting in the natural light and we're often just a few steps from the outdoors. To that extent, a not insignificant number of people found themselves engaging with their natural surroundings more often. Myself included!
I'd like to take a look at this aspect of having worked remotely, of being closer to the outdoors. While statistics I mention throughout this post are from scientific studies and analysis of those studies, a lot of this will be my own experience, so bear that in mind as we press onward. With that said, let's dive in!
A Bit of Background
To set the stage a bit here, I understand that this conversation is coming from a place of privilege. Not everyone has been affected the same by the pandemic in 2020, a lot of people still being required to go into their work environments, experiencing no difference other than an increased chance of spreading illness. It is my hope that discussing these interactions with nature to offset a typical working environment may encourage others to use the time they have while at a place of work in a way that gets them outside. Even when I was a package handler working in a massive warehouse, I would use my time off shift to walk outside rather than sit in the breakroom, for example. I understand desk labor and physical labor are inherently different, and the scales to which these types of work track working time are vastly at odds, but having experienced both, I feel there may be takeaways across the board.
Second note is that I'm approaching this from the perspective of an employee that went full-time remote as a software engineer having worked in a basement with no natural light and windows for 7 years. After going remote, I became a development team manager, bringing me a bit closer to an understanding of what a company finds important in work environments and how employers invest in their working spaces.
Final note is that I also approach this from a perspective of becoming a natural areas volunteer to immerse myself more in nature knowing that my job gave me little opportunity to do so. I do have a bias toward the benefits of spending time outdoors, even if I wouldn't particularly call myself "outdoorsy." I just like to spend time outside thinking and learning about the Earth.
All this said, I come at this topic from a place of personally feeling benefit from spending time with nature amid work. Or, at the very least, having options to let a little natural world into my work space.
Walks & Open Sky
Going for walks is something I've done for a long time. When I was initially getting myself onto a healthier lifestyle, one of the first ways I did that was by walking every day. Even before I wanted to spend more time outdoors, I found myself spending a lot of time outside taking walks. Initially, I had been doing this when I'd get home from work, but I eventually started integrating these walks into my normal routine. When I was spending a lot of time thinking about something at my desk, I would take that as an opportunity to walk outside and think there.
Anecdotally, something about being out in the open space clears my head. It's so much easier for me to think when I'm not confined to my office space. Even at home, despite having an open window helping the space feel larger, nothing quite beats being outside to think. Almost as if my headspace has a direct correlation to the physical space my body finds itself in. Very poetic, though there's likely a better explanation waiting to be found!
As it turns out, a lot of people have found a similar affinity to being outside or allowing the outdoors in while working. Stories of peoples' experience returning to the office are those of missing the ability to work from a bench at the park or from their laptop out on their porch. When people look to escape the new distractions of the home, they sought a certain tranquility of being outdoors. Something that, from my own perspective, is grossly lacking in traditional office work environments.
In recent years, more studies are being done to find if there are correlations between being in nature and going for walk outdoors with human well-being. While this avenue is budding, this is usually with regards to mental and physical health rather than how brain activity changes while outdoors (which is my personal experience). While looking into scholarly articles for this post, I did find mentions of nature walks, in particular, having a positive effect on state anxiety, while having mixed to neutral benefits with trait anxiety and depression. At the very least, walking in nature appears to either be neutral or a positive benefit to human well-being.
On a similar note, something that has changed drastically between working remotely and office work is general exposure to natural light. Personally speaking, when I was at the office, I was working in a basement. The number of rooms with windows on the level I worked were minimal and were considered "primary real estate" to the teams working there. I never had an opportunity to work in one of these spaces, so my entire experience before going remote was in entirely closed off spaces, completely lit by artificial light. This isn't uncommon for software engineers, either. It's a common trope that programmers are often confined to the basements of office buildings, away from any potential foot traffic from people visiting the building.
It's almost comical how drastic the difference in lighting was when I would go for my walks outside. Every time was a blinding contrast that took about a minute to adjust to. Every time felt worth it though. My eyes felt more relaxed, taking in surroundings under a light that our eyes are designed to take in. My body would always feel more awake. Thinking about that, it may be why it was always easier to think outside. Having my body adjust to the correct time of day would be something my brain has to initiate, allowing me to think at the level I should for being the middle of the day. It's so weird thinking about that concept out loud. I would drive into work in the young morning light, my body only adjusting to that level of sunlight before spending 8 hours in an environment where the light is designed not to change and of a type that human bodies don't interpret the same. Those walks were likely energizing and invigorating to my mind for a reason.
And there are studies that back this up, more than the nature walks in fact. It's a fairly well-known thing that human energy levels are regulated with a chemical called melatonin, something that sunlight indicates to our bodies when to produce and when not to produce. This cycle is called our circadian rhythm. This isn't consistent across all people, but it's generally why humans are more awake and energetic during the day and tired at night. While a lot of these studies are generally around light pollution keeping nighttime bright, the effects of artificial light can be felt during the day as well. Exposing ourselves to artificial light at night is enough to convince our bodies not to produce melatonin and keeps us awake longer. While more study is needed around artificial light during the day, it's not a bad hypothesis that the constancy of emitted artificial light also affects our rhythm during the day. Instead of a smooth curve of energy regulation, we get large leaps. The difference between an energy ramp and an energy staircase that doesn't actually reach the next floor!
How Offices are Designed
Okay, so we've established a bit of evidence, both qualitative and quantitative about how the separation of nature and the office work environment has effects on human well-being. I thought it might be interesting to think a bit on why office space is the way it is. There is actually a bit of research on how to put together an office environment that benefits the people who work in it. Some of those factors can be categorized under light and comfort, which unsurprisingly include access to green areas and allowing natural sunlight. One of the enablers of a healthy work environment is something that businesses are generally skittish around, though: money.
For better or worse (though I strongly hint at worse), offices are thus designed with the following in mind: keep costs as low as possible, close employees off from external distractions, and encourage employees to stay at the office as long as possible. The trend that was taking off pre-COVID was the open floor plan, which fits these criteria to a T.
The trend before open office layout was the cubicle farm, which involved giving every person a space to call their own (without giving them an office). By removing the cubicles and adding tables, costs for setup and maintenance are considerably lower. One added benefit to this is the ease of working with others, which I will give them is a benefit. However, this isn't a negotiable perk and people are constantly exposed to the sensory overload of being around others in close proximity. Nothing has changed regarding where these offices are located, and are still highly cut off from external distractions, leaving only the internal ones. And along with these shifts to open floor plans usually come benefits of spaces to hang out with others along with provided snacks and drinks.
That last one is, in my mind, a bit more dubious than it lets on. To a college student coming out of school having little to go on, this looks like the employer is taking care of their base needs. This has an effect of extending the time that the person spends at the office by throwing in some free refreshments, a considerably cheaper option than paying people more so they're able to reasonably afford their base needs outside of the office. Combine that with the open social spaces, the workplace gives people a low-cost (for both the employer and employee) to fulfill base needs. Arguably, the employer wins out more in this situation, building a dependence of the person on the office space, making them stay longer, occasionally working more than normal.
I've taken to calling this "The High School Club Effect." I spent a lot of time in after school activities in high school because it didn't cost anything for me to stay there, my parents knew I was at least being supervised while they were finishing work and getting home, and it filled the social needs of a teenager. As a result, I spent a lot of time inside the school away from family and home. It did the same between indoors and outdoors as well, I just didn't think about it much at that time. These tactics used by employers appeal to those same impulses, only with the added benefit that if we're in the office, we may be doing more work for them without added compensation.
Some Thoughts to Close On
Well, that was a bit of a tangent on office layout, but it does help to understand how that environment changes. It's good to know that there is research being done that shows that incorporating elements of nature into the work environment generally help peoples' well-being. It's also good to know why and why not those changes are actually made to facilitate that improvement.
To tie this back into nature and well-being, though, I will simply implore you to keep in mind that spending time outdoors can help you cope with the stresses of work, either from the actual work you do or simply as an escape from the cages we've collectively decided are the most efficient way to turn humans into resources. Mild nihilism aside, you are the person in the best situation to know when giving yourself some time in nature is best for you. We should bear in mind that not everyone feels these effects, though. Studies even demonstrate that people in tropical areas dealing with climate issues generally don't reap the same wellness benefits of those immersing themselves in nature around a more temperate climate.
And, of course, don't be the person who opens a window in the office when everyone knows Ted from Accounting has a raucous sneezing fit during pollen season. People are unique, so find your balance and find ways to make your space the right mix of efficient for work and healthy for your being without forcing that balance on those around you.
Coming from a place of management, even if only for a while, I can tell you an employer simply can't treat you as irreplaceable. If employees were truly irreplaceable, a lot more companies would go out of business. The average employer is going to do the minimum they have to to keep you happy enough to stay, while the best will listen to your insights and encourage your well-being. However, enabling your well-being is ultimately up to you. Be sure to take the time you need to interact with the outdoors if you know that's a part of your well-being.
So, do yourself a favor, and as we generally start heading back into offices around the world, if you've found benefit being near nature, keep finding that time. Take care of yourself, and make the time you need to make that happen. So take that walk, you matter enough to have a healthy relationship between work and nature :)
~ And, as always, don't forget to keep wondering ~
Nature & Human Well-Being
Office Space & Human Well-Being
Prismatic Planet wants to get excited for the planet, raise awareness of its inhabitants, and get smarter about Earth.