A popular business belief, dating back to the 18th century, is that keeping workspaces free of clutter is a key to productivity. Many offices are thus designed with minimalism in mind. That means no photos, artwork, souvenirs, plants, or other adornments. On the other hand, the philosophy that enriching an environment—notably with plants—can increase happiness and efficiency also has deep roots. Many studies have noted both physical and psychological benefits of “green” workplaces, though the studies have had limitations.
So is it better to go lean or go green? To find out, researchers did a series of real-world experiments in which employees, from call-center workers to consultants, were assigned to either spartan or plant-bedecked spaces. The study was published in September 2014 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
In the first experiment, employees who sat at desks in direct view of at least two plants for three weeks reported improvements in concentration, productivity, and air quality, relative to workers not exposed to plants. In the second one, job satisfaction went up when plants were added to the office, over both the short term (2 weeks) and long term (3 months), with no changes in the no-plant control group.
The third experiment looked at objective measures of productivity. Employees were assigned to either a "lean" workstation (desk and chair) or a "green" workstation (desk and chair plus the addition of plants), where they completed tasks involving information management, information processing, and vigilance. Those in the green group completed the tasks faster, without a rise in errors—boosting productivity by 15 percent.
“A green working environment is consistently more enjoyable for employees, more conducive to concentration, and more productive for business than its lean equivalent,” the authors wrote. That’s because plants and green spaces, which reflect the natural world, can have a restorative effect on attention. In addition, enriched office spaces may communicate the message that employers care about their workers, which in turn, increases employee work engagement and satisfaction. Plants can also enhance indoor environments by removing some pollutants.
If your office space is spartan, you might ask your employer to liven it up with some plants. Or bring in your own, if allowed. It’s a relatively inexpensive investment that may go a long way in improving well-being at work—a win-win for both employee and employer.