Room with a View: How Nature and Light Influence Employee Satisfaction and Performance at Work

Caroline Beaton

Humans evolved to work surrounded by nature. Today, many of us are enclosed by materials so far removed from the natural world as to be unrecognizable: hard plastic desks, synthetic floors and walls, other-worldly technology. But do our artificial workspaces actually affect our satisfaction and performance at work?

Research suggests yes.

For example, blue light – the light in our screens that mimics the blue light of the sun – seems to stimulate workers’ alertness as well as the sun. This is why blue light interrupts our circadian rhythms and can keep us up at night. Artificial blue light even gives us vitamin D. But blue light falls short for workplace wellbeing. Research shows that natural sunlight has a direct positive effect on job satisfaction and wellbeing, and reduces employees’ intentions to quit. Artificial blue light has no such effects. In fact, artificial lighting can be detrimental. Dim office lights can lead to lethargy, office supplies distributor Windfall explains in a blog post, while fluorescent lighting can cause headaches.

It’s not just about the lighting

Of course, as one white paper from Philips Electronics points out, natural lighting alone is unlikely to have a strong effect on performance. Instead, it’s one of many factors that contribute to a healthy, engaging work environment.

Another element that fuels employee satisfaction and productivity is a view — however small — of nature. Natural elements like trees and plants reduce the negative effect of job stress on employees’ intentions to quit. Meanwhile, both indoor plants and views of plants outside can increase attention capacity and prevent fatigue during cognitively-demanding work. One study found that window views reduce workplace discomfort, thereby reducing stress and improving sleep quality.

Windfall explains, “employees find that being near windows helps them feel more focused and relaxed.” There’s also just something about views that give you peace of mind. As an employee at St. Jude Medical wrote in a kununu review, “there are giant windows so you don’t feel closed off from the world. :).”

Put simply, as contact with nature goes up, employee stress, depression, and general health complaints go down. One study summed, “Increasing nature contact at work may offer a simple … approach to enhance workplace health promotion efforts.”

How can you get more nature in cube-ville?

 

1) Get a plant for your desk.

In one study, employees who worked in offices with plants reported higher job satisfaction and quality-of-life — this effect seemed particularly strong, for whatever reason, in men. Plants not only look nice; they clean the air for healthier breathing and working. Even a basic, indestructible plant like a philodendron helps combat toxins like formaldehyde and carbon monoxide. But it’s important to take care of your plant, or it could contribute toxins itself. HOK, a global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm, suggests, “keep them clean and healthy so they do not get dusty or contribute mold spores.”

 

2) Add texture and interest to your surroundings.

One employee at Offsite Personnel wrote that their office was crowded “with many file cabinets. Very cold. No windows.” Likewise, the offices at Northwest Home Health and Rehab, according to one employee, are windowless and “all grey and no other colors.”

HOK suggests introducing texture into your space using natural materials like wood, cork, plants and natural fibers. Get a leather mouse pad; make your own zen garden with rocks and sand you find outside; swap out your generic office chair for something made of real wood and natural materials like cotton or leather; or put a cork board up on one side of your cubicle. Then, add colors to reflect light throughout your space: lay a bright, pretty tablecloth across your desk; put a colorful rug at your feet; decorate your desktop with colorful pots and jars.

 

3) Take a bright break.

Go outside for regular breaks, even if just for a few minutes. One study found that 30 minutes of natural bright light exposure made people feel more “pleasant” for the rest of the workday. Eat lunch outside; take a walk around your building when the sun’s out; or find a spot in your building where natural light streams in and conduct phone calls and meetings there. But stay out of direct sunlight while you’re trying to focus: direct sunlight while you’re working is actually correlated with anxiety (maybe because you can’t see your computer screen!).

 

4) Avoid toxic environments.

Unfortunately, sometimes the most unnatural, disruptive aspects of your work environment are outside of your control. One employee said that their building’s air was stale, and that one worker even died from mold spores. A casino worker mentioned “terrible ventilation,” which made for “an unhealthy workplace.” Another employee lamented that there’s “No fresh air unless you go outside. When someone gets sick, everyone will get sick.” Sometimes your office environment is, as one employee put it poetically, “the epitome of left to wither on the vine.” When, despite your best efforts, your workspace is still toxic, you may have to leave it in order to grow.

 

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Caroline Beaton (@cs_beaton) is kununu’s millennial career expert. She’s an award-winning writer and entrepreneur who helps ambitious millennials change their habits and behaviors to lead more fulfilling lives. Her writing has been has been featured in Forbes, Psychology Today, Business Insider and many others.