Plants, Not Plastic, Will Bring Back the Office Post-Pandemic

Forced into their homes for far more hours and far more purposes than they ever imagined due to the coronavirus pandemic, employees leaned into the opportunity to reinvent their living spaces to better suit the new work from home (WFH) reality. They cocooned, they baked bread, they bought house plants. By doing so, they instinctively protected their mental and emotional wellbeing.

Surprisingly, a majority found themselves happier and more productive than expected. But the vast majority of employers want people back together at work, and their landlords want their office leases renewed. Businesses struggle to envision what a transformed post-pandemic workplace environment should look like, and what it will take to bring their employees back now that they’ve embraced the advantages of the WFH environment. 

Since 1977 when I opened my first flower stand in downtown San Diego, it’s been my passion to enrich peoples’ lives by adding nature using plants. I expanded Good Earth Plant Company’s focus to include workplace greenery design, installation, and maintenance in our core business. We take someone’s vision and assess the functionality of every type of building imaginable: offices, hotels, restaurants, biotech and tech companies, construction firms, and retail. Today, I’m working with clients and their architects and interior designers, figuring out what’s feasible and affordable to accommodate the new reality, all while their buildings sit mostly empty.

The multitude of surveys, studies, and white papers addressing changes to the workplace focus mostly on stop-gap measures against the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Plexiglass barriers. Temperature checks. One-way hallways. Space markers on the floor. Tools so you don’t have to touch elevator buttons. 

This treats the immediate symptoms, but when it comes to the post-pandemic workplaces don’t we want to make sure our buildings support our overall health as well as our immediate concerns about infection? 

For decades, I’ve been preaching the value of biophilic design in the workplace without knowing it had a name. Biophilia means “love of nature.” Biologist Edward O. Wilson first outlined his concept in the 1980s. He theorized humans have an innate, biological affinity for the natural world developed by co-existing with nature over millennia. 

Because the average person now spends more than 90 percent of their time indoors according to the EPA, biophilic design attempts to create indoor environments that mimic nature including airflow, light, natural patterns and materials, and a material connection to nature, such as the addition of plants into the space. Research into the benefits of biophilic design through more than 50 studies provides useful evidence in the post-pandemic era.  

Over the 43 years of my career as a horticulturist and plantscaping designer, I’ve seen multiple design trend shifts. Now more than ever, we have the opportunity to put biophilic design principles into action in our workspaces for the benefit of the bottom line. But we need to make the case beyond “plants are pretty.” 

Objective scientific studies showed the presence of plants at work reduced absenteeism and improved productivity, and even caused hospital patients to recover more quickly. To expand our perspective, my workplace greenery colleagues in the Silverado Roundtable, all with significant experience, collaborated in reviewing new research on the post-pandemic workplace. We conducted interviews with forward-thinking architects, social scientists, and psychologists. In a recently published white paper we explored beyond the future of the post-pandemic workplace to the NATURE of the post-pandemic workplace. 

Long before the pandemic hit in early 2020, businesses and organizations experienced growth in remote work. 

Last August a comprehensive survey of 1,123 remote workers was conducted by the Washington DC-based global data intelligence company Morning Consult. They asked workers about their work at home experience after six months of the pandemic. 86 percent say they were satisfied with remote work. 60 percent said working at home improves their health and 40 percent spent more time outdoors during the workday. 

The take away for me is that when it’s time for valued talent to return to the office, they will demand surroundings serving their needs at least as well as their home workspaces do. 

The great indoors

From full-time in the office to zero time in the office, the economic and social pendulum is settling into a practical middle. A hybrid model is emerging, with workspace optimized for the collaborative and creative teamwork that is so difficult to replicate remotely. People may not miss their commute, but they miss their co-workers. Zoom isn’t cutting it. According to Morning Consult, 47 percent of those working remotely say once it’s safe to return to work, their ideal arrangement would be to continue working from home one to four days a week. 

Conservation psychologist and architect Dr. John Fraser, President and CEO of the design think-tank Knology, says we must rethink the modern American office. “The collaborative nature of work is one of the conundrums of the economy. It doesn’t acknowledge the human benefit of tribal thinking,” said Fraser.  

“Right now the office space you have is useless. But between now and then we can’t start with assumptions that putting in shower curtains will fix it. What we lose in these barriers is the whole reason we have the physical presence in an office,” observes Fraser. “The office is the benefit of the physicality and being fully present.”

Living with the coronavirus is accelerating demand for healthy spaces, which will impact workplace design. 

Why do people bring cut flowers to work? Because they represent life. Inside needs to be more like outside in the post-pandemic world. Within the last decade, workplace design has embraced bringing the outdoor environment indoors through the use of light, natural materials, textures, views, access to outdoor spaces such as patios or terraces, and the integration of potted plants and living walls. 

Indoor environments mimicking outdoor environments will give employees greater confidence their wellbeing is not at risk. A healthy workplace used to be perceived as a benefit, now it’s a necessity. 

Getting employees back to the workplace is not merely a function of sanitation and satisfying government guidelines. This is the office industry’s problem to solve. 

Biophilic design elements can provide a common language for discussion. It is essential for design professionals to take the lead and begin the conversation of incorporating biophilia such as plants and greenery into the process. Our environment has a direct impact on our psychological, biological, and sociological wellbeing – and our business wellbeing as well.

Workplace design must support improved health outcomes, both physically and behaviorally. This is no longer a luxury. Without healthy employees, there is no innovation, collaboration, productivity or profits. 

As employers try to make the workplace feel more inviting and attractive for a returning workforce, look for inspiration from hospitality and coworking. Both incorporate generous collaborative spaces featuring comfortable furnishings, gourmet coffee, and greenery. 

This so-called ‘resimercial’ design approach blends homelike comfort in an office setting. It shouldn’t matter where a good design idea comes from if it improves the user experience. Resimercial smacks of a ‘Brangelina’ mishmash, but our business clients are enthusiastic about this legitimate trend in office design.

Healthy design = healthy bottom lines

Healthy people fuel a healthy economy. Rebuilding our world to be healthier and happier than before should be a priority for all of us going forward. It can be argued this is also vital to prevent a national mental health crisis. 

Healthy places support healthier people. A healthy workplace used to be considered an employee benefit but now it is no longer negotiable. Access to fresh air, natural light, adequate personal space, and cleanliness will give employees confidence in their work environment’s safety. 

Architect Eric Corey Freed is Senior Vice President and Director of Sustainability for the global architectural firm CannonDesign. He is enthusiastic about the opportunity ahead forced by the pandemic to create new spaces where people can connect safely and get work done. “Can you think of a better time in modern history than to rethink the office, transportation, commuting, and work/life balance than right now?” said Freed.

“You can make the argument all you want about updating mechanical systems and lowering risk. If the perception of safety isn’t there it won’t matter. Biophilic design can address these things,” said Freed.  “I’ve never had anyone say, ‘ugh, get these plants out of here.’ Biophilic design ideally incorporates nature throughout the design. This is an investment in their space.”

Darwin was right: nature means survival of fittest 

Creating a nature-based environment with plants and natural materials over plastic is not only feasible, but essential to business survival. 

People overwhelmingly prefer workplaces with natural light, but plants require it for their survival. Plants act as the canary for the healthy modern workplace. If there is enough light for plants to thrive, then people will thrive, too.

A well-designed space with natural elements makes it easier to recruit talented employees and can better provide those employees with a workplace that is energy lifting, instead of energy-zapping. Building owners, landlords, and employers have an opportunity to bring life and a story into a workplace environment. Companies have a chance to develop the culture of their dreams.

Design professionals can help companies create working spaces with a renewed emphasis on health and safety. Ones that better resemble their homes, with all of the comfort and positive associations that come with it. It is also critical to enhancing workplace culture, which will contribute to the return of a robust economy and improved lives for everyone involved. We are at a place where we need to remake offices for the better. For many of us, that means creating workplaces that allow people to better connect to nature and enjoy all of the mental and physical benefits that go with it.

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