Organisations often focus on the interior of their premises to promote wellbeing and productivity, but what about the outside spaces? Dave Howell reports.

Organisations have known for some time that the provision of a stimulating working environment has many advantages, not least of which is improved productivity. Research has consistently concluded that bringing the natural world into an office space can have a measurable positive impact. Indeed, according to the report Biophilic Design in the Workplace from Human Spaces, 67% of respondents to their survey feel happy and positive when their interiors are accented with natural colours.

While urbanisation has continued, green spaces have continued to be squeezed as developers look to maximise their estates. Focusing on interior office spaces has been the norm for several years, but begs the question whether the provision of outside spaces would reinforce the great work that organisations have been carrying out to enhance the quality of employees’ interior work spaces.

The power of the natural environment

Businesses do understand how powerful the natural environment can be. The “Green Team” at Google and the efforts made by Apple at its current campus and its new headquarters, which are to be built around an outside space, point to tangible efforts taking place that all managers could learn from. Organisations in the health sector are aware of the importance that green outside spaces can have on the wellbeing of patients. These initiatives can also be applied to other business sectors with equal success.

In the Human Spaces report, Professor Sir Cary Cooper says: “In the workplace, we are concerned with biophilic design in relation to employee outcomes, specifically in the areas of wellbeing, productivity and creativity. Our cross-country findings show that natural elements in the workplace are determinants of these three aspects. The research has shown that overall, those with natural elements present in their workspace report higher levels of creativity, motivation and wellbeing.”

The decline in the provision of green urban spaces has been slowing over recent years. However, organisations and facilities managers are in a unique position in that they can actively develop their own outside spaces to influence their workforces. Taking a more proactive view of these spaces is now well documented, with research that points to key commercial benefits that can be obtained by businesses that take practical steps.

“To secure more funds and resources, property and facilities managers need to be able to persuade their clients that the outside space has much more to offer than just kerb appeal,” commented Adam Ralph, Landscape Director, GRITIT GM. “Property managers need to put forward proposals that highlight the benefits a dynamic green space can bring to health and wellbeing, as well as the ecological improvements that can be achieved, such as increased biodiversity, improved air flow, reduced heat island effect and reduced flood risk through grey water harvesting and management.”

Joe Boyce, Head of Landscape at Maber Architects, stated: “Consultation with your employees is really important and should form the basis of a good design brief that you can provide to your landscape architect. A good understanding of how the space might function and an indication of your budget will inform the design response. Remember to keep it simple. Identify where there is scope for employees to get involved and invest their energy, create time to work and maintain the space. ‘Friends of’ groups are a great resource of enthusiasm and will make the outside space special.”

Biophilic design

Cerys Jones, Client Relationship Director, OCS, was asked whether green outside spaces are now essential to maintain high levels of wellbeing and productivity at work.

She says that the newest members of the workforce are the millennials, “who have a very different agenda from their colleagues before. Millennials crave interaction. Face-to-face encounters are a way of life for millennials. They seek employers who will provide them with the environment in which they can shine. Whoever can provide them with the best work/life balance will win the prize in this ultimate talent contest”.

Cerys also warned organisations: “Outdoor workspaces have their drawbacks, the weather being one of them, not to mention the sunny glare on a worker’s tablet or tweeting birds singing along during a conference call. However, outdoor settings are conducive to stress-relief. It is not too difficult, therefore, to consider outdoor office spaces as conducive to productivity and creativity, providing the sense of wellbeing and balance that our workers of today desire so badly.”

Creating an outside space

What is your main advice to organisations that want to create an outside space for their employees?

“When any change is proposed within a workplace environment, it is essential to first understand the different types of worker profiles, behaviours and requirements. By engaging with the business, managers will recognise the positive impact outdoor space can have on their teams and be able to work with designers to shape spaces that support the way they operate.

“Space available to create outdoor workplaces will often be limited, especially when it is retrospectively applied to an existing location. Organisations such as GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), however, have successfully managed to integrate their internal and external spaces. At its campus in Hertfordshire, you are able to look on to a constant stream of workers happily navigating between outdoor pods used for small meetings to large courtyards equipped with outdoor whiteboards and other props to support large gatherings, impromptu meetings and networking among colleagues.”

Planning an outside space

Are there pitfalls to watch out for when creating outside spaces for employees to use?

“As you would apply planning principles to any indoor space, the same should apply to new outdoor spaces. If creating areas for employees to meet and work, consider the functions they will undertake, look at meeting sizes, frequencies and work patterns. We have seen a rise in modular meeting spaces and pods in recent years — the same could be applied to your outdoor space. If so, plan and communicate in advance how these will be booked and policed.

“Make sure all areas are multipurpose and that furniture is flexible, ensuring that there is adequate shelter — not only as protection from wind and rain but because devices often become unusable in bright light.

“And also make sure all spaces are supported with equipment and technology is enabled. There is a great range of outdoor work tools, ranging from comfy all year round bean bags to outdoor whiteboards and even plasmas. You will also need to make sure you have the relevant power provide. This does not need to be outdoors but conveniently placed charging towers for flexible workers are a must.”

Managing an outside space

How will organisations have to manage outside green spaces across their premises?

“They should treat their outdoor spaces with equal importance to their internal space. Not only is this one of the first things their customers will see when approaching a building, it is also one of the most requested items on recent employee workplace surveys and impacts heavily on the wellbeing of employees.

“When considering the introduction of new outdoor spaces, work with expert facilities management consultants to design and develop the space in accordance with the requirements of the business, ensure that clear guidelines are issued around the use of the space and that the design is both sustainable and manageable. Once installed, use an expert horticultural and grounds maintenance contractor to manage the space and to ensure it is kept aesthetically pleasing, functional and safe for your staff and visitors.”

The provision of outside space is clearly a complement to interior design that has been moving away from the minimalist movement to softer environments, with nature playing a vital role in creating these harmonious spaces. FMs will have differing availability of outside space with which to expand their wellbeing initiatives, but where this is possible, the cost will be more than rewarded with a more productive workforce and a business that will attract top talent.

Last reviewed 20 June 2016