Office space hits the great outdoors

Movement gives work a breath of fresh air

- Ben Tobin

NEW YORK – Trees all around you. Freshly cut grass. A breath of fresh air.

No, this is not your backyard. It’s an office space in the heart of a city.

In a 6-acre park in New York this month, outdoor retailer L.L. Bean set up a temporary office to demonstrat­e what cubicle dwellers can experience when they venture outside to smell the roses as they tap their keyboards.

The setup, built in partnershi­p with workspace provider Industriou­s, included all the elements of an office conference room – swiveling chairs, a desk and, most important, Wi-Fi. But the difference was it resembled a series of sturdy canopies, with a roof and open sides that provided fresh air and outdoor sounds. Next month, the project heads to Boston, Philadelph­ia and Madison, Wisconsin.

L.L. Bean joins several of the na-

tion’s best-known technology companies to encourage workspaces with a biophilic design, which seeks to bring the outside indoors and the inside outdoors. These “green” spaces aren’t just for sustainabi­lity; they actually leave humans feeling less stressed and more focused, experts say.

Though bringing the outdoors in has been a trend for decades – water fountains in corporate headquarte­rs and trees in shopping malls – pushing indoor elements outside is newer.

Kirt Martin, vice president of design and marketing at Landscape Forms, an outdoor furniture company in Kalama- zoo, Michigan, has seen a significan­t increase in outdoor workspaces because large companies such as Apple and Facebook are trying them. “It takes social influencer­s to get people to change their perspectiv­e,” Martin said.

And with the advent of mobile technology, employees can work on the go, not just on passenger trains, planes or cars but from open-air structures such as the New York City park setup. Combining nature with work is part of a broader trend, said Leigh Stringer, a workplace strategy expert who helped advise L.L. Bean for the campaign.

For most of our evolution, “humans have been working outdoors; it’s in our nature,” Stringer said. “It’s only been in the past 300 years or so that we’ve been working indoors.”

That realizatio­n is catching on. This year, Amazon opened “Spheres” for its employees in Seattle. Constructe­d as glass domes on the headquarte­rs’ campus, the three intersecti­ng structures are filled with 40,000 plants and serve as spaces for employees to work and lounge.

“By bringing the outdoor work environmen­t indoors, we create an environmen­t where employees can collaborat­e and innovate together in a peaceful setting that is more like a tropical rainforest than a city,” said John Sa, an Amazon spokesman.

In 2015, Facebook created a 9-acre rooftop garden at its headquarte­rs in Menlo Park, California. Apple’s “spaceship” headquarte­rs in Cupertino, California, surrounds a park, orchard and pond. And last October, Microsoft built technologi­cally enabled treehouses for employees in Redmond, Washington. Even municipali­ties such as Silver Spring, Maryland, have worked to provide outdoor working spaces.

Many employees want to have outdoor elements in a working environmen­t, according to L.L. Bean’s 2018 Work and the Outdoors Survey. It reported that 86 percent of indoor workers said they would like to spend more time outside during the workday, but 65 percent said work is the largest obstacle to doing so.

Biophilic design “speaks to the deeper need for us to connect with the natural world,” said Tim Beatley, an architectu­re professor at the University of Virginia and executive director of the Biophilic Cities Project. “Nature’s not something optional; it’s absolutely essential for leading a happy and healthy and meaningful life.”

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