Will the office of the future contain numerous houseplants throughout? Several studies show that workplace plants are more than just aesthetically pleasing and can actually increase employee productivity. It is known that plants add oxygen to the air and remove numerous toxins, including formaldehyde (in particleboard, paper and carpets), benzene (in glue, paint and auto fumes) and trichloroethylene (in paint stripper and spot remover). But the benefits may go even further than reducing toxic exposure, making them an important addition to the workplace.
One recent workplace study found that people have an increased ability to concentrate when working in an office with indoor foliage. The study measured improvement performance on concentration tasks for workers using a reading span test. Half the people had four plants and flowers on their desks and the others had none. The study found that indoor plants and flowers have benefits for improved concentration and reduced fatigue, even when there are outside views of nature.
Another study from the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, found that indoor plants reduce anger by 44 percent, anxiety by 37 percent, depression by 58 percent and fatigue by 38 percent. Just one plant can actually make a difference.
A 2002 study found sick leave was reduced by over 60 percent when plants are present in the workplace. The study included schools with indoor plants in classrooms and staff offices. Researchers found a 37 percent reduction in coughing and 30 percent reduction in fatigue. The reduction in coughing may be due in part to increased humidity levels that plants bring due to transpiration.
In many ways, the findings aren't surprising. The EPA estimates that indoor air often contains pollution levels two to five times higher than outdoor levels. Many offices are located in new buildings that are largely sealed to the outside in the interests of energy efficiency. This can have an impact on indoor air quality, particularly if mechanical ventilation isn't used to bring fresh air in and remove stale air.
One advantage to plants is that they are certainly cost effective. If space is limited, they can even be hung from the ceiling. Some plants, such as snake plant, philodendron and peace lily, can thrive in low light. The peace lily in fact showed a strong ability to remove formaldehyde from the air in a NASA study. Many offices are likely to have formaldehyde in particle board furniture, carpeting, older insulation and glues.
Sometimes studies that seem so encouraging make me doubtful of the methods used and bias by the researchers. When I consider the effects of sick building syndrome, however, a phenomena where acute health and comfort effects arise from spending time in a particular building, it makes sense that plants would help counteract this. The off-gassing of volatile organic compounds from building materials, finishes, furniture, perfumes and more is thought to be a leading cause of sick building syndrome. Many employees don't have the ability to open windows in their offices, and air is traveling through potentially dusty ductwork and may be recirculated within the building.
Indoor plants remove a plethora of toxins from the air, many of which can cause minor symptoms from relatively low exposures. Plants also help boost indoor humidity slightly, which is beneficial in dry, climate-controlled buildings. It seems logical that providing a healthier indoor environment would solicit a different response from employees and it makes a great way to improve the triple bottom line.
Image credit: Flickr/flowerfactor
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.