Want To Be More Productive? Buy Some Desk Plants

Seriously, like yesterday. Office vegetation offers "micro-restoration"—the chance for our brains to recharge throughout the day.

Few things rouse our appreciation for nature as much as spending every day in an office. Employees with windows that overlook vegetation report themselves much more satisfied than those with a view of other buildings and sidewalks. Workers in windowless offices tend to hang pictures "dominated by nature themes," according to one scientific survey. They also have five times greater odds of buying plants to put around their workspace, according to another.

Desk plants may spruce up a place, but whether they have psychological powers in addition to visual charm is another matter. Over the course of two recent studies, a research team led by scholars from Norway tested the effect of desk plants on worker productivity. To simulate a work environment, the researchers issued an attention task that required test participants to read several sentences on a computer screen and remember the final word in each.

In the first study, published in 2011, some of the test participants performed the reading task while sitting at a basic wooden desk with nothing around it. The others did the same task at a desk surrounded by office flowers and foliage. Results of the experiment were quite clear: workers at the desk with plants improved their scores on the task the second time around; workers at the empty desk did not.

The second study, published this summer, reached similar conclusions in slightly different settings. Once again, test participants at a desk with flowers and plants showed more improvement on the attention task than those sitting at an empty desk. (Inanimate objects also improved task performance, though this might have been a statistical artifact of the dull setting.) Workers at a desk with plants and a window view had an additional cognitive boost.

Ruth K. Raanaas of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, a collaborator on both studies, says office plants may be a simple, cost-effective way to keep workers satisfied and focused. "Most people spend a large proportion of their life at work," Raanaas tells Co.Design, "so even small effects may have great practical significance when aggregated over employees and time of employment."

The new work adds to a long line of evidence tracing how the brain benefits from nature. Brief walks in the park help a person focus on a task, glimpses of trees reduce a driver's road rage, views of vegetation raise a hospital patient's spirits. These effects occur in smaller doses even when patches of nature are diluted by the built environment or broadcast on a plasma screen. Mere "pockets of green" in otherwise drab settings can enhance self-control and inhibit aggression.

By now you're probably wondering just how nature works this psychological magic. There are many ideas, but most of the research points back to a premise conceived by University of Michigan psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan called "attention restoration theory."

The gist of "attention restoration theory" is that our brains expend a lot of energy on tasks that require direct attention. This mental fatigue can only be restored when we give our direct attention a break. Sleep can do the job, but when we're awake, we can also refresh direct attention by shifting our minds to an indirect, or effortless form of engagement. Nature offers just this type of absorbing, restorative distraction.

Rachel Kaplan tells Co.Design that the "micro-restorative" impact of desk plants in the recent studies was especially impressive if you consider the brevity of each participant's interaction with nature. After all, test participants only had two short breaks between the reading tasks. "It's a very short, minimal intervention," she says. "I think that is striking."

Kaplan hopes this type of research convinces designers and employers to see desk plants as essential office supplies rather than perks or amenities reserved for senior workers. Many tiny bursts of attention restoration, accumulated during screen breaks or chats with co-workers, could add up to a great deal more focus. Desk plants might even be more refreshing than a window view, all told, because workers own them and likely feel the urge to tend them throughout the day.

"I do think the concept of micro-restoration is very useful in the office context," Kaplan says. "So if you have little moments of looking up and seeing something that brings that resource back a little bit, some of those should make a huge difference."

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  • Anastazia Refanidou

    It sounds strange and much more because the article does say how plant can be effect in our brains. I would like to believe it so much but i can't if i don't know how our brain us work with the plants. But if it is true i will full my office with plants from now.

  • Teresita Boquecosa

    Yes, I love to collect different kind of plants especially in our house to relax & feel fresh!!!

  • Menno Dévee

    We all like plants and are happy to believe the findings, however, it seems to me that the side note regarding the second mentioned study ("Inanimate objects also improved task performance") shouldn't maybe be a side note. The abstract mentions: environmental enrichment with either plants or inanimate objects at the computer workstation seemed to provide a restorative potential.

  • Simplest 3-4 plant additions are:

    1. Chrysalidocarpus lutescens - Areca palm. Good daytime transpiration.
    2. Epipremnum aureum - Golden pothos. Fast growing, oxygenating. Can be suspended or left to trail across surfaces.
    3. Sansevieria trifasciata - Mother-in-law's tongue. Easy maintenance, good for sponging up pollutants.
    4. Ficus elastica - Rubber plant. Simple maintenance and great for soaking up heavier toxins.

    Kamal Meattle popularised some of the simplicity of using just a few varieties here: http://www.ted.com/talks/kamal_meattle_on_how_to_grow_your_own_fresh_air.html

    It all followed on from Wolverton's work with NASA, developing closed system habitation potential for easy growing, multiple benefit plants. Start with the above varieties and add others as you wish in the office.

  • Dace Zuiko

    You need to buy some special lights for flowers - ask at the gardener shops. Plants need aprox. 8 hours of " sun light" - there are special warm light bulbs, like for the greenery at wintertime, which gardeners use at the wintertime, just to make longer day for plant and photosyntesis.

  • I've been a fan of plants in my office for awhile, but I love knowing the "why" behind it all. It makes it easier to justify to people who might not be as inclined to enjoy a little decorative touch.

    This also explains why I do much better after a long walk in the park!

  • Mary Walsh

    I have an inner office with no windows. Are there any plants that can survive without natural sunlight?

  • Guest

    Zamioculcas Zamio - loves indoors, being neglected and not watered too much. Good plant if you travel for work, or even take a couple weeks leave. I've had mine for 3 years and its doubled in size, and always gets comments from people when they walk past my desk.

  • Space!

    ok now tell us which are the best plants, describing functions & everything.
    Great website !

  • Jane Bright

    Imagine if decision makers prioritised desk plants the same way as they do computers - as operating expenses

  • theirmind

    Yes! In my workspace there is a pot of aquatic plants, but I still feel inadequate.

  • Johan

    Nice Post! I love this magazine and this kind of post. I´m sure nature has a lot of benefits to us.

  • The Sill

    We couldn't agree more. Adding plants to your home or office is completely transformative! Great post.

  • LindaRV

    Thank you for including Rachel Kaplan's "why" nature in the office works. Have read about this before, but the concept of restorative indirect attention is very helpful.
    I love your new Ev1d3nce posts. Keep up the great work.