Plants at Aurecon's 5 Star Green Star Perth office

Plants make staff happier and boost productivity by 15 per cent, the first study to assess the long-term impacts of plants on office workers has found, contradicting notions that “lean” office spaces are more productive.

The study, co-authored by Professor Alex Haslam from the University of Queensland’s School of Psychology, found that adding plants to an office also improved employee satisfaction and quality of life.

Professor Haslam said a “green” office helped employees be more physically, mentally and emotionally involved in their work.

“Office landscaping helps the workplace become a more enjoyable, comfortable and profitable place to be,” he said.

“It appears that in part this is because a green office communicates to employees that their employer cares about them and their welfare.”

The study, which also involved researchers from Cardiff University and the University of Exeter in the UK, and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, examined the impact of “lean” versus “green” office spaces on employees from two large commercial offices in the UK and the Netherlands.

“Employees from previously lean office environments experienced increased levels of happiness, resulting in a more effective workplace,” Professor Haslam said.

The team monitored productivity over a two-month period, and employees were surveyed to determine perceptions of air quality, concentration and workplace satisfaction.

“Employees were more satisfied with their workplace and reported increased concentration levels and better perceived air quality in an office with plants,” Professor Haslam said.

“The findings suggest that investing in landscaping an office will pay off through an increase in office workers’ quality of life and productivity.”

Green trumps lean philosophy

Professor Haslam said the findings challenged modern business philosophies that suggested “lean” offices – ones which adopt a minimalist approach with limited peripheral distractors like plants and photos – were more productive.

“The ‘lean’ philosophy has been influential across a wide range of organisational domains,” he said.

“Modern offices and desks have been stripped back to create sparse spaces. Our findings question this widespread theory that less is more – sometimes less is just less.”

An article published last year on IDR Sustainable Workplace also took aim at the lean office phenomenon, decrying the lack of research supporting such an office environment.

“If you put any animal into a lean space — be it a grasshopper or a gibbon — it suffers stress, can develop stereotypes, will withdraw or become agitated,” author Craig Knight wrote. “All research indicates that humans are no different. We not only prefer an enriched environment but perform better within one.”

Dr Dominique Hes, senior lecturer in sustainable architecture at the University of Melbourne, earlier this year told The Fifth Estate there was insufficient evidence to support lean offices.

“We are making decisions such as lean environments that are not backed by research and are actually counter to the actual research out there that shows that people need stimulation, different environments, the need to connect to their place [of] work through personalising, [the] need to have nature and a level of freedom to be messy or neat,” Dr Hes said.

The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.