The idea of bringing the outdoors into the office is not a new one. Tropical plants, soothing sounds of gently flowing water, brightly colored fish effortlessly gliding through recreated oceans are common ways of bringing a slice of nature into today’s offices. While both research and observation tells us that bringing nature inside is good, we now know that going out into nature is even better.
Adding an attractive yet functional outdoor space for employee use can seem like an impossible task -- especially in cramped urban areas already covered in concrete. Dan Nelson, Lead designer at Embassy Landscape Group, reassures his customers that even less than ideal environments can be made beautiful; the existing conditions are not insurmountable obstacles, just tantalizing puzzles to be solved..
A case in point is the project Dan completed for a manufacturer of medical ID jewelry in North Kansas City. At first glance, creating a comfortable spot for employees to gather seemed an impossible goal. The only available space was a long, narrow alleyway wedged in between two buildings. With a footprint of only about 12 feet by 100 feet, an expansive gathering area was out of the question.
Instead, Dan suggested a series of small, intimate patios, each designed a bit differently than the next.
The addition of planting beds for trees, shrubs and grasses, tropical plants, planter boxes filled with brightly colored annuals and appropriately scaled furniture turned an unused dreary slice of the property into a nature-filled place to relax and revitalize.
At the other end of the spectrum, turning huge open expanses into places that feel contained and comfortable can be a different type of challenge. Management at a North Kansas City Casino realized that their employees had difficult working conditions and they needed a way to reduce their workplace stress. Dan suggested redesigning the stark employee entrance and break areas to create a series of spaces perfect for giving employees a much needed nature break.
With a 4000 square feet area to work with, Dan was able to include a pavilion large enough for groups to gather, as well as a sprinkling of smaller settings for those who need a moment alone. Well positioned plant material combined with hardscaping that seamlessly blends with nature now welcomes employees as they arrive and gives a park-like feel to the break area that is the perfect cure for work-induced cabin fever!
For those wanting to bring the office outdoors, Dan recommends beginning the process by clarifying your goals for the outdoor area. Will this be a leisure space for rest and relaxation, an area for individual focused productivity, a spot for groups to meet or a combination of all? Do you foresee it as a strictly a day use place, or will it be available to employees in the evenings?
The next step is a site evaluation to analyze the available space relative to your goals. How large is the area? Will the space work for what you envision, or do you need to rethink your goals? Are there features like grade changes or existing walls or plantings that can work to your advantage? Is there space to add paths for walking or jogging?
Making the space user friendly is crucial to its success. Protection from the elements is a must for a functional outdoor office space. Pergolas, gazebos, canopies or even shade sails can help reduce glare, regulate temperatures and, at least temporarily, slow the onslaught of a pop-up shower. Fans help move air and today’s gentle misters help regulate body temperatures without drowning everyone and everything around them. Adding outdoor heating units can dramatically extend the seasonality of the space. Fireplaces and firepits, while providing warmth, also create a comfortable atmosphere conducive to collaboration.
Solitude can be important to both productive work and to reducing workplace stress. Strategic placement of plant materials, water features or hardscaping can not only provide a sense of privacy, but can also help to block distracting street noises in busy urban settings.
Connectivity is essential to today’s workers, whether they are immersed in projects or enjoying a few moments of down time. For outdoor offices, reliable high speed WiFi, wireless docking stations and adequate electrical outlets keep the workflow moving and the workforce happy. Outdoor televisions can become an essential tool for outdoor meetings; imagine the impact of projecting your computer screen to a big-screen tv .
Outfitting the space with comfortable but versatile furniture gives employees the freedom to use the space for a variety of purposes. Groups can come together at a conference sized table that later breaks apart for individual seating. Including a few tall tables lets people stand to work -- a welcome change from sitting at a desk all day!
While all of these amenities are important in helping to create a functional outdoor employee space, Dan brings the conversation back around to what is essential — the opportunity to spend time in nature. Regardless of the size or the purpose or the amenities of a project, the time spent connecting with the natural world is what truly benefits your employees. Give them room to work and play outdoors and you will all be better for it.