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Let there be light: the benefits of a natural workplace

How do you keep employees happy? A generous salary? A “casual Fridays” policy? New research suggests it could be as simple as giving them access to natural light.

Fluorescent lighting offers a cheap and durable lighting source but nothing can replace the benefits of natural sunshine.

Exposure to sunlight regulates our day-to-night cycle, known as the circadian rhythm. As such too much time in artificial environments can have detrimental effects on employees including: sleep disruption, interference with creativity, and an increased chance of illness. Add in the incessant flickering of fluorescent lights and you’ve got yourself a real headache (literally)!

Many companies bend over backwards to offer flashy fitness centres, ping-pong tables and bring-your-dog-to-work initiatives. But a recent study conducted by Future Workplace found access to natural light and views of the outdoors to be the highest ranked workplace perk.

You might not be able to offer your employees the world, but you can offer them a window.

Shedding light on the benefits

The expert behind the study, Jeanne C. Meister, said in the Harvard Business Review: “Over a third of employees feel that they don’t get enough natural light in their workspace. Forty-seven per cent of employees admit they feel tired or very tired from the absence of natural light or a window at their office, and 43 per cent report feeling gloomy because of the lack of light.”

Meister pointed to other studies that supported the conclusion. “Research by Cornell University Professor Dr. Alan Hedge reinforces the connection of natural light and employee wellbeing. Dr. Hedge’s recent research study found optimisation of natural light in an office significantly improves health and wellness among workers. In fact, this research revealed that workers in daylight office environments reported a 51 per cent drop in the incidence of eyestrain, a 63 per cent drop in the incidence of headaches and a 56 per cent reduction in drowsiness.”

Another study, conducted at Shanghai Tongji University, showed that sunlight has a significant positive effect on job satisfaction, employee retention, and general wellbeing. A view of environmental features such as trees, plants and other vegetation were also found to reverse the negative impacts of job stress.

Reducing stress tends to result in improved emotional functioning and can strengthen social relationships in the workforce. Increases to productivity and employee fulfilment can also decrease absenteeism and improve overall performance. When the benefits are overwhelmingly positive for both the employee and the business as a whole, it’s a no brainer.

But why are there such benefits to natural environments? Co-founder of environment consultancy Terrapin Bright Green Bill Browning suggests that it’s because humans have biophilia – an inherent need to be connected with nature.

Who’s doing it best?

With a proven ability in preventing mental fatigue and stress, many Australian businesses are cracking open a window and getting more greenery into their offices.

Australian software firm Atlassian took an innovative approach when designing their Sydney CBD office –  which was built to meet the eclectic needs of their staff. Complete with wrap-around windows and green ceilings, staff are free to move furniture (and themselves) around the office without restriction as everything is on wheels with accessible outlets scattered throughout the space.

A number of organisations, including KPMG and Westpac, are enjoying a similarly flexible approach in their Barangaroo developments. Most have opted to abandon the typical hierarchy of corner offices in favour of shared workspaces overlooking Sydney Harbour. That view definitely beats staring at the back of your colleague’s head.

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Jennifer Howe
Jennifer Howe

I couldn’t agree more what a difference natural light makes. If budget doesn’t allow a new office fitout, enabling flexible work where people can work for periods of time in other locations, e.g. at home on the back deck or on a park bench is a good option.

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