Bring the Outdoors into Your Hybrid Work Routine

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The pandemic has contributed to work-related stress, but it has also prompted employers to explore non-traditional ways of structuring work and managing employees. One benefit employers and employees may have overlooked is how remote and hybrid work can help them take advantage of the restorative and motivational power of nature. A growing body of research reveals that spending time in nature has many benefits for mental and physical health. The author presents three ways for managers to take advantage of hybrid and remote work to help their employees better access and benefit from nature.

Covid-19 and our efforts to combat it have caused a great deal of stress. According to the American Psychological Association, in 2020, nearly 8 in 10 American adults indicated that the pandemic was a significant source of stress in their lives. Even before these additional pressures, work-related stress had been increasing for decades in the United States. However, by accelerating the rise of hybrid and remote work, the pandemic has also given business leaders new opportunities to help their employees better access a major resource for stress management: nature. And the benefits of nature extend far beyond psychological well-being. Spending time in nature can also help employees be more inspired, creative, and socially connected at work.

Many people want to break from the traditional in-person, highly structured, five-day-a-week model of work. According to Prudential’s Pulse of the American Worker Survey, 87% of Americans who have been working remotely during the pandemic want to continue doing so at least one day a week, and 68% view a hybrid working arrangement as ideal.

We know that these alternative working models provide greater flexibility, reduced commuting time, and better work-life balance. But one benefit employers and employees may have overlooked is how remote and hybrid work can help them take advantage of the restorative and motivational power of nature.

A growing body of research reveals that spending time in nature has many benefits for mental and physical health. Building on previous work, a recent international study of over 16,000 individuals across 18 nations found that the more people had visited green, inland-blue, and coastal-blue spaces in the preceding four weeks, the greater their positive well-being and the lower their mental distress. And yet people are becoming increasingly disconnected from nature. For instance, according to research conducted by the Outdoor Foundation, Americans went on one billion fewer outdoor outings in 2018 than they did in 2008.

People often blame television, video games, and other electronic devices for our growing disconnectedness from nature. Indeed, research finds that Americans have been steadily increasing the amount of leisure time they spend in front of screens and decreasing the amount of leisure time they spend outside. However, work is also a big part of the story. A 2019 survey from the APM Research Lab found that Americans view their jobs as the biggest barrier to spending more time outdoors, with nearly one-third of respondents indicating that work-related obligations prevented them from spending more time in nature. In addition, most modern jobs are not only indoors, but they’re also sedentary. Here are three ways managers can take advantage of hybrid and remote work to help their employees better access and benefit from nature.

Be flexible about the structure of the workday

The traditional workday can be an impediment to enjoying the outdoors. Indoor environments are easily controlled thanks to modern technology, but when it comes to getting outside, to some extent, people are at the mercy of nature. Depending on geography and seasonal changes, the ideal time to be outside is when many workers are expected to be inside at their desks.

If the workday is viewed more flexibly and employees are given the opportunity to restructure their schedules seasonally or based on other relevant factors, they may be more inclined to take advantage of the best times to get outdoors. For example, during colder months with shorter days, workers may be more inspired to engage in outdoor activities if they’re able to divide the workday with a long midday break. Depending on region, workers may also benefit from being allowed to start their workdays earlier or later in the day in order to get outdoors before or after work.

Exercising outdoors is a great way to combine the benefits of physical fitness with time in nature. A number of studies suggest that exercising outdoors improves psychological well-being more than exercising indoors. And even light outdoor exercise like taking a walk in a park has distinct psychological benefits. For example, research finds that walking in nature improves mood more than walking on a treadmill in a gym. But a non-flexible workday may decrease the likelihood that employees will go outside for physical fitness. In addition to factors such as weather that can affect the desirability of exercising outdoors, people have different preferences for when to work out. A YouGovAmerica survey found that among U.S. adults who exercise at a preferred time, 50% prefer morning, 26% prefer evening, and 19% prefer the afternoon. The more workers can take advantage of their preferred time to exercise and the best time to be outside, the more motivated they may be to engage in outdoor fitness activities.

A flexible workday can also give parents the opportunity to walk their kids to and from school or to volunteer to help with field trips, afterschool sports, or other activities that get both parents and children outside. Again, the key is recognizing that the more freedom workers have to structure their work schedules, the more opportunities they’ll have to reap the benefits of nature.

Prevent the “always at work” culture

Technology has made hybrid and remote work possible and has in many ways made it easier for busy professionals to spend time outdoors. For example, because I have a smartphone that allows me to check and respond to time-sensitive emails, I often take walks during the workday when I think a little movement, fresh air, and sunshine might help me think about a problem I’m working on or just give me a little energy boost. In other words, technology can make work more mobile, giving people the chance to break away, even if only briefly, from the confines of the indoor office.

However, the smartphone can also be a barrier to unplugging from the work-related activities that cause stress and fatigue and taking full advantage of the restorative power of nature. In fact, there is some evidence that the move to remote work during the pandemic actually increased the number of hours people are working.

Even before the pandemic, technology was increasingly making it harder for employees to truly separate work from personal time. For example, 66% of Americans have reported working even when they’re on vacation. Managers are contributing to the problem. One survey found that over 80% of managers indicate that they would contact a subordinate after hours and that email and text messaging are the most common methods they would use. Research finds that the “always on” modern work culture both harms well-being and increases intentions to leave a job because it creates an expectation to monitor and respond to email outside of work hours.

In short, modern technology is making it both easier and harder for workers to take advantage of nature. The same electronic device that can give workers more mobility can also make it harder for them to detach from work. When thinking about how technology affects work, business leaders and managers should carefully consider both the pros and cons of any specific policy or workplace norm that involves devices that connect their employees to their jobs.

Keep in mind that one-size-fits-all rules may do more harm than good. For example, some companies have adopted policies that ban email after normal work hours. Though such a policy might sound attractive because it creates a digital barrier to work communication at specific times, it may undermine efforts to create and sustain a flexible work model that allows employees to determine which work schedules work best for their specific situations. A better approach might be to focus on building an organizational culture that values employees’ freedom to control their own schedules but also sets clear and fair expectations for work productivity and team contributions — regardless of when the work gets done or how team meetings and activities are organized.

Educate and lead by example

Of course, even if a business offers the optimal work conditions for employees to spend more time in nature, many workers may not opt to do so for a variety of reasons, including a lack of knowledge about the numerous benefits of spending time outdoors. Business leaders who want to promote nature as a stress management and motivational resource should consider ways to educate their employees and lead by example.

Companies spend millions of dollars on employee well-being programs because leaders recognize that good psychological health helps their workers be less stressed, more satisfied with their jobs, more energized, more creative, and more socially engaged. Companies could similarly benefit from dedicating resources to promoting nature as a well-being resource. For example, leaders could invite experts to company meetings or retreats to give presentations on the growing body of research linking time in nature to human flourishing, develop relevant informational materials for employees, and create a company platform for employees to share stories, photos, and resources that help cultivate a nature-oriented organizational culture.

Finally, managers can also lead by example by demonstrating to their team members that they themselves utilize nature as a resource for stress management and motivation. Employees may be more motivated to use the freedom hybrid and remote work offers to spend more time in nature if they see that others, including their managers, are doing so and finding it beneficial.

The pandemic has contributed to work-related stress, but it has also prompted employers to explore non-traditional ways of structuring work and managing employees. Technological advances and an increased desire among many Americans to achieve better work-life balance have also pushed employers to be more open to remote and hybrid work models. The more business leaders and their workers fully understand and are able to take advantage of the stress-management and motivational resources these models support, the more businesses and workers will benefit from adopting them.

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