Can plants really make a difference in a modern office? Many people swear they enhance mental and physical health, induce creativity and boost productivity, and there are studies to prove at least some of it. Other people simply think they look pretty – and that’s more than enough reason. Is it worth introducing plants into your office space? We take a look at the evidence, and also give some suggestions for plants that will thrive in an office environment.

Who needs minimalism?

If we look at offices through the ages, an unmistakable trend emerges. With each passing generation, they get more minimalist. This is partly influenced by technology – the amount of storage furniture needed has been reduced dramatically by digital storage. But it’s also driven by fashion. Virtually everything, from architecture to cars, has become sleeker, straighter and simpler over the past 40 to 50 years.

Unfortunately, the minimalist office can sometimes be taken a little too far. The urge to maintain the straight lines and open spaces that minimalism demands can lead to sterile spaces. If you can’t do a complete re-design of your office, there’s another simple solution with a host of benefits: plants.

Psychological benefits

Simply introducing a few pot plants to any office or desk has a profound psychological effect on those who work or visit there. They can bring calmness and a sense of balance that can be the missing ingredient for rational thought, creativity and harmony. And if this all sounds a bit pie in the sky to you, it’s actually the conclusion of a 2014 University of Exeter study that compared offices with and without plants over 10 years. The study even put a figure of 15% on the increase of productivity between the “green” and the “lean” offices.

There’s also the colour factor. Ask any designer or marketing expert if colours influence people and they’ll be in no doubt. There’s a reason “buy now” buttons are often green; it’s considered a proactive, trustworthy colour. Red promotes vibrancy, strength and appetite. Orange is fun. Yellow is warm. Most offices are drab greys and off-whites, so adding a splash of colour can be a real mood booster

When you consider that you spend 40 hours a week in an office (probably bookended by an hour’s commute each way), the penny drops. You’re spending about as much time at work as you do at home, so why not make your workspace a more comfortable and homely place to be?

The Biophilia Hypothesis

There’s a theory that humans actively seek out connections with nature, known as “the biophilia hypothesis”. It attempts to explain why we feel a sense of wellness when we’re in forests, next to babbling brooks, out in the mountains or with our feet in the sea. If you consider that our ancient ancestors wouldn’t have survived for long without water and vegetation, it certainly makes sense at a deep psychological level. It would also explain why offices with plants can promote a feeling of security, letting us concern ourselves with the actual work, as the Exeter study mentioned earlier showed. Are you ready for an eco-office? Check out this blog.

A healthier working environment?

Another argument you hear in favour of planted offices is that plants actually suck up toxins and carbon dioxide from the environment. There’s no doubt that plants suck up CO₂ and give out oxygen – they all do – but the amounts are tiny and unlikely to make much difference in the wider scheme of things.

There is some evidence (supported by NASA, no less) to suggest that plants in an office can actually reduce the number of sick days employees take. It could be partly down to their toxin-stripping properties, but more research is needed — it’s hard to imagine a few pot plants making much of a difference in a well-ventilated office. Not having sources of toxins in the first place would be far preferable. 

All things considered, the physical health benefits of having plants in an office could be slight, but there’s much more evidence to point to mental health benefits.

Breaking the echo chamber

If you’re in a room with flat walls, smooth floors and lots of parallel surfaces, you’ll notice that it can be quite echoey. It’s all because sound waves stay together when they hit flat surfaces, but get absorbed and dispersed on rough, furry or uneven surfaces. Carpets absorb some sound, but not every office has them. So why not include some large, leafy plants? They’ll do a decent job of deadening the sound, making the office a calmer, quieter place to work.

Which are the best office plants?

So, you’re convinced of the benefits and have decided that you want to bring some greenery into the office. But now you have another problem: which plants do you choose? Let’s start by eliminating the ones that aren’t suitable.

  • Most offices tend not to get direct sunlight, and if they do, the blinds will be closed, so sun-loving plants won’t do.
  • Plants that need watering every day probably aren’t a good idea. Not only do they get forgotten; they will probably remain unwatered on Saturdays, Sundays and bank holidays.
  • Fragile plants will almost certainly get broken.
  • Flowers that require regular dead-heading will need a solid maintenance regime, as dying plants are not a good look.
  • Spiky, thorny and poisonous plants would probably fall foul of health and safety regulations.

We’ll finish off with a few suggestions for good office plants. But ask at your local garden centre and they’ll give you plenty of inspiration.

Peace lily (Spathiphyllum)

One of the most popular indoor plants, the peace lily features copious green leaves and beautiful white flowers.

Philodendron

This is a whole family of green, leafy plants that thrive with very little maintenance, making them a popular choice for office spaces.

Viper’s bowstring hemp

Also known as snake plants, these tall, tongue-shaped plants have mottled dark and light green patterns, and look striking without using up too much space as they grow vertically.

Aloe 

Happy indoors or out, aloe has a calming, smooth shape and will thrive with the smallest amount of maintenance.

Spider plant

As the name suggests, the main feature of a spider plant is its numerous thin, pale green leaves that spread out in all directions. They can take up a square metre or so, however.

Bromeliad

These are tropical plants with a nest of green, succulent leaves surrounding the main flower that blooms in red, orange or pink. They can require a bit of looking after when they’re young, but once they are established they’ll get by with a small amount of pruning and watering.

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