Here is a good thing about the pandemic: people left their offices and found creativity, focus and high performance in the most unlikely places outside of the office. Instagram and LinkedIn are full of people who proudly showcase working outdoors – in the woods, by a river or on a mountain top. What may look like workplace anarchy to some, is actually recommended by scientists across the world. They see the massive potential to boost cognitive performance simply by working outside.
Companies and other institutions which are fortunate to be embedded in vast campuses can benefit from the positive effects of working outside, even in post-pandemic times. The World of Sports – adidas’ vast headquarter campus – holds just as much potential to install outside working areas as the University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, Germany, where I work as a professor.
Here, we are currently building an extensive open-air learning park that encourages students to work, study and relax outside of the library. We’ve invested in this because we know from our own research – and that of others – how valuable such an environment is. I sat down with Deborah Költzsch who is working on this project at our university and Stefan Unzeitig, who has been working with me to implement a similar program at adidas, to summarize the benefits and opportunities of such a program.
Together, we came up with five reasons why you should leave your desk and take your work outside:
As humans, we possess the remarkable ability to selectively focus on what we want to, such as audio, in almost any environment whether outdoors or indoors. Your brain will tune out or suppress any competing sounds that are irrelevant. When we focus in on what is being said and filter out all other stimuli, we remember more of what was said. So, when you’re outside you are practicing your ability to concentrate in any other environment.
2. Motor functions
Rhythmic movements boost your brain power. When dancing or walking, your brain processes new information more easily and can store it even longer (Boos, 2010). The active metabolism during movement brings oxygen-saturated blood to our brain and prevents fatigue (Voll & Buuck, 2005). Give it a try. Use the pathways on your campus for business conversations or to reflect on your work while you take an active break.
It is scientifically proven that learning and working outdoors has a positive effect on our motivation (Becker et al., 2017; Dettweiler et al., 2015; Sproule et al., 2013; Wang, 2014). The open-air allows for greater connection and boosts collaboration, as the more open spaces allow for more open and flexible forms of communication (Dettweiler et al., 2017). Try it out with your team and you’ll be surprised by the totally different vibe.
While people might sometimes look disengaged when walking, their brain is simultaneously completing a multitude of different cognitive processes (Raichle et al., 2001). Unconsciously – and quite incidentally – we process information, which in turn stimulates other cognitive processes related to creativity including generating new ideas (Böttger & Költzsch, 2019). It also effects our language. As a result, we show increased linguistic creativity and improved expressiveness which is good for discussions and exchanging opinions with others.
Breath in, breath out. Trees emit so called olfactory substances that are transported in moist air. While on one hand they allow trees to communicate with one another in a network-like manner, for humans, they expand our lung volume by humidifying the airways. In fact, they can help to increase cortisol levels – a stress hormone in our blood – and helps to lower our pulse rate. The muscles in our body begin to relax and our immune system is strengthened by these aromatic plant compounds. They can even help against degenerated cancer cells (Jäger et al., 2006).
Nature is your strongest mentor
As you can see, it makes sense to leave the office and work outside. Have your next meeting by the river, under some trees or just go for a walk. If your company does not yet offer these spaces, talk to HR. After all, your performance will increase, and it will improve your overall quality of life (Schneider, 2016). If you need more inspiration to get started, read about the outdoor faculty at our university (German only), or invite your HR counterpart for a brainstorming walk in the park.