Research conducted by the ESSEC Chair for Real Estate and Sustainable Development sheds new light on the importance of green spaces and biodiversity in the business sphere.
Today, it’s widely accepted that work space layout can impact the productivity and wellbeing of employees. Indeed, a growing body of both quantitative and qualitative studies have illustrated this point: from the employee’s perspective, studies have shown that workspace is increasingly seen as an essential contributor to quality of life at the office. The study My Office of Tomorrow, conducted in 2013 by the ESSEC Real Estate and Sustainable Development Chair, has furthermore shown that some 40% of students would be willing to turn down a job offer if work environments failed to meet their expectations.
However, work space planning brings many different factors into play: but while some of these factors have been closely examined by researchers, others have not. On the one hand, experts have focused a great deal of their attention on the impact of co-working spaces and open-plan offices, as well as examined the value of horizontally structured firms aimed at reducing the physical distance between hierarchical layers. On the other hand, the impact of nature and biodiversity on team performance has been subject to comparatively little research. That said, the idea that the latter could play important roles within firms is no longer such a far-fetched idea: depending on how well a space lends itself to it, greening projects can have an important impact on a firm’s brand image and attractiveness.
Workplace initiatives: so far green - but growing
Until now, “greening” the workplace has often been reduced to its simplest form – a few ferns within offices, a bouquet of flowers at reception, and maybe a small lawned area out front. Meanwhile, the reasons and ways to incorporate more nature into real estate projects are multiplying. First and foremost, research has shown that even just a simple view with a few trees can increase feelings of wellbeing at work. A view can even have a direct impact on health: in 1984, Roger Ulrich showed that, in a hospital, patients enjoyed shorter convalescent periods if they had a view of nature from their hospital beds. More surprisingly, one study found that wooden office furniture, or even furniture that simply reminds one of nature (chairs that look like leaves, for example), can have a positive impact on the wellbeing of employees.
That said, physical access to nature has extra added value and offers a real lever for improvement for those companies whose green spaces are currently more symbolic, like an inaccessible patch of grass near the front entrance or in an interior patio. Campus-style offices, by virtue of their horizontal structure and proximity to large landscaped areas, offer important opportunities along these lines. Indeed, these campus-style firms are free to consider the possibility of giving employees access to green spaces not only for relaxation purposes, but also for work-related purposes, thanks in part to the digital revolution.
Businesses: a question of planting the seeds
But the challenge is also for companies to become aware of their possible contribution to the greening of cities, especially within the world’s major business hubs whose density can impede other greening initiatives. Indeed, the survey My City of Tomorrow, conducted by the Chair in 2014, showed that 42% of students would be willing to turn down employment in a city where nature is not present enough. In addition, some workspace design professionals are trying to bring nature into office spaces. Take for example the landscaping firm Jardins de Gally, which has developed the concept of the fertile office (bureau fertile) by designing furniture items featuring plants, small ponds, and even trees.
The subject of biodiversity has been even less visible from a business perspective, viewed by firms as being too far removed from their day to day activities. That said, ensuring the diversity of plant species creates value both in terms of sustainability, and in terms of attractiveness, even if employees have no particular interest in biodiversity.
This recreation of natural ecosystems within corporate green spaces can also have an educational dimension with the help of a few information panels. Forward-thinking firms have even invited employees to participate in the management of vegetated areas and share in the harvest (honey, fruit trees, herbs, etc.). This type of participative approach can greatly increase an employees' sense of belonging within a firm. It also gives employees a greater sense of responsibility, where their personal and professional lives overlap.
Obviously, “greening” potential varies, depending on the type of company in question, as well as the spaces at its disposal. It is important to note, however, that greening is never impossible, even for firms located within dense urban environments or built on small parcels of land. In addition to interior spaces, roofs have a significant potential which is almost always undervalued. Two-thirds of students in the survey My City of Tomorrow were receptive to such practice, even though the green roof, as a concept, is still in its infancy. Initiatives like these offer smart solutions to the problematic question of greening the densest cities. Furthermore, they can become an innovative element of a firm’s CSR policy. Finally, when green roofs are made accessible to employees, they can also contribute to wellbeing. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that employee access usually impacts the technical and economic aspects of the project, for obvious safety reasons.
Nature and biodiversity therefore have a key role to play within corporate real estate. By investing in green spaces around offices, on their roofs, as well as within the workspaces themselves, firms are directly contributing to employee wellbeing and productivity. Companies have a real incentive to take action and impact both their sustainability and attractiveness.
Singapore, a model green city in Asia?
If one can speak of the emergence of a global revegetation process for large cities, some regions are further ahead than others. Asia in particular is complex in this regard because its cities include both pioneering hubs of sustainability, and heavily polluted mega-cities. It’s no surprise that only 0.1% of students interviewed for the study My City of Tomorrow would dream of living in Shanghai or Beijing. Singapore (0.8%) and Tokyo. (1.7%) were slightly more attractive, but by no means popular choices. Indeed, Chinese cities are regularly the subject of negative media attention because of their astronomical pollution levels. In a country that once dreamed of building a modern and harmonious society, their urban development model has now reached a deadlocked.
Even as smart city projects multiply in the region, none are truly compelling – and some have already been abandoned and turned into ghost towns. This is worrisome considering that their aim was to attract both business and talent. However, one shining example of success is Singapore, which is trying to establish itself as the model green and sustainable city in Asia. Because of its extreme density and despite the scarcity of available land, this city-state has established itself in recent years as the model green city. Many projects have been launched to develop vertical biodiversity and urban agriculture, which has earned it the handle the “garden city”. Today, Singapore is recognized as one of the most desirable cities in which to live – ranked in 2015 as 1st in Asia and 26th globally by the consulting firm Mercer.
Today, Singapore continues to lead innovative projects and impose voluntary regulations so that green spaces occupy an increasingly important place within the city. In 2011, the city launched its “A city in a garden” initiative, which added to measures taken back in the 1960s. Today, two flagship projects are particularly well publicized. The first, called “Sky Greens” (the name of a company specializing in food technology) consists of 120 “towers” of urban agriculture, inaugurated in October 2012. This project consists of nine-meter high aluminum greenhouse structures which grow lettuce, spinach and cabbage. The devices, which have never been used before, have garnered a lot of positive attention for their high productivity and low water consumption: an impressive 500 kg of vegetables per day at “cruising speed”. The second, called “Gardens by the Bay”, was inaugurated in June 2012 and focuses on the district of Marina Bay at the mouth of the Singapore River. Here, 100 hectares of land have been set aside, where the plan is to combine ecology and entertainment, thanks to two major attractions: two gigantic glass domes housing two iconic ecosystems of biodiversity, and twelve “Supertrees” – futuristic artificial trees inspired by tropical species.
New laws also contribute to greening the city-state. For example, any real estate project must include a certain number of square meters of green space, usually equivalent to the footprint of the project. Renovations also fall under this law, and consequently green spaces are multiplying exponentially. Singapore is a business hub, with innumerable office towers. Therefore, there is no doubt of the government’s commitment to greening their city – a commitment which will ultimately have a positive impact on the wellbeing of local populations, as well as the global environment.