Most of the lavish, out-there Silicon Valley perks — not the generous vacation or parental leave policies, but the really crazy listicle fodder that makes you roll your eyes even as it inspires tiny pangs of jealousy — seem to fall into two categories. On the one hand, there are the things that transform an office into a sort of grown-up carnival, like nap pods, massages, and free-flowing booze. And on the other hand, there are the things that make a work space seem like an actual carnival, for actual children: Google has a ball pit. Zynga has a lounge stuffed with Nintendos and PlayStations. Facebook has an arcade and a free candy shop.
And as the New York Times reported yesterday, Amazon’s new headquarters in downtown Seattle will include what may the ultimate if-kids-designed-an-office feature: tree houses. The new office buildings, according to the Times, will be constructed around three “transparent, conjoined structures” called spheres, a group of “high-tech greenhouses” that provide employees with the option to switch up their scenery during the day; the tree houses will function as meeting rooms. “The whole idea was to get people to think more creatively, maybe come up with a new idea they wouldn’t have if they were just in their office,” Dale Alberda, the project’s lead architect, told the Times. “Amazon said, ‘Make this fun.’”
The fun, though, is secondary to a more important purpose: giving workers a chance to connect with nature during the workday. “When they open in early 2018,” the Times article notes, “the spheres will be packed with a plant collection worthy of top-notch conservatories, allowing Amazon employees to amble through tree canopies three stories off the ground, meet with colleagues in rooms with walls made from vines and eat kale Caesar salads next to an indoor creek.”
Beneath the layer of Silicon Valley silliness — Amazon apparently has a horticulturist on staff, because of course it does — the company is on to something: Research has shown time and time again that just being around greenery can make employees happier, sharper, and more productive. In one 2008 study, for instance, people who spent an hour hanging out in nature saw their short-term memories improve by up to 20 percent.
But for those whose schedules are too crammed for midday outdoor strolls, bringing pieces of the natural world indoors has its own benefits: A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that adding plants to a work space could increase worker productivity by as much as 15 percent. Employees who could see plants from their desks also reported feeling more focused and more satisfied with their jobs than their colleagues in green-free offices.
The effect is the result of a few different things happening at once. For one thing, plants help improve the quality of air inside a building, giving off oxygen, lowering carbon dioxide levels, and absorbing harmful chemicals. In a 2015 experiment, Harvard researchers found that employees working in “green” buildings — well-ventilated, energy-efficient environments with low carbon dioxide — did better on cognitive tasks, particularly in assignments that require strategy or crisis response.
There’s also the aesthetic factor. Ruth Kjærsti Raanaas, a public-health researcher at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, told Reuters in an article about the Experimental Psychology study that plants “do not demand effort to attract our attention,” meaning that just being in their presence can leave us feeling calmer and less mentally taxed. And having green stuff around just makes a place look nicer, plain and simple — which, in turn, “can contribute to satisfaction with the environment and well-being and a feeling of being taken care of by the leaders,” she said.
And some psychologists argue that the mere suggestion of nature — like viewing images of trees — can produce some of the same effects, a phenomenon called “nearby nature.” Which means, if you’re lucky enough to have an office with a view of greenery, that it might be a good idea to get up from your desk every so often — or climb out of your ball pit, or put down the PlayStation controller — and take a look outside.