Should you make it a point to have more plants in your office? A new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that the mere presence of plants in a workplace makes workers more productive.
But is it true? Will going out and getting a plant for your desk make you better at your job? Here's our look at the evidence.
The evidence for
Previously, a handful of small studies by other researchers had looked at the effect of plants on worker productivity. They arrived at inconsistent results, with some finding that plants had a positive impact, others a negative one, and still others finding that the presence of plants had no apparent effect.
But the research team behind this new study, led by Marlon Nieuwenhuis of Cardiff University, found one problem across most of the previous work: it involved plants put into computer labs set up specifically for the experiments. They argue that these settings fail to replicate an authentic office environment, so their findings about office productivity probably don't translate to the real world.
To fix this problem, the researchers went to the open-plan office of a London consulting group and filled part of it with plants. 17 workers stayed in the "lean" (plantless) part of the office, and 16 got to work in the plant-filled part, with enough plants so that each person could see at least three from his or her desk.
For several consecutive days, at some point during the working day, the two groups of workers performed simulated work tasks (sorting memos and answering questions about them, as well as proofreading a magazine article). When these tasks were graded, the researchers found that those in the plant-filled area completed the tasks 15 percent more quickly and accurately than the others.
Additionally, the researchers conducted a few experiments at other offices for the same study, and they made some other positive findings. Another office of British consultants' self-reported productivity (as gleaned from survey responses) increased when plants were present. And in both offices — as well as a Dutch health insurance company's call center — workers reported higher levels of satisfaction with their office environment when plants were present.
There's also hard data showing a possible mechanism through which plants might increase productivity. Many experiments have demonstrated that houseplants can remove several forms of indoor air pollution — including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — from indoor environments. And other work has indicated that the high levels of VOCs found in many offices and classrooms can detrimentally affect decision-making and concentration.
The evidence against
There are some things to consider before getting too excited about this finding. The most important is that it was an extremely small study, so random variation between individual workers' baseline productivity could easily account for the effect observed. Even though the idea makes some sense, we still don't have great evidence that plants actually made the workers more productive.
Additionally, in the Dutch call center, the researchers tracked productivity in actual work, rather than simulated work. And when they did so, they found that the presence of plants had no significant effect on productivity.
Unfortunately, there's in this Dutch study too — productivity was measured in terms of the average time each call took a worker to do. The company later admitted that this may be a poor measure, since it can reward a worker for simply getting off the phone with a customer as quickly as possible, instead of helping him or her.
So should you put a plant on your desk?
On the whole, the evidence here is somewhat mixed and very limited. But on the whole, it probably doesn't hurt to go out and buy a houseplant for your desk.
After all, there might well be benefits, and there are virtually no costs — beyond a few dollars for the plant itself and a few minutes every so often to water it. This isn't like trying an experimental drug or an expensive weight-loss treatment.
Besides, even if the plant doesn't make you more productive, other studies have suggested that people have lower stress levels when their workplaces include a bit of nature — whether it's a view of the outdoors or a houseplant. So even if you don't get any more work done, buying a plant may well make you a little happier.