Nature at Work
For the past 23 years, the Prouty Project in Minneapolis has incorporated outdoor activities and interaction with nature into the strategic planning, leadership team development and board member work they do with their clients. Whether it is through ropes courses, search-and-rescue simulations, equine-assisted facilitation, or their annual STRETCH expedition—the Prouty Project Chairman/Founder Jeff Prouty and his team believe that interaction with the natural world is a fundamental laboratory for corporate learning.
They are not alone. More and more companies are incorporating various aspects of nature into their work environment to improve employee morale, boost productivity and jump-start innovative thinking.
“We are natural creatures,” says Peter Bailey, senior vice president at the Prouty Project. “The more we divorce ourselves from our natural world, the less in touch we become with our true natures as intuitive, associative beings. If we lose our ability to intuit and to associate, then we are limiting our ability to make good decisions. If we don’t make good decisions, then we are not serving our companies well.”
Melding nature with work is a critical idea that is slowly catching on. Today, more plants and solariums are integrated in corporate atriums and lunchrooms. Employees are taking more walking lunches. Conference centers are creating walking labyrinths on hilltop meadows. Hospitals have incorporated nature into their environment and treatment plans.
“The business world seems to have replaced face-to-face communication with face-to-screen communication,” Bailey says. “This is significant, and I fear it will impact how people negotiate and communicate with each other.”
Whether they are an international pharmaceutical firm problem-solving on speed boats on Lake Minnetonka or searching for natural clues off the beaches and botanical gardens of Monterey, Calif., the team at the Prouty Project tries to immerse their clients into deep contact with the natural world.
Analogies Between Two Worlds
Recently Bailey was working with a team of district sales managers for a large medical device company. “We chose to use horses as co-facilitators that day to reinforce key learning messages for district managers (DMs) working with their sales representatives,” Bailey says. “One DM was trying to lead a horse forward by pulling on the halter. The horse didn’t budge. He was getting frustrated and complained to me that he couldn’t get the horse to go in the direction he wanted.
“I asked him a simple question: ‘Which way are you facing?’ He said, ‘At the horse.’ And I asked, ‘Which way do you want the horse to go?’ A slow smile replaced the look of frustration as he pointed to the far side of the arena and said, ‘That way!’ He changed his body posture, set his eyes and face towards the far side and calmly led the horse forward.
“He reflected that this was exactly what he did with his reps—focus on them and what they were not doing, rather than on the direction he wanted them to go, and supported positive ways to help them get there.”
Taking it Outdoors
More companies are establishing outdoor space to encourage the human-nature connection. Office parks are being designed with walking paths, fountain and water spaces, and other interesting visual spaces to encourage employee discovery and curiosity.
Tanya K. Bailey, licensed social worker at the Natural Connections Learning Center in St. Paul, says that for many people, work time is no longer a set 9-to-5 space in a day, as the majority of working people find their entire day has become a blending of numerous personal, family, social and professional responsibilities. “When there is disharmony in one aspect of a person’s life, it will impact all other areas, and so it behooves companies to recognize this reality and support a full system of human well-being, of which nature plays a critical role and can be one of the highest returns on the investment made,” she says.
Of course, companies looking into incorporating more natural elements into their surroundings or their operations don’t need to go so far as equine therapy or labyrinth walking paths. Rather, Jean Larson, manager of nature-based therapeutic services at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and assistant professor at the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota, says simple tactics such as providing raised-bed gardens for staff to grow their own vegetables and tend to them during their lunch breaks, or birds and fish aquariums offer distractions from executive functions and can restore and rejuvenate their mind, body and spirit.
“The health results are clearly established when one can get at least 30 minutes of exercise in per day, and this value is often promoted and supported by many businesses when they are able to be located in such nature-focused complexes,” Tanya Bailey says. “Furthermore, these nature spaces often provide quiet reflection, eating spaces, and invite interactions with local wildlife—such as a turkey hen hatching and raising her keets.” These element provide the “nature breaks” the body and brain needs to stay productive and functioning.
“The last vestiges of the Industrial Revolution keep us tied to business concepts like ROI—return on investment,” Peter Bailey says. “This is a narrow measurement for the value that experiences in the natural world can have for us today. I am hopeful that more and more company executives will see ROI as “return on inspiration” and seek to incorporate more learning in the natural environment as a means to re-inspire, re-invigorate and revitalize a beleaguered work force.”