Outdoor Workspace: The Next Workplace Frontier

05/18/2015 11:42 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016

If you could take a vacation to anywhere in the world, where would you go?

This is how Kirt Martin, VP of Design and Marketing for Landscape Forms, starts every conversation. Not surprisingly, nearly everyone answers somewhere outdoors. "There is something that connects us on a deep level with the outdoor experience. Whatever it is, must be really quite critical," says Martin.

When we want to feel refreshed, inspired, and renewed, we turn to nature, but according to the USGBC, people in the U.S. now spend on average 90 percent of their time indoors and much of that time is no doubt at work. So if we are looking for workers to feel refreshed and inspired at work, why is this space not leveraged more?

Why Outside is the New Workplace Frontier

While the industry has spent years trying to bring the outside indoors, it seems that we are at a crossroads where sustainability and "active design" are converging to turn the attention of interior designers to the "new" outdoor workspace.

According to Mark Hirons, Director of Interior Design for Cannon Design,

[The advent of the outdoor workplace] is really a nexus between sustainability and wellness. While sustainability has been the focus 10-15 years ago, and more recently wellness, outside is natural integration of both. While people have had spaces outside which can accommodate, they haven't thought of it as a workplace, but more of a place to eat or go walk around. This is a relatively myopic perspective of the types of engagement that would be viable outside. We want to leverage not only the real estate, but enrich choice and wellness of the people working for you. It is still untapped in many organizations.

Technology has untethered us inside the office. Everyone is looking to find the right balance and types of "we" and "me" spaces, while capitalizing on every inch of usable real estate. It is all pointing to effectively leveraging outdoor workspace, however what we can do with this space is still in its infancy.

"It is part of the whole 'I don't want to work in a place like my father's office,'" says Ken Smith, Landscape Architect. "We are seeing a definite trend toward open and flexible office plans with a much greater integration of work and social space and these same trends are influencing outdoor spaces associated with office and work place. With cellular technology, people can work while moving around and the division between indoors and outdoors is breaking down. Rather than the old model of landscape as a pleasant backdrop, contemporary needs are for landscapes that are more active, programmed and useful."

Joanna Frank, Executive Director of the Center for Active Design, an organization that promotes health through design, shared this study done in Denmark. It shows that the outdoor workplace can support a range of different activities with a measurably positive effect on social wellbeing, physical and mental restoration. "We also know that outdoor space can have a positive effect on creative thinking. When creativity was tested, people scored higher when walking, or even if sitting after a walk," says Frank, referring to a study published last year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Frank and a team of researchers will be undertaking a study on the impact of adjustable workstations on employee health and wellness, with a grant from the American Society of Interior Designers Foundation. They are also collaborating with an interdisciplinary group to publish guidelines on active design for the workplace, which will look at not only physical but social and emotional health benefits of things like physical activity in the workplace and working outdoors.

What Will This New Outdoor Workspace Look Like?

According to Martin, "There was a gentleman at NeoCon a few years ago who took a cube and put it outside. That doesn't work, but it got the conversation going." The new outdoor workplace will be about much more than just taking indoor furniture and concepts and plopping them outside. We have much more to explore and learn. "What's exciting is how fluid and flexible spaces are becoming outdoors," says Smith. "If you look at houses, we used to live in houses and work in buildings with little spaces, more people are living in loft spaces that are big and open. Spaces much more open in function and fun to design with. The outdoor landscape is really a big blank canvas. There's so much room for creativity."

"Just like everything else we have to plan it well, and understand the culture," says Hirons. Right now many workplace strategies are focusing on making the most efficient use of every inch of usable real estate space to expand what Hirons calls "the invigorated workspace." So how are workplace strategies different on the outside? "Outside there is more freedom for informal creative settings which are quite natural. Think back intrinsically as to how outdoor environments in childhood provided a sense of activity. For working outside, you can lean against something while on the phone. You can perch on top of a garden wall with sculptural elements, sit in a lounge setting in a landscaped alcove or and have a casual conversation along a walk with a co-worker. There are many more active postures that can be celebrated outside that may not feel as natural inside. It certainly can go far beyond sitting at a table."

Workspace today does not have to be paper or technology intensive. It does need to be comfortable and feel productive and usable. This includes planning for shade, wind, temperature extremes and glare. Obviously outdoor workspaces are more feasible in temperate climates, but can still be exciting (or possibly even more so to us Midwesterners) in areas where they are only usable in certain seasons. As Hirons says, "Being outside has a huge impact on our 'happiness quotient.' If creating functional spaces outdoors where employees work can change life for the better, we collectively owe it to ourselves to make work life a better experience for everybody."