Last week, I told you why working outside – at least from time to time – can be helpful, relaxing, and even performance-enhancing. A number of you emailed me directly, or left comments thanking me for the idea. Most people were on board with working outdoors, but mostly in theory, because let’s face it – being outside on a workday with the sun shining and the birds chirping and the breeze blowing sounds fantastic, but how realistic is it, really? Even if you’re able to convince your boss to let you take the work outside, or you find a job that gives you the freedom to work where you like, the logistics of seamlessly moving a traditionally-indoor activity to the outdoors just seem insurmountable. How are you gonna get Internet access? How will you read your emails through the glare of the sun?
Before I launch into the logistics of working outdoors, I wanted to emphasize a few of the benefits. In Biophilic Design, author Stephen Kellert notes that psychologists have aggregated the five basic requirements for office workers that, if neglected or missing, can trigger worker dissatisfaction and comprehension problems (PDF):
- Need for change (in temperature, air, scenery)
- Ability to interact with the physical environment (beyond drink from the water fountain, use the toilet, and open doors)
- Meaningful stimuli, lack of stagnant, unchanging environment (like a cubicle)
- One’s “own territory to provide safety, an identity, and protection”
- View of or access to the outside
At least 1, 2, 3, and 5 can be easily satisfied with more nature exposure. The outside world is always changing, the temperature is anything but constant, and you encounter extensive sensory stimuli. You can certainly interact with nature, by picking flowers, touching the grass, and that sort of thing, and being outside definitely gives us a nice view of the outside (since we’re in it). I don’t think it’s that nature is unique for giving us this stuff. It’s not that novelty is “good” for us. It’s that sameness is weird, alien, foreign. We may think we’re used to it, having lived with it for so long, but something ancient lurking deep inside us cries out in frustration and confusion when faced with an unchanging, non-stimulating, staid environment like an office. Or is it just me?
We need real nature, too. Technological nature such as plasma screens with images of rainforests and snow-capped mountains, orangutan screensavers (which I love – don’t get me wrong!), and nature soundtracks just aren’t the same. I think we know this instinctually, don’t we? They’re better than nothing, but they can’t really compare with the real thing. Unsurprisingly, the research suggests as much (PDF). In one recent 2008 study, people had access to either windows covered with curtains or high-definition plasma TVs (made to look like windows) depicting realistic nature scenes. Folks who saw the technological nature had improved psychological well-being, cognitive functioning, and “connection to the natural world,” while folks who saw the covered windows did not. Later, the same research group conducted another, similar study in which people either saw a real window revealing a real nature scene, a plasma depicting that same scene, or a blank wall. People who looked out the real window showed a better stress response, as indicated by a faster resumption of normal heart rate after exposure to mild stress.
With that out of the way, let’s move on, shall we?
Obviously, the people for whom this working outside stuff would be easiest to implement are the laptop jockeys, the mobile workers, and the writers. But one thing stands in their way: the lack of Internet access in places that are not bound by walls and routers. Save for the writers, whose only required references lie skullward, modern laptop workers generally need Internet access to get their work done. So, what can they do?
Find a green space with wifi access.
More and more public and state parks are making public wifi available to visitors. For example:
I’m not sure how often it is updated, but this website appears to list many free public wifi hotspots available worldwide. Search for your area and see what you can find.
Extend your wifi range to encompass the backyard (or even more).
Tether your laptop to your smartphone, or use a wireless card attachment.
Most smartphones have downloadable apps that allow you to tether your laptop to the phone and use it as an Internet hotspot. Or, you could buy an attachment for your laptop that allows wireless Internet access almost anywhere (with a fee, of course).
Okay, you’ve found a way to meld wifi and nature, you’ve got your laptop, and you even found a tree stump that can double as a standup workstation. You head out, coffee in hand, eager to get working and enjoy the sun, but when you plop down the laptop and flip it open to start the day’s agenda, you can’t see what you’re doing on the screen. The sun is shining, the glare is blinding. You’re effectively useless. What to do?
Find, or make, shade.
When working outdoors on a laptop, you’ll function best in the shade. The bright sun is, well, too bright. If you want to even be able to read text on a laptop in full sun, you’ll have to bump up the brightness, which will eat away at your battery life – and it won’t even be all that legible. Working outside is about reducing stress and promoting direct attention toward work-related tasks; straining with your eyes makes relaxed focus extremely hard to muster. Plus, blasting your laptop with open sun will only make it work that much harder to stay cool. If you value the length of your Macbook’s telomeres, you’ll want to stay in the shade.
You can buy a “laptop hood” that provides perpetual shade.
You can find some preexisting shade, like that from a tree.
You can bring along an umbrella. That’s what one of my Worker Bees does from home at his outdoor workstation, using a basic umbrella, a vase, and some rocks to weigh it all down. A beach umbrella stuck in the ground will also work well.
Get a laptop with a matte screen.
While glossy screens look nice in the store and indoors, they are terrible for outdoor work. Well, I suppose glossy laptop screens would work outdoors in a place like Seattle, but if there’s sun afoot? Matte, all the way.
Get an indoor/outdoor laptop.
A growing number of laptops are being made with dedicated outdoor modes. Look for models with “I/O” (indoor/outdoor), “Outdoor View,” or “Enhanced Outdoor” listed as a feature.
What if none of these options work for you? What if you can’t find a green space with reliable Internet access? Are you forever doomed to languish indoors?
No. “Working outdoors” doesn’t necessarily require total avoidance of any sign of civilization. You don’t have to climb Half Dome just to write some emails, nor must your shade be provided by a Joshua tree in the middle of Death Valley. You needn’t be remote, nor cut off from everything and everyone. You just need some fresh air.
This can take many forms, none of them extreme:
A standup workstation set up on your patio, like this commenter from last week (who is “already happier!”). Just being outside is good enough, but throw in some potted plants, a fruit tree, maybe some birds? Baby, you got yourself some green space!
Holding the next business meeting at the local public park, on a picnic table, instead of at a restaurant or in a board room at the business park.
Walking meetings, wherein you walk and talk and plan and brainstorm. Or, better yet, hiking meetings! Hey, if they were good enough for Aristotle and his students, walking meetings are good enough for the likes of you. There are numerous advantages to having walking or outdoor meetings, including:
- Fewer distractions – Although I’ve seen some evidence to the contrary, most people won’t whip out their phone to check something if you’re walking and talking with them.
- Greater concentration – Walking actually improves brain function, as you’re walking. Being outdoors while you do it? Even better.
What’s truly ironic – and extremely cool – about our increasing reliance on technology for essentially all aspects of work is that instead of preventing our communion with nature, they actually make it even more possible. Sure, most of us don’t get nearly enough nature access, we have to go look for it, and we like to blame work for our nature deficit, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Your boss may not be on board (yet), but unlike ever before in recent decades, we have the physical ability to take our work back to nature. No stacks of papers to be flung around by the wind, no landlines keeping us bound to our desks. The technology exists to allow us to work from almost anywhere at anytime. We live in an age of astounding possibility and potential, as of yet unrealized. If you have the freedom to make this possible, if nothing and no one is holding you back from taking your laptop outdoors, what are you waiting for? Give it a try. Refer your excuses to the lists above, and stop making them.
It doesn’t have to be every day, or even every other day. It might just mean you sneak out to the company garden for an extended break, or check your emails out in your backyard. I’m persuaded, based on the (albeit limited) research and my own experiences integrating the outdoors with my work, that adding any amount of nature exposure to your daily work life will be incredibly helpful. You may not see a massive performance boost, but you’ll be a bit less stressed. You may not be more productive, but you’ll enjoy your work more. And all that stuff matters.
Okay, that’s it for me, folks. Now it’s your turn. I want to hear what you’ve been able to accomplish. How have you melded work with nature, if at all? What roadblocks have you encountered, and how did you get around them?
Let us all know in the comment section!