THE BLOG

Ground Control to Major Tomato

20/01/2016 10:48 GMT | Updated 19/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Some exciting news gave us a snapshot of hope from space this week. After a few weeks of his British green thumb, Astronaut Tim Peake has nurtured forth a small flowering bud from a struggling zinnia bush growing in the International Space Station. The picture of the small orange flower, framed in the background by our fragile Spaceship Earth is both awe inspiring and poignant. That we, as humans, would be so struck with the beautiful simplicity of a flower in the terrifyingly sterile and complicated world of space travel shows our aesthetic longing for the natural.

The flowers weren't just planted in the station to test the viability of growing food in space, but also as a psychological ameliorative.

"Plants can indeed enhance long-duration missions in isolated, confined and extreme environments - environments that are artificial and deprived of nature," Alexandra Whitmire, of the NASA Human Research Programme, said.

Artificial and deprived of nature. Isolated and confined. Is Whitmire describing the space station or is she describing many modern day offices?

With all the listicles of "World's Coolest Office Spaces", it's easy to forget that many of us work in places that I would describe as precisely that. Perhaps not quite as hostile as space (although take the last biscuit and office politics can get brutal). The office can be grey, solitary and most certainly deprived of any sign of flora, unless the salad languishing in the company fridge counts.

NASA knows that not only is the presence of greenery helpful to people's mental health, but even more so, the process of gardening. Cultivating a plant, encouraging it to grow, helps settle the mind and provides much needed contemplation to astronauts who are otherwise generally occupied with keeping that giant tin can from plummeting out of orbit. It is a connection to a world left behind, but also nourishment for the soul and a more meditative state of mind.

Scientists have known that there is a connection between nature and general wellbeing for a long time, finding that people who spent time outdoors had lower risks of a slew of illnesses such as depression, high-blood pressure and cancer, to name a few. But only recently have they been able to pin down why they think this is. Apparently being in, or engaging with, nature actually triggers our brain to move from the "fight or flight" to "rest and relax" mode. This, in turn, triggers a number of healthy physiological responses that shift energy from stress related defences to immune and mental health boosting benefits.

So if scientists know this, and NASA knows this, why haven't we seen more of this thinking in office spaces? Well for starters, many office spaces can't sustain outside life. Seriously, (and no jokes here about the brain-dead guy in accounting). How many times have you seen an attempt at an office plant that ends up looking like a pre-Peake zinnia. Sad, droopy leaves, some inexplicable fuzzy blight festering around the edges. But this begs the question, if plants can't grow in the office, why do we think that environment is good for us?

A friend of mine, Duncan Young, workplace sustainability guru for Lend Lease, challenged this point when he designed their new London offices. He suggested that if a plant can't flourish, neither can the humans, so he set about changing that. He made sure there was ample sunlight and fresh airflow to keep the plants happy. And if the plants started to struggle, he took notice of them as possible canaries in the coal mine of his employee's wellbeing. Young went one step further, however. He knew the importance of not just viewing nature but being engaged with it, so he installed a roof garden and bug wall. Staff volunteer to tend the garden, can take wildflower walks, or help scientists understand the behaviour of the crawly critters in the wall. The result? Young reports that the staff are happier and the business benefits far outweigh the cost.

So how can we take some NASA learning and bring it down to earth to our workplaces?

Don't go lean, go green

With a move by many organisations towards lean methodology, offices are becoming more and more stripped back. In addition, desk-sharing environments mean that even the simple desk cactus has left the building. Dr Craig Knight out of University of Exeter found that by allowing people to put enriching elements like plants into the office space, productivity increased by 15 percent. Allow people to choose ficus or fern, their productivity increased 30 percent. And not only were they more productive, but they were happier and healthier too. Attrition dropped by 30 percent in workplaces where people enjoyed "controlled enrichment" and their blood pressure and pain thresholds dropped as well.

Don't bogart the rays

In one Simpsons episode, Mr Burns wanted to steal the sun, which eventually led to him being shot. Our corporate giants are not too far off from his evil shenanigans, as they have stolen the light from the average Joe. In most workplace designs, the exec's private offices sit on the perimeter of the building, hogging all the sun. I don't buy into the incessant whingeing of the much-maligned open plan, one of the reasons being that it allows for more equitable distribution of light. But execs nervous to come out onto the floor with the riff-raff can still be part of the solution by moving their office off the perimeter and to the core of the building, allowing the sun to shine on the majority of staff, not just the chosen few. Don't end up like Mr. Burns. (The episode is so popular, it has its own Wikipedia page.) People like their sunlight.

Take a hike

Or just a walk. Even if you're not in charge of how the office operates, you can do this one for yourself. We know that sitting is the smoking of this generation, but taking a walk in a park or green space gives you the double bonus of getting you moving and also triggering that relaxation reflex in your brain. It's also a great way to have meetings, although that might defeat the relaxation bit.

After the success of the first flower to bloom in space, what's next for Veg-01? Tomatoes, along with the hearts and minds of more than 3 million school children who are participating in the Tomatosphere project.

What's next for offices? Not sure we'll be seeing tomatoes, but perhaps just a few more plants and some better views from the office window. Not as good as Scott Kelly's or Tim Peake's view perhaps, but then, we get to pop down the pub after a hard day. So unless hops is next on the space grow list, I think in the end, being on, instead of above, Spaceship Earth isn't too shabby either.