Why Workers Should Go Take a Hike

Written by Anthony C. Klotz and published in the Wall Street Journal on May 16, 2022

I was recently speaking with one of my former students about the decisions that leaders are facing as they bring employees back to the office on a full-time or hybrid basis. This student remarked that one overlooked benefit of working from home is that it gives employees the ability to access the outdoors during the workday.
He described how his remote workdays included moments in which he was able to go into his backyard and enjoy a nature break—something he could never do when he was in the office all the time. He said these outdoor respites left him feeling more refreshed than his indoor breaks. His observations resonated with me, because they aligned with my own research about the intersection of the worlds of work and nature, and with the compelling evidence that exposure to nature provides myriad benefits to individuals—benefits that don’t stop when the workday begins.
The link to the current discussion about remote and hybrid work is obvious: Employees who hold jobs that are able to be made hybrid—namely office workers—are the same group of workers who often have limited access to nature during their workdays in sealed buildings. Moreover, given that these buildings are often located in urban areas, even when employees are able to get outside, the quality of their exposure to nature is often low, occurring alongside distractions that impede the enjoyment of nature, like traffic noise.
This is where flexible work comes in. When employees work from home, they can open their windows and breathe in fresh air. In between video calls, they can step outside and feel the breeze and hear birds. After lunch, they can take a walk to a nearby park, or work outdoors for a few hours. In short, in ways small and large, working remotely permits deeper immersion in nature compared with being
in the office.
And this immersion matters. Contact with nature improves people’s moods, sharpens people’s cognitive abilities, makes them more cooperative, reduces burnout and enhances employees’ productivity. By allowing workers more meaningful access to nature through flexible work schedules, leaders provide employees with a work arrangement that facilitates higher well-being and performance.
These nature-based benefits of flexible work for workers and organizations take on added value considering recent research has shown that exposure to nature outside of work hours can contribute to employee performance when they return to work. In one study, my co-authors and I provided evidence that to the extent that employees spent time outdoors before and after work, they were in better moods when they arrived at work, which fueled higher work effort later in the day. This suggests that contact with nature not only has the potential to enhance employees’ well-being and performance while they work remotely, but to also positively affect their feelings and behaviors
when they return to the office.
Companies, of course, could also redesign their in-person workspaces to provide employees with deeper immersion in nature—something many companies are embracing by adding such things as windows that open, green spaces on rooftops, and hiking trails on corporate campuses. But such efforts, while valuable, are expensive. It is much less costly—and quicker—to incorporate remote
work into employees’ schedules.
One final benefit of bringing employees into deeper contact with nature relates to organizational sustainability efforts. In particular, there is an emerging link between employees’ contact with nature and their subsequent engagement in sustainability-related behaviors. Research shows that when individuals come into contact with nature in a given week, they are more likely to engage in sustainability-related behaviors that may be in alignment with organizational sustainability goals when they get back indoors.

A couple of caveats are warranted. First, individuals differ in the extent to which they like the outdoors; investments in contact with nature will likely have little effect on employees who feel no connection to the natural world. In addition, however beneficial interactions with nature are, they can’t make up for serious job deficiencies in terms of things like fair pay and respectful treatment. It would ring hollow and backfire to tell overworked employees to simply go outdoors to avoid their impending burnout.

There are no one-size-fits-all answers when it comes to redesigning jobs in a post pandemic era. But when weighing the benefits of hybrid work and other flexible work arrangements, leaders shouldn’t forget part of the answer can be found just outside their doors.

Dr. Klotz is the Anderson Clayton professor of business administration and an associate professor of management at Mays Business School, Texas A&M University. He can be reached at reports@wsj.com.