How hard can it be to spend 30 minutes of your workday outdoors?

Radical Industrialists

How hard can it be to spend 30 minutes of your workday outdoors?

Last September, our first day at IIDEX, the biggest commercial interiors tradeshow in Canada, was going well. Customers liked our new products and our message about biophilic design. But the booth staff couldn't stop talking about getting outside.

Being under the fluorescent lights in a convention center all day isn't anyone's favorite pastime, but these were tradeshow-hardened staffers at a huge interiors show. And who would be more likely to appreciate the allure of the Great Indoors more than a bunch of people who sell carpet for a living?

However, the IIDEX show had fallen squarely in the middle of our participation in the 30x30 Nature Challenge. Each employee working the booth (and over half of our Canadian associates) had committed to spend at least 30 minutes outside every day for 30 days, a commitment seriously imperiled by their duties at the tradeshow booth.

When our Canadian business adopted the idea of the 30x30 Nature Challenge from the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF), we could not have known the effect this simplest of employee engagement programs would have for our people. We were looking to give people a chance to "walk the talk" on our sustainability mission and make a deceptively easy-looking commitment for 30 days.

"Deceptively," because the 30x30 Challenge is one that previous generations might have laughed at (and then achieved it without even trying most months of the year). But today, between long hours in the office, the commute, time spent in front of various electronic media and sleeping, we North Americans spend about 95 percent of our time indoors.

On any given day, spending 30 consecutive minutes outside is far from a sure thing. The Challenge creates awareness of this (usually unintentional) lifestyle choice for participants. Coming as it does from David Suzuki (easily the most famous Canadian voice for the environment), it is also tied to a conservation message.

Just as we know people who feel no connection to nature are less likely to care about our company commitment to sustainability, the Suzuki Foundation recognizes that people are much less likely to take action to protect nature without a personal connection to the out-of-doors. The dangers of this disconnection for both individual and environmental health are well documented in the 2012 book Your Brain on Nature.

The proven benefits of spending time outside on reducing absenteeism, providing stress relief and improving overall employee well being would be enough to interest most companies, but the 30x30 Challenge also checks the key boxes of any successful sustainability employee engagement program. Easy to implement? Easy for anyone to understand and participate in? Creates a shared, yet customizable experience for employees? Helps employees cultivate healthy habits that will improve health and well being? Aligned with company values? Fun?

Similar to how we have used our community service programs, the 30x30 Challenge provides that experiential, visceral link that makes sustainability real for employees. People who have had a firsthand experience of the benefit of being in nature (or even outdoors at all) are much more likely to care about any of the more prescriptive ("turn off the lights") or conceptual ("reduce your carbon footprint") elements of employee sustainability programs.

One key to the 30x30 Challenge is that the experience is open-ended. The tangible benefits to productivity, engagement and well being don't require the 30 minutes be spent meditating in an old-growth forest. People can participate in any number of ways: by gardening, sitting on a bench in a public park, playing Frisbee in a field or just a taking a walk around town. But one key challenge for the Challenge is that most of us are at work for most of our waking hours. And most employers discourage engaging in most or all of these activities on their dime.

The 30x30 Challenge took on a life of its own at Interface Canada, leading to a photo contest to share the most interesting things they saw during their "30" that day. Voting on the photo contest had even higher rates of participation than the Challenge itself. Participants were serious enough to call for "rulings" from program leaders (no, riding in a convertible with the top down does not count for your 30, but it's better than nothing). Inspired by our experience, this year the DSF is focusing on engaging workplaces in the May 2013 challenge, which kicks off on Earth Day.

While the research on the business benefits of giving employees time outside is more recent, enlightened companies have been doing it for years. Yvon Chouinard's "go surfing on company time" policy at Patagonia surely resulted in the same kinds of benefits as the 30x30 Challenge, while reinforcing the outdoors-driven culture of the company.

As more of an "indoors" company, the connection to what we sell is less direct for Interface, but we believe that if more employers encouraged their people to get outside through a vehicle such as the 30x30 Challenge, it ultimately would serve us. You might think a society that spends all of its time holed-up indoors might be a carpet company's vision of the perfect world, a sort of "Carpetopia." However, our experience has been that creating workspaces that feel and function more like the out-of-doors, and encourage interaction with the real thing, is not only the future of commercial interiors, but also one of the keys to engaging people in creating a sustainable future.

Walking outdoors photo via Shutterstock.