Working in Green?

Green desking, or an office among the trees.

Text—Gabrielle Anctil
Illustrations—Joanna Ławniczak

How much did you spend on indoor plants during the COVID-19 pandemic? If you splurged, you’re not alone. According to an article in the Guardian, some British florists saw sales increase by 500 per cent over the course of 2020. Whether it was a need for company or clean air, the desire to enhance indoor spaces with a little of the outdoors, or wanting to get a taste of travel by way of exotic plants — all were excellent excuses to green up our homes.

And so much the better! The benefits of plants for our health — physical and mental — are well known. Studies have shown that time spent in nature improves mood and attention span, reduces stress and the need for psychiatric intervention, and stimulates empathy and co-operation. What’s more: research has demonstrated that even just looking at images of greenery can help us feel refreshed.

At a time when mental health features prominently in headlines, and many of us are poised to return to the office, the question of workplace well-being has become unavoidable. What if the solution was to work outdoors?


Birth of a way of life

“Go work outside!” This, in essence, was the message emphasized by the Australian chapter of the organization The Nature Conservancy in 2016, during their “Work with Nature” week. People were encouraged to transport their offices outside for at least an hour a day, in the name of their health.

A year later, on the other side of the planet, the Montréal organization Îlot 84 took up a similar idea when they created Aire commune, an outdoor workspace in Mile-End. “It was only after we started the initiative that we learned about the concept of green desking,” says Emilie Wake, co-founder of the non-profit.

Since then, green desking — the act of doing office work outside, in the city or the country — has spread throughout the world, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced us to revisit the ways we work and socialize.


Everyone outside

Major Silicon Valley companies are among those giving fuel to this movement, and they have been for some time now. In 2017 Microsoft offered its employees in Richmond, Washington, the use of cabins in the woods as meeting rooms. Two years before that, Facebook unveiled a nine-acre green roof, complete with 350 trees and an 800 m long pedestrian path in Menlo Park, California.

But you don’t have to be a hip employee in the tech field to reap the benefits of green desking.

In Montréal, Îlot 84 recently unveiled a new initiative: 20 outdoor remote workstations with free outlets and internet access, spread out across the city.


These “summer islands” are designed to remedy a lack of facilities for remote workers who want to get outside their four walls.

In the United Kingdom and in France, rural remote working is the way to go. Several co-working spaces have been set up along train lines to offer urbanites an office far from the clamour of big cities. Hatchery, a British co-working organization, has even restored a wetland near its facilities — it turns out, our interest in nature can lead to concrete results. “Just working in the countryside doesn’t necessarily mean it’s green desking,” says Emilie Wake. “There are definitely benefits to being close to nature, but you have to be outside to experience scents, sounds, and the wind.”

She believes green desking is here to stay.

“In the early 2000s, people were talking about flexible hours as though it was a major innovation. After the pandemic, it’s workplaces that will have become flexible.”


Her organization is working to install more îlots (islets) elsewhere in Québec, in order to attract local remote workers.

But ultimately, all we need to do is go for a walk while having a phone call, or bring our computers to the park to get a taste of green desking. “We now know how important it is to spend time outside,” says Wake. All that’s left to do is to integrate this healthy habit into our daily lives.

Gabrielle Anctil is a columnist and researcher for Radio-Canada Premiere. The rest of the time, she writes for various media including Continuité, Unpointcinq, and Gazette des femmes. In summer as in winter, she can be found, rosy-cheeked, riding her bicycle.

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