Employee Morale Not in Bloom? Try a Workplace Garden

Computers are great time-savers and increase productivity, but the downside is many of us are stationary all day, finding everything we need on the screen in front of us. The convenience is great, but the repetition of staring at the computer screen can become monotonous and mind-numbing, making fresh thinking difficult.

Luckily, the “cure” may not require an additional technology purchase for your company. Encouraging your employees to get a little exercise, and, in the process, refresh their minds, may be as simple as a garden, according to a story I came across today on SFGate by Lauren Leone-Cross. The article describes the workplace garden started by the Will County Health Department in Joliet, IL. In addition to providing a respite from their jobs, employees get to eat the vegetables and fruits they produce, encouraging healthy eating.

This story rang true to me because of my long-lost relationship with Gilmore O’Reilly, a small bamboo plant, and Rapunzel, an ivy plant, whose vines eventually sprawled across my desk. I hadn’t grown either of these plants, but the simple act of watering them and trimming them back when necessary was a stress-reducer, and added warmth to my workspace. I can only imagine the thrill I would have gotten working in a real garden—maybe a rooftop garden, given that we were in New York City. In addition to the healthfulness of getting up and moving, and the good eating habits inspired by growing your own produce, gardening is another form of self-expression. One employee may choose to grow nothing but ornamental flowers, while another may choose tomatoes, and another, strawberries. It’s the kind of workplace hobby that gives the employee a chance to reclaim identity in an impersonal corporate environment.

If you don’t have a rooftop suitable for gardening or a plot of land outside your office, even small gardening gestures such as windowsill plants, or providing employees with the kinds of plants that don’t need much light and they can simply keep at their desk, goes a long way. The employee still has to tend to the plant; the caretaking routine becoming a ritual that encourages a sense of responsibility and thoughtfulness. Having a plant they are taking care of on their desk also gives employees a sense of ownership of their workspace, aiding employee engagement.

Some companies shy away from workplace enhancements like gardens because they worry it will interfere with productivity. I think they’ll find just the opposite to be true, if they give it a chance. There are only so many hours an employee can look at a computer screen composing, sending e-mails or looking up and inputting data. There comes a point where the brain becomes dazed and on auto-pilot. At that point, many employees turn to diversions such as Facebook or texting on their phone with friends. These diversions have the potential to be far more distracting than stepping away from the desk and out to the garden for five or 10 minutes a day. No personal dramas to get wrapped up in—just the exercise involved with cultivating flowers and produce.

To get the most out of your workplace garden, have employees team up in small groups to cultivate different plots together. You can fine-tune the social dimension of the exercise by deciding to group together people who have never met or interacted substantively, or you can group together people who work together every day, turning it into a teambuilding exercise.

To tie the garden to company culture, you could have the respective harvests of the gardens collected and then apportioned out to each gardening participant so everyone gets a little bit from everyone else’s garden. It would be an analogy to the work of the company—everyone has their part to do, but then everyone shares together in the wealth and other benefits created. It’s idealistic, but most employees would feel good thinking of their company that way.

You also could turn the garden you create into a corporate social responsibility project, having disadvantaged children from your town or city visit to participate in the gardening, and then donate the produce to their families.

The possibilities for morale boosting and lessons learned are immense when a garden blooms—tap into the growth potential of your employees, so to speak.

Would your company consider starting a workplace garden? Or do you have one already? What do you think are the key challenges of such a project? What are the potential rewards?