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The Role of Nature in a Tech-driven World (October 2021)

Organisations in the 21st century operate in an increasingly complex environment. Organisations and their leaders need to draw on all the widest possible range of resources available to them...not finite, unsustainable resources but holistic, regenerative ones. Whilst the concept of VUCA (Volatile Uncertain Complex Ambiguous) was first coined in 1987, there is no wonder it has become a commonly used term in business. ...the Covid pandemic stopped the world in its tracks and fundamentally shifted how we work. transformation is driving innovation and disruption in equal measure. ...organisations need to attract and retain the best people and take positive steps to support mental health, wellbeing and build resistance. ...organisations need to constantly do what they do better whilst meeting the expectation and moral duty to take proactive steps to use business as a force for good. ...they need to take action to reduce environmental degradation and climate change and respond to systemic societal challenges like equality, diversity and inclusion. The world of work and nature have become detached in recent decades and this has contributed to many challenges we face both as individuals and society. This disconnection is complex and is hard to reduce to a simple problem or solution. It is there nonetheless and I would argue at the heart of many of the biggest challenges we face as a species in terms of Covid, climate change and breakdown of ecosystems. Connectivity and video conferencing has redefined the workplace with unequivocal benefits. It does however mean that we spend increasing amounts of time in the virtual world, disconnected from the physical world and certainly from nature.

On a practical level for individuals, links are being established between too much screen time, the ‘virtual world’ and poor mental health. A recent 2020 study found that: “After adjusting for several potential confounding factors, a positive association between screen time per day in hours and poor mental health in the overall sample was noted. The relationship between screen time per day and poor mental health was also found to be significant in women and adults aged 35–64 years irrespective of sex.” It also highlighted that: “Some of this screen time is inevitable, so it is important to find healthy ways to cope in order to decrease your risk of mental health issues” The potential risks of the swing towards the virtual world is explained by Attention Restoration Theory. Eva Selhub and Alan Logan highlight the challenge of Cognitive Fatigue stemming from technologically-centric workstyles that draw on our reserves of Involuntary Attention. When unchecked, this can lead to anxiety, stress, poor prioritisation and burnout. Another very real issue for companies moving more towards high levels of virtual working is the loss of human connection. It is this social connection that 65% reported they miss most when remote working according to a recent survey by Microsoft and CIPD. Businesses need to foster this human connection for employee wellbeing and retention purposes. They also need to maintain human connection as the lifeblood of creativity and innovation. This provides a rational explanation for Google recent announcement that employees will be largely returning to predominantly office working after the pandemic.

Well, on a very practical level, the evidence highlights that there are impacts on both employee mental health, satisfaction and effectiveness if businesses swing too far towards the virtual world. As referenced above, it is a swing that can lead to anxiety, depression and burnout! On a deeper level, this swing will also further embed the disconnection of business from the physical and natural world. Seeing everything on a screen takes nature further away from our day to day decision making. At its most extreme, the natural world appears in the virtual world simply as a resource or basis for inconvenient legislation. This is a challenge not only for businesses but for humanity. The challenge for businesses is how to strike the right balance between the remote working and office working. They need to maximise benefits of remote working including reduction in office overheads and work-life balance whilst mitigating the risks on mental health and retaining the culture and human connection that drives the business. There are significant business risks of not doing this effectively. As Louise Delegram highlights “Nature deprivation,” a lack of time in the natural world, largely due to hours spent in front of TV or computer screens, has been associated, unsurprisingly, with depression. More unexpected are studies by Weinstein and others that associate screen time with loss of empathy and lack of altruism. The risks are even higher than depression and isolation. In a 2011 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, time in front of a screen was associated with a higher risk of death, and that was independent of physical activity!”

Getting the right balance between remote working and office working can mitigate some of the risks, but adding the natural world as a third ‘working environment’ brings huge benefits as part of this solution. Selhub and Logan provide an excellent description of the potential for the natural world to reduce stress and restore attention and replenish

those parts of us that are drained through virtual working. On a practical level, bringing nature into our day to day work can provide a space to detox from screen time whilst also reducing stress, enhancing focus, problem solving and creativity. The outdoors provides a psychologically safe space to enable human connection and nature connection. Given these unequivocal benefits, businesses need to embrace both technology and nature within the new models of ‘hybrid working’. By doing so it can create exciting, enriching and sustainable organisations that are fit for the future.

As Wade Watts said at the end of Steven Spielberg’s futuristic blockbuster, Ready Player One, “People need to spend more time in the real world; it’s the only thing that’s real."

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