Spending time outside has well-documented benefits. One 2019 study found that regular time spent outdoors had a significant positive effect on life satisfaction and self-reported health status. Other research has demonstrated cognitive benefits such as improved memory, attention, and impulse control. But it seems spending time connecting with nature might also help teams perform better as a group.
“Interactions with nature, whether sustained or fleeting, can increase orientation toward others, social cohesion, and prosocial behavior, effects that are in part driven by nature’s awe-inspiring or beautiful qualities,” write Sean Goldy and Paul Piff of the University of California Irvine, co-authors of a 2019 paper on the social effects of spending time outside (In 2021, Piff became an L.L.Bean research partner and has received funding for future research). Their research affirms the work of other social psychologists, who have found that exposure to the outdoors increases people’s propensity for cooperation and socially responsible behavior.
While more companies are designing their offices to include extensive plant installations and outdoor terraces, L.L. Bean encourages staff to forge connections in nature. To understand how other organizations can do the same , we spoke with Sarah Cox, L.L. Bean’s chief human resources officer. Here are takeaways from our conversation:
Connect outdoor experiences back to company culture and values.
Cox’s team recently met at the company’s headquarters for a team-wide offsite. Though the impetus for the in-person time was to set goals and make plans for the new fiscal year, they spent part of their time together at the company’s outdoor discovery school, where employees had the chance to participate in kayaking, paddling, fly-fishing, and archery.
While poorly executed "forced fun" at work can feel awkward and burdensome, tying activities back to your organization's purpose—as with the work itself—can increase employee buy-in.
Most companies probably won't have as clear-cut a connection L.L. Bean's, but they can nevertheless find ways to make outdoor experiences feel intentional and meaningful. Moving the workplace experience to a new setting could be framed as a manifestation of an organizational value of trying new things, for example. A hike led by more junior employees could be positioned as a way to encourage upward learning.
Bring the outdoors into onboarding to jumpstart employee connections.
Onboarding is a time “for people who are newer to an organization to develop that imprint of the culture and connect in a relational way,” Cox notes. At L.L. Bean, the outdoor experiences often included in the onboarding process—such as a hike or kayaking at the outdoor discovery school—serve as a “deep immersion” in the company’s outdoors-oriented culture, she explains. Even for companies without an outdoors-oriented culture, research shows that these kinds of collective outdoors experiences can supercharge social connection and cooperation, preparing new employees to begin their tenures ready to collaborate and engage with their teams.
Look for opportunity in everyday moments as well as special occasions.
Throughout the year, L.L. Bean employees have opportunities to engage with nature in less intensive ways, by taking wellness and fitness classes on the grounds of the headquarters or by walking the public trails that criss-cross the campus. The company also supports time outdoors outside of work through benefits such as paid outdoor experience days and outdoor discovery courses, guided outdoors activities at one of L.L.Bean’s outdoor discovery centers.
Cox notes that investments in nature-oriented programs have paid dividends in employee attraction and retention. Outdoor experiences can make traveling to the office feel less like a burden and more like an event to look forward to. Moving a meeting from the conference room to a setting with more sun, sky, and greenery, for example, can be a low-effort way to enhance employee well-being.