Do the words “hedge fund” and “forest” link together easily in your mind? If not, you’re not thinking broadly enough about how coronavirus (and nature) has affected the workplace. According to Fortune Magazine, Bridgewater, the world’s biggest hedge fund is working outside in the forest during the COVID pandemic. About 50 employees have been working, while it’s been warm, in the pine trees outside the company’s headquarters in Westport, CT.
Bridgewater felt strongly that personal employee engagement was key to their day to day work – so they devised this unique “outdoor office” to allow people to work in person during the pandemic. Elegant tents were erected, monitors and keyboards weather proofed, Wi-Fi was boosted, and other tech equipment was tethered to allow seamless trading work and meetings to continue outside. They’ve even installed Krisp, a software that helps eliminate background noise for Zoom calls – in this case – birdsong and other forest noises; certainly, noises that software engineers weren’t anticipating screening during its design.
The result? Bridgewater discovered “productivity metrics for the investment engine have improved since the move al fresco; and the group intends to use the woodsy workspace next summer too, regardless of whether COVID still lingers.”
The forest + work = higher productivity - a pretty radical revelation coming from corporate America, especially from a financial sector player like Bridgewater. For Bridgewater to admit this small tidbit about productivity may seem like a minor point, as productivity is constantly discussed across global corporate culture. Yet, this statement is radical given that, until recently, this same global work culture herded workers into smaller and smaller workspaces amidst the chaotic and interminable interruptions of the modern ‘open office. It was in the name of productivity, that 24/7/365 connections to each worker made superhuman demands upon staff.
These types of workplace habits deplete productivity. The World Health Organization has added ‘burnout’ as a syndrome linked to chronic stress. The multi-tasking myth has been debunked. It takes us nearly 30 minutes to get back on task after being interrupted – a fact that happens incessantly in the open office. Yet, taking intentional time in a forested environment, as Bridgewater did, can markedly improve focus, concentration, and productivity – but that’s just the tip of the benefit iceberg.
The coronavirus has made us all slow down and take a deep breath. Society has had time to reflect on ideas such as the TED talk made by Bridgewater founder Ray Dalio in 2017. He believes behavior that “naively and arrogantly holds on to opinions that are wrong and doesn’t put them out there to stress test them” is a great tragedy. Einstein defined that as insanity.
Let’s look at behaviors that are now getting a desperately needed stress test: the aforementioned global work culture, our ongoing treatment of nature, and what a ‘manifest destiny’ ideology is doing to our health and the health of the planet. It is here that Bridgewater can apply their mantra of applying radical truth and transparency to studying and stress-testing the benefits nature brings to the economic decisions.
The global pandemic has taught us that our connections to the natural world are of critical importance. Why? Because we are a part of nature, not apart from nature. The whole world is recognizing this. Recently, the United Nations Summit on Biodiversity released a Leader’s Pledge for Nature signed by 64 countries. The key takeaway: Nature fundamentally underpins human health, wellbeing, and prosperity. We need to appropriately value nature and the services it provides as we make decisions and recognize that the business case for biodiversity is compelling. The benefits of restoring natural resources outweigh the costs ten-fold, and the cost of inaction is even higher. This Pledge also highlights that the undersigned leaders would also “re-double their efforts to end traditional silo thinking.”
In the same week, the UN Development Program (UNDP) organized high-level discussions under the heading of ‘Nature for Life Hub’. An overarching takeaway from those discussions: “Protecting nature is about protecting the economy and ourselves.” As if not to be outdone in environmental news produced in a single week, international management consultant McKinsey & Company – whose motto is ‘Change that Matters’ – produced a report entitled: Valuing Nature Conservation - A methodology for quantifying the benefits of protecting the planet’s natural capital.
The McKinsey report models the benefits and costs of six different scenarios, ways of securing sustainable financing, and innovative approaches to conservation challenges. It is a powerful combination when the UN, global leaders, and McKinsey come together and insist we must protect nature if we want the global economy and humanity to survive. After months of working outside, Bridgewater can say definitively how much the forest not only let its employees survive during the pandemic but thrive.
As a licensed landscape architect and certified forest bathing guide, I have a deep understanding of the benefits humanity can tap into by re-acclimating ourselves to the forest. Bridgewater only measured one, but there are so many more. Nature helps address burnout via reduced stress. Other benefits include better focus and efficiency, improved mood, an increased sense of calm, more altruistic behavior, and enhanced creativity.
A recent study reports that you only need two hours per week in nature to gain the most benefits. Time in nature has also been shown to reduce symptoms of PTSD and ADHD, reduce absenteeism and presenteeism, and generally boosts positive moods. Another benefit, reinforced by continued research, is the boosting of our immune systems, especially NK cells. Natural Killer (NK) Cells, respond quickly to a variety of invaders, such as viruses and early signs of cancer.
Dalio said in that same TED talk that entrepreneurs must be willing to bet against the consensus and be right – what an opportunity for Bridgewater to literally put their money where their mouth is. The consensus consistently and detrimentally continues to ignore the plight of our planet. I’m specifically asking Bridgewater to extrapolate beyond the positive results of their own tiny experiment (and have their logarithms help) and explore how to rebalance a global investment portfolio in such a way that it begins to favor circular and regenerative economies as opposed to extractive and linear ones.
A goliath like Bridgewater has the opportunity to bet against this inertia of inaction and influence a global shift in what the financial markets value – in turn, affecting opinions across immense sectors of the global economy. This move, paired with McKinsey’s enlightened focus on nature filtering into C-Suites across the world, could be the catalyst that tips the scales in the right direction. If these two companies then joined forces with the United Nations – crafting corporate missions and investments in sync with the Sustainable Development Goals, the possibilities expand beyond the financial implications for saving nature and into the social and cultural ones.
Real, lasting change will be based in deepening our connection to nature, remembering what is deep in each of our DNA.I hope Bridgewater continues to see the forest from within the trees.
Maybe we all will.