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Sep 3, 2020

Coping with Covid: Adding Nature Offices to Your Program

The world is currently at a crossroads. Many of us are growing tired of the “new normal” that has required us to have varying levels of shelter in place, though we understand the need. As things progress, we are coming out of our cocoons, testing the waters of leaving our homes while still taking the precautions that make sense based on the available data. Masks and hand sanitizer are the new black. We are indeed fashionable.

So many clinical professionals have moved to telehealth platforms in order to provide much-needed care. Some had been doing so for years; others, like me, avoided it to no end until the pandemic hit our shores. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I as a practitioner and my clients adapted and thrived using this technology. I will admit to still doing that “weird wave” at the end of most sessions, but even that has brought cheer.

Some have reopened their physical offices while taking all available precautions, many have felt the data did not support this (and this will not be a debate on that issue, I assure you). I too would like to reopen, especially since we were finishing a 1,600-square-foot addition to our offices as this thing hit. The offices have sat empty and longing for service for many months now.

There is, however, a third option (besides in-office and telehealth) that few have started to try. Others, like those where I work, have been doing it for years but are expanding greatly due to the pandemic: nature’s offices.

Nature’s offices are outdoor offices where clients can meet with their clinical professionals outdoors, thus mitigating as much risk as possible. These offices, when done correctly, offer privacy, comfort and safety and so much more.

A “typical” nature’s office will be set up and used in the following ways during the pandemic:

  • Client and clinician meets in the car park wearing masks.
  • Client and clinician do their best to follow physical distance requirements in place at the time, as recommended by experts in the field of pandemic response.
  • If available, clinician gives the client a choice of offices—ideally there are many differing in setting and design, if not, any nature office will work.
  • Seating is set up off-set (not directly facing one another) and spaced as far apart as is practical, exceeding minimum suggested requirements.
  • Once seated, client and professional can remove masks, if desired, but will put them back on at the end of the session as the client returns to the car park.
  • Each nature’s office offers privacy though the clinical professional discusses the possibility that someone could presumably walk into the area. Should that occur, the session pauses until the area is clear.

While not every office has outdoor space—especially those in big cities—the offices that do have outdoor space may transition easily enough, though it is important to have a fallback plan, such as telehealth, should weather pose an issue. Some nature's offices include the option of a roofed structure such as a gazebo or other structure that allows air to pass freely while providing shelter from rain or excessive sun. Some have a heating source for cooler times, though few will be utilized when full winter cold sets in.

In this setting, clinician and client need not worry about recycled air as they breath the air found in nature. The furniture, though often used and hopefully cleaned regularly, is further “cleaned” by being outdoors by rain and other elements. It has been said the sun provides natural disinfectant via UV rays, though it is wise to follow the latest CDC/WHO recommendations for cleaning, mask wearing, etc.

When the pandemic passes, these offices can still serve programs regularly. You need not look at this as a temporary investment—on the contrary, these may well become some of your favorite spaces.  

Case Study: Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm in Wolcott, Connecticut, USA

Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm’s slogan is “Nurture in Nature” and it has utilized fields, woodlands, gardens and other areas of its property for therapeutic services for years. When the pandemic hit it closed down its physical offices and switched to telehealth, pending clear data and understanding of how the pandemic spread. As information became clearer after months of data collection from around the world, it appeared that an important stage between telehealth and in-office care would be to utilize existing nature’s offices and to build additional ones as well. Face masks, hand sanitizer and other safety measures would continue while the main building would remain closed to all but essential staff (due to animals that needed care, the farm program could not be run totally from home).

Taking consideration of folks that have varying levels of mobility and health concerns, a half dozen areas were set up for outdoor sessions. This was made more difficult by a shortage of benches and outdoor seating in the state. Items were purchased and existing stock was moved as needed to ensure that sessions could be offered for those whom telehealth was less than ideal for. All clients were pre-screened prior to being offered the opportunity to use this service option. Some were refused due to a lack of safety protocols and or other high-risk behaviors.

As the pandemic has continued, nature’s office expansion has continued. Several areas will have, or already have had, a heat source installed to help with cooler weather.  Options will be explored as winter sets in to determine if in-building sessions are practical and safe or if a move to telehealth only will be needed for the coldest months.

Nature’s offices currently include areas of sun, shade, flowering plants, stone benches and other options. Some offices are within feet of the car park while others require a short walk. All will continue to be used post-pandemic so the costs associated with building, furnishing and maintaining them is considered an investment in improving the infrastructure of the program and not as a drain on funds.

For more information and photo examples of nature’s offices, please visit this link: https://www.docwarren.org/nature-offices

Be safe, do good.

-Doc Warren


”Doc Warren” Corson III is a counselor, educator, writer and the founder, developer, clinical & executive director of Community Counseling of Central CT Inc. and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm. He is internationally certified as a Counsellor and Counsellor Supervisor in the USA and Canada (C.C.C., C.C.C.-S, NCC, ACS). He can be contacted at docwarren@docwarren.org  His program has also been featured on NBC, click here for more information.

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