Biophilia: the key to health at work

Sensemaking / Biophilia: the key to health at work

Our well-being in the workplace demands design that connects us to nature, says Rob Coombs

By Rob Coombs / 22 Feb 2016

This article was first published in The Long View 2016. Please share your thoughts here and join the conversation on social media with #longview2016.

We have all been there: you’re trying to focus on a demanding task, but workplace disruptions and distractions just won’t allow it. Your mind is constantly fatigued and the task takes longer than it should. Could work spaces that incorporate elements of nature provide a more productive setting? One that is less mentally draining, even restorative – improving our cognitive capabilities and enabling more consistent performance levels?

Mounting evidence suggests that they could. Take GenzymeCorporation, a world-leader in biotechnology. Its corporate headquarters, opened in 2004, features ‘biophilic’ design elements such as a clear glass exterior and large windows providing natural light, indoor gardens and water features. After 18 months in the new building, more than three quarters of employees felt that being able to see outside, combined with natural elements inside the building, improved their sense of well-being.

A study for the California Energy Commission on a US utility company call centre in 2003 showed that employees who had views of vegetation were more productive. These workers processed calls up to 12% faster and performed up to 25% better on tests of mental functions and memory recall than those who could not see vegetation.

Today, although typical modern offices boast comfortable air-conditioned environments and ergonomic office chairs– a seemingly unprecedented level of comfort – studies show that stress levels have risen dramatically across the globe. The open-office concept has gained popularity for its benefits on collaboration, but has fallen short on providing quiet spaces to work in.

Mobile connectivity brings flexibility and efficiency, butat the same time makes it difficult for people to leave work behind. These smart systems also disrupt human connections in the workplace. Workers could find themselves increasingly chained to technology at the expense of a strong connection with other people and the surroundings they share. Continuing urbanisation and population growth will only add to these stress-filled work environments.

So, what is biophilic design and why is it a viable solution? Popularised in 1985 by US biologist Edward O. Wilson,‘biophilia’ is hypothesised as the innate relationship between humans and nature, and concerns our need to be continually connected to nature. Wilson and others think that certain attributes of nature to which human beings are instinctively drawn are beneficial not just for survival but also for our daily well-being. A growing body of evidence showing that contact with nature has significant emotional, physiological and social benefits for human beings suggests this will be key to a healthy workplace.

At Interface, we sponsored a study entitled Human Spaces: The Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace, which surveyed 7,600 office workers across a variety of roles and sectors, spanning 16 countries across the world. We found that workers in office environments with natural elements, such as greenery and sunlight, have a 15% higher level of well-being, are 6% more productive and 15% more creative.

The study revealed that the two most requested elements in the workplace are natural light and indoor plants – followed by quiet spaces, a view of sea or water, and bright colours. In fact, providing access to natural elements, and especially light, positively affects the human mind subconsciously to such an extent that evidence indicates it reduces sickness and absence rates.

Bill Browning, founding partner of Terrapin Bright Green,and one of the green building industry’s foremost thinkers and strategists, explains: “The deep appeal of colour is an attribute of people’s adaptive response to the natural world which, through evolution, has assisted in the location of food and water, and with way-finding.” It was found that while many colours can have cultural meanings that vary significantly from place to place, office colour schemes that incorporate accents of green, blue and brown were more conducive to employee happiness, productivity and creativity than merely blank white walls.

Experts believe scenes of nature may stimulate a reward structure in the brain that seeks information through the senses. Interestingly, it is the variation in patterns, textures and colours of nature that brings us pleasure. Stephen Kellert, in his book Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science,and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life, describes how the characteristics of a space play a part in biophilic design. He contrasts two space types, which he calls ‘prospect’and ‘refuge’. A ‘prospect’ space provides an unobstructed view over a distance. With its optimistic and open nature, it invites energy, ideation and creativity into a space –conducive to vibrant areas for collaboration and co-creation. ‘Refuge’, on the other hand, describes a protected place separate from the surrounding environment. In the office context, this is where an individual will be able to hide away from any distractions to process and produce.

Rising to the challenges of a rapidly changing world will demand environments where we can perform at our best –and be at our most creative. More than ever, we must work to restore and revitalise depleted systems: what better first step than to move closer to the resource that provides us with life?

Interface is a Futures Centre Partner.

[Discussion] With digital capabilities revolutionising the world of work, can we work in ways that enhance our health and wellbeing — and even that of the planet? Join the discussion on “How can we rewild the workplace?” here.

Image Credit: Interface



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