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Biophilic design for more natural offices – is there an elephant in the room?

The quest for more natural and humane workplaces raises some fundamental questions about the what and where of work

There was sharp growth in interest in recent years in the concept of biophilic design in the workplace. It’s all part of the welcome trend to make workplaces more natural and human-friendly, with features that provide good sensory experiences for all who go there.

‘Biophilia’ may sound like something you catch, or possibly find in yogurt. In fact in evolutionary psychology it refers to the ‘innate human attraction to nature’, the idea that we have an instinctive bond with nature. Being able to see, touch, smell, and be amongst natural objects improves our sense of wellbeing, and helps us to perform better in whatever we are doing.

Biophilic design then is all about introducing into offices, factories, hospitals, schools and homes features such as views of nature, plants, flowing water, access to natural light and air and natural sounds like waterfalls or waves breaking on an ocean shore. Even facsimiles of such natural features can have a positive effect on productivity in offices or recovery time in hospitals.

‘Living walls’, or ‘vertical gardens’ – walls covered in plants – or ‘sky ceilings’ that provide views of the real sky and natural light are part of the mix. This article from Office Snapshots gives some good examples.

And if all this sounds a bit new age, it’s worth pointing out that there’s a lot of credible industry and academic research (as this article summarises) behind the claimed impacts. In many ways it’s common sense. The artificial division between ourselves and what should be our natural habitat can only be described as ‘unnatural’. And like caged animals in unnatural environments we may be more susceptible to stress and listlessness. So a bit of habitat enrichment, as animal behaviourists call it, may be a good solution.

Is there an elephant in the room?

But there’s an elephant in the room – a big one.

You might be tempted to think an elephant in the room would be a welcome feature of biophilic design, or perhaps occasional herds of antelope bounding through.

And that’s the point – these are not what you are going to find. You generally won’t be doing work in natural settings, but rather working where natural elements are artificially grafted on to architectural business-as-usual. Or where you get a glimpse of the sky or some planting outside.

So while there are some interesting and innovative biophilic features coming into workplace design, isn’t there something fundamentally odd about the whole process?

And the strange thing is this: developers, architects, interior designers, employers and employees alike – we have all expected to be taken out from our natural biological and social habitats on a daily basis and put into concrete, glass and steel boxes to work.

Then, having put us in a naturally less productive and less comfortable environment, we try to retrofit some natural sensations as meagre compensation for the uprooting.

In an age when work can be wherever we are, don’t we need a fundamental rethink about what the workplace is and what and where it should be?

Biophilia post-pandemic

Now that we’ve experienced how much more work can be done from home, we have a great opportunity to truly embed biophilic principles into the whole workplace experience.

That means integrating access to nature, fresh air and natural light across the working day. And this if often easier to do when working from home. Whether its being able to step out into the garden or go to a local park, or just work where you have a good view of natural surroundings. This gives a chance to energise and refresh, as well as working in more conducive settings over which you have more control. This is about behaviours and expectations, as well as about design.

Of course, not all homes are well designed or located for this. And this is an issue I take up in another post, What are homes for in the 21st century?.

Employers can support principles of biophilia both in the organisational workplace and beyond. To find out more about this, check out the website. Here you’ll find many ideas from my Smart Work Network partner Philip Vanhoutte and his collaborators who say: “It’s time for the nature of work to be working with nature.”