Is biophilic design the key to a healthy workplace?

It’s February – a depressing time for many, especially if we spend a lot of it in an uninspiring workplace. If you’re lucky, you might be planning a holiday. And if not, you’re probably dreaming of one: a rural retreat, a tropical paradise, or just anywhere that will recharge your batteries.

But the holiday feel-good vibe will fade faster than a spray tan. So if you don’t already work somewhere that makes you smile, you might want to spend some of your downtime getting better acquainted with the principles of biophilic design.

What is biophilic design?

Humans have an innate attraction to nature. Called biophilia, it’s not only instinctive but also healthy. Connecting with nature has been shown to reduce stress, enhance creativity and improve wellbeing.

Biophilic design is a means of achieving this in spaces where nature wouldn’t otherwise be available. It introduces nature – real or mimicked – to counteract the stresses of the built environment.

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In an office space, these could be anything from lack of natural light or an uncomfortable workstation to noise pollution and lack of privacy.

Examples include 'green walls', timber cladding, views of nature and using textures, patterns, colours and even sounds that evoke nature. Allowing our natural biophilia to flourish in the office isn’t just good for workplace wellbeing. It’s also been shown to boost productivity.

Who’s on board with it?

Renowned architectural and interior designer Oliver Heath is a biophilic design consultant. He describes the approach as deliberately "human-centred", creating workspaces that make employees feel happy and valued at work, as well as making them more creative and productive.

He says there are many who see its value. Shining examples in workplace design, such as Apple, Google and Amazon, invest heavily in biophilic elements.

Read: The secret science of sound in workplace design

Biophilic design isn’t about persuading people to spend even longer at their desks. It can actually encourage movement, by creating different 'zones'. Oliver explains: "It’s about creating a flexible series of spaces. Sometimes you need to work at a desk, be alone and concentrate. But then you might want to interact with social media, or collaborate with colleagues."

He also reveals an increasing emphasis on a 'third space' – the café space: "Lots of companies are putting a coffee machine on every floor but saving the best coffee for the café." So, if you thought that chatting in the coffee queue wasn’t really 'work', you can take it from Oliver that it’s actually "collaboration and cross-fertilisation of ideas".

Biophilic design isn’t about employee perks either. Oliver cautions: "Wellbeing should be integrated in the design. You can’t just say: 'We’ve got a gym, so that’s wellbeing sorted'."

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An evidence-based approach

Based on decades of research, biophilic design has good evidence to support it. A recent study of 7,600 office workers across 16 countries found that workspaces with biophilic elements were six per cent more productive, had 15 per cent higher levels of self-reported wellbeing and were 15 per cent more creative.

Do we really need it?

As pressure on urban spaces increases, workplaces will become less and less 'ideal'. Depressingly, 47 per cent have no natural light. And yet a third of office workers say the design of an office would affect their decision to work there. So if companies want their pick of the talent, they need to create a happier environment.

Cost is an obvious hurdle but, as Oliver says: "Ninety per cent of business costs are human costs, so there’s a financial benefit from making sure staff are well and happy."

There are numerous stresses common to many businesses – and the need to continually adapt to ever-changing technology is high on the list. Add to this the enormous level of in-office irritations and distractions, and it’s easy to see why most of us would probably not describe our workplace as somewhere that achieves integral wellbeing.

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What’s next?

Biophilic design is evolving, and Oliver predicts three trends for the future:

  • Spatial collaboration: As technology continues to free us from the desk, we’ll see more co-working spaces.
  • Focus on personal growth and values: We’ll look for workspaces that address our social and environmental values. Learning will be important too – hence Apple, Google and Amazon’s 'campuses'.
  • Monitoring and feedback: Wellbeing will be increasingly monitored by technology (e.g. temperature, humidity, CO2 and heartrate) and workplaces will use the data to improve.

If your working life is anything short of ideal, biophilic design might be just the pick-me-up you need.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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