How biophilic design can inspire your workforce

Go back to nature to raise creativity and wellbeing.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 05 Mar 2018

Any business leader worth their salt knows that success depends on the productivity of their people. So why do so many insist on shoving those people into workspaces that look like they were designed for Guantanamo Bay?

The intrusive open plan. The windowless rooms. The thick, stuffy air. The light, harsh and sore, blazing overhead and reflecting off plain white walls. The dull tap-tap-click of a thousand computers, interrupted only by the occasional shriek from the printer or, if you’re lucky, a fire alarm drill.

Even writing about it is stressful. It’s no wonder absenteeism and presenteeism are at epidemic proportions. If you create an environment where people don’t want to be, let alone work, for eight hours a day they’re not going to be very productive, are they?

Enter biophilic design. The idea is simple: by allowing nature into the workspace where possible and mimicking its forms where not, you can tap into the deep-rooted human love of living spaces.

Get natural

We spend a lot of time indoors. It’s particularly bad in deep winter, when you can arrive in the dark and leave in the dark. Needless to say, that’s not how we evolved.

There’s a reason why 19th Century artists painted idyllic countryside scenes, not views on the interior of a clanking cotton mill. As soon as we left nature behind, we started to miss it – and for good reason.

There is copious research on the positive effects of nature on psychological and even physiological health. ‘If you create hospitals, you invest more in a healthy design inside, you’re going to get patients leaving earlier. It’s going to pay off on the bottom line,’ explains Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Culture and Health at the University of Manchester.

Reducing stress, while at the same time providing a gently stimulating environment, has also been shown to improve creativity and concentration.

Unfortunately, it’s somewhat more complicated than just putting a fern in the corner of reception.  For a start, you need the right ‘type’ of nature. That time you stood on stormy cliffs with the rain lashing your face may have been inspiring, but you probably wouldn’t want to recreate the experience in your office.

It really refers to a more peaceful vision of the natural world, more robin redbreasts fluttering through a sunlit glade, than tigers chasing you through a jungle. Here are some of the key themes that successful biophilic designers integrate into their spaces:

Natural light – Sunlight underpins our circadian rhythm, regulating our sleep and various cellular functions. Artificial increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It’s also more expensive. A no brainer.

Ventilation – This doesn’t just mean fresh air; it’s also important to keep the air moving, mimicking a light breeze.

Plants – Being surrounded by plants is a fairly good signal that you’re in nature. It’s not just visual stimulation – you can smell them too. 

Organic forms – There’s only so much nature you can actually fit in an office while still being indoors. But the use of naturally occurring textures and shapes, such as fractals, appears to have a similar effect to the real thing.

A caveat

If you’ve been reading MT’s Future of Workspace series, you’ll know that you can’t change your organisation’s culture or even the experience of your employees just by changing their physical environment.

As Cooper tells MT, ‘Silicon Valley has these wonderful environments, usually created unconsciously to make it a sexy place to come and work, but the irony is that these people work such long hours that they don’t leave their computer, they don’t have a chance to use these spaces.’

But the very act of investing in your people – by creating a space that’s designed to be a good place to work – signals that you care about them, that you are serious about their wellbeing as well as their productivity. And actions, as we all know, speak louder than words.

Image credit: Natalya Vyshedko/Shutterstock