Workspaces that incorporate natural elements into their design help counteract the negative effects of the office environment on employee mental health. But how, exactly? The experts from Diamond Interiors explore the science behind biophilic design and its psychological benefits.
Amazon’s rainforest office. Microsoft’s treehouses. Google’s giant rooftop garden.
Biophilic design is everywhere. It’s being adopted by the world’s biggest businesses and shows no sign of slowing down.
Why? It has to do with the positive effect it has on employee wellbeing. Incorporating natural elements into the office has been shown to boost the mood of employees, reduce stress, and increase productivity.
But why is that? What is it about nature that has such a positive effect on our mental states?
The biophilia hypothesis
The concept of biophilic design germinated with the work of American psychologist Erich Fromm in 1973. He coined the term ‘biophilia’ to describe what he thought to be an innate love of nature in all human beings.
Fromm concluded that biophilia manifests in the way we interact with spaces. It’s what we instinctively pay attention to and what we withdraw from. It’s where we feel on edge and where we feel safe.
Twenty years later, biologist Edward O. Wilson applied this concept to indoor layouts. He used ‘biophilic design’ to define artificial spaces that mimic the environments we find in nature. In collaboration with author Stephen Kellert, Wilson identified the benefits of biophilic design were recognised in the world of architecture in The Biophilia Hypothesis (2008).
Since then, the biophilia hypothesis has blossomed into what we see today: a hallmark of contemporary office design.
The key elements of biophilic design
Biophilic design is about much more than the occasional fern or a mini zen garden at your desk. It’s a complex array of elements that coalesce to form an environment where employees feel like they’re connected with nature.
Within that ecosystem, there are some key elements that have tangible benefits to the psychological wellbeing of your employees.
1. Natural lighting
Of all the elements of biophilic design, natural lighting has possibly the most significant benefit to staff mental health.
The key advantage of natural light is that it helps employees feel more awake at work and sleep better once they’re home. A study at Northwestern University in Chicago found that workers in offices with windows slept an average of 46 minutes more per night. What’s more, workers without windows reported lower scores than their counterparts on quality of life measures related to physical problems and vitality.
This is because the body’s circadian rhythm relies on the changing of light to determine when to wake up and when to sleep. Simply being exposed to the natural cycle of day and night will help you rest properly at the end of the day and feel more refreshed in the morning.
Want to get more natural light in your office? If you don’t have many windows, consider installing skylights if you’re in your own building. Alternatively, sunlamps and UV lights are a fantastic way to inject natural light into spaces where there isn’t any present.
2. A room with a view
One of the patterns of biophilic design identified by Terrapin Bright Green in their report 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design is that humans feel safer when they are at a vantage point to survey objects in the distance. It goes back to our prehistorical days on the savannah and helps account for why people might pay more for a room if it has a great view of the sea.
That feeling of security is particularly helpful for workers; it reduces anxiety and helps them focus.
You have a few options if you want to replicate that feeling in your office. If you’re on a high floor, make sure the windows are fully visible so workers can look out on the landscape when they’re feeling the pressure. It might have been taboo at school, but staring out at the world beyond is actually beneficial to your staff’s mental health, helping them regain their thoughts and focus better on the task at hand.
Larger offices can benefit from mezzanine floors. They’re especially helpful if there’s not much of a view from a window seat. Even things like paintings and photographs of landscapes can have a positive effect on mental wellbeing, particularly if they’re large prints. Put them on the walls in areas where window access might be limited.
3. Plant life
Plants and flowers are an important part of biophilic design. Stephen R. Kellert writes in Metropolis magazine that “biophilic design focuses on those aspects of the natural world that have contributed to human health and productivity in the age-old struggle to be fit and survive.”
The biggest advantage of plants in the office is chemical. Living plants convert the carbon dioxide we breathe out and release oxygen in its place. And when there’s more oxygen in the air, there’s more in our bloodstream. When that oxygen reaches the brain, it encourages the release of endorphins, chemicals that produce feelings of pain relief and well-being.
Desk plants are a great place to start incorporating plant life into your office, but better still are plant walls. They’re as practical as they are artful: while saving space, these living walls also change with the seasons, creating a feeling of immersion in the natural cycle of life.
Sound can have a significant effect on us mentally. In fact, a study conducted at the University Medical Center of the Johannes Gutenberg found that unwanted sound — things like overheard conversations of co-workers, background music, or the sound of traffic — can increase the likelihood of anxiety and depression manifesting in those that hear it.
That said, creating a serene environment where the acoustics are properly controlled can have a significant positive effect on staff morale. Ambient ‘nature’ sounds like the sound of birdsong or waves lapping at the shoreline have been linked with feelings of calm and a better ability to focus.
To eliminate unwanted noise, try incorporating dividers made from sound-absorbant natural materials like cork or straw. A living wall can function as a vibrant sound barrier between two environments within one bigger space, which helps you limit the volume without isolating anyone.
Now that things are a little quieter, you can introduce ambient noise with water features, which can quietly trickle as your staff find the space to focus.
Bring the outdoors indoors
Biophilic design is so much more than a quirky trend reserved for fashionable brands. It’s a vital asset in the fight for mental health in the workplace, one that can energise your team and make them feel happier at work.
It’s time for business owners to embrace biophilic design as what it really is: a better way of working.
Nick Pollitt is the Managing Director of UK office design specialists Diamond Interiors. He’s worked in the furniture and design industry for more than twenty years, planning and designing office environments for businesses which are designed to revolutionise the way their team can work.
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